Assembly dissolution powers and incumbency advantages in government formation

By Cristina Bucur (Lecturer / Assistant Professor, University College Dublin) and Petra Schleiter (Professor of Comparative Politics, University of Oxford)

Governments in most parliamentary democracies have some influence on assembly dissolution, which enables them to affect parliamentary bargaining. Yet, whether these powers advantage outgoing governing parties in forming the next government remains remarkably poorly understood. To address this gap, we develop a theory of government formation in the shadow of parliamentary dissolution. Incumbents who can control assembly dissolution, we argue, are more likely to return to government than their peers who lack this power because they enjoy advantages in (i) controlling the bargaining process about coalition formation and (ii) in building a reputation as effective and desirable coalition partners. Our tests of these expectations, using data on 625 government formation opportunities and 428,095 potential coalitions, reveal that governing parties with discretion to dissolve parliament have significantly higher coalition inclusion probabilities than incumbents who cannot invoke early elections.

The power to call, or threaten, parliamentary elections has long been viewed as a cabinet’s counterweight to the legislature’s ability to dismiss the government. It confers on governing parties with favourable electoral prospects the opportunity to realize electoral advantages and strengthens their hand in legislative bargaining by enabling them to extract concessions from other parties, particularly those with a desire to avoid elections. These powers may be especially consequential in advanced parliamentary democracies, where government formation is most often the result of negotiations in parliament rather than of elections alone because single party parliamentary majorities are rare. Yet, in the literature on coalition formation, the complete lack of attention to the election timing powers of incumbents remains a striking omission. Our paper addresses the gap and asks whether outgoing incumbents with the power to call early elections enjoy advantages in negotiating their return to office.

Anecdotally, we see numerous instances in which incumbents re-negotiate their coalitions by invoking the possibility of early elections. In November 2016, for instance, the Danish Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen negotiated an expansion of his parliamentary support, after he had formed Denmark’s smallest minority government in 40 years. Against the background of the prime minister’s discretion to dissolve parliament and his party’s rising popularity since the June 2015 elections, Løkke Rasmussen ended months of policy battles by striking an agreement between his Liberal Party, the Conservatives and the Liberal Alliance to reduce the risk of a snap election.  Broadening his minority government to a three-party coalition provided more solid parliamentary support for his agenda of tax cuts and limited public spending.  Similarly, Finland’s Prime Minister Juha Sipilä, conjured the spectre of early elections in June 2017, when he ejected the nationalist Finns party from his three-party centre-right coalition, after its popular support plunged and it chose a new anti-immigration leader. Citing differences with the new leader of the Finns in core values, immigration policy and policy regarding the EU, Prime Minister Sipilä, negotiated a replacement of the Finns by bringing the smaller Swedish People’s Party and Christian Democrats into the government.

Assembly dissolution is permitted in almost every parliamentary democracy and, as the examples above suggest, in many countries incumbents have a pivotal role in deciding whether early elections are called. Our study takes the long overdue step of integrating the power to dissolve parliament, which is a fundamental aspect of institutional variation among parliamentary democracies, into our understanding of coalition bargaining. Because all coalitions result from such negotiations and many incumbents have significant power to invoke early elections, the question of how the shadow of elections shapes coalition outcomes is central to a better understanding of political representation in parliamentary democracies.

Governments, we argue, derive from this power an advantage in bargaining about office with other parties via two mechanisms: First, incumbents with extensive dissolution powers are able to use the threat of dissolution to control coalition negotiations by initiating bargaining rounds and extracting concessions from other parties. Second, when in power, they are better able to resolve policy conflicts and coalition tensions, which gives them an advantage in building a reputation as effective and desirable coalition partners compared to their peers who lack dissolution powers.

Our results offer the first evidence of this incumbency advantage in legislative coalition bargaining: Governing parties with extensive discretion to invoke early elections are two-thirds more likely secure their inclusion in government than incumbents with little or no control of assembly dissolution, and three times more likely than non-incumbent parties that lack influence on early election calling. These results are reliable and robust: they are evident in multivariate analysis of the full pooled sample of government formations, and when government formation opportunities that follow elections and non-electoral terminations are disaggregated.

By uncovering this incumbency advantage, our study contributes to a more nuanced and realistic understanding of real-world coalition bargaining. Actual coalition bargaining does not typically take place among all parties in parliament, but is most often confined to a sub-group of parties who can secure a place at the table because they have the institutional power to control and structure the bargaining situation or because they are perceived as particularly desirable partners. Our results suggest that incumbents with assembly dissolution powers are advantaged in both respects, which helps to explain why we see them returning to office with such extraordinary frequency.

Our findings contribute to several literatures of importance in comparative politics. First, they take the long overdue step of integrating into our understanding of coalition bargaining one of the most fundamental aspects of institutional variation among parliamentary democracies: the power to dissolve parliament as a directly elected branch of power. We uncover that in the hands of incumbents, this power gives rise to large bargaining advantages, which help to explain why we see incumbents return to power with such extraordinary frequency. Second, the findings add to the literature on comparative institutions by providing a first account of the previously uncharted political implications of assembly dissolution powers in the arena of government formation. Third, our work has implications for the literature on incumbency advantages. This literature has consistently focussed on incumbency advantages in the electoral arena. By widening the scope of inquiry beyond elections, we show that assembly dissolution powers give rise to incumbency advantages in post-election bargaining, which may be as important as the bonuses that some incumbents realise in elections.

SPIRe Seminar Series

This blog was written to accompany a seminar in the SPIRe seminar series.  Dr Bucur’s seminar “Assembly dissolution powers and incumbency advantages in government formation” (Discussant: Dr Caroline McEvoy) will take place on Wednesday, Nov. 29th, 14:00-15:15 in Room G316, Newman Building.

Cristina Bucur is Lecturer / Assistant Professor in the School of Politics and International Relations, University College Dublin. Her research interests focus on executive-legislative relations and party politics in parliamentary and semi-presidential democracies. Before joining UCD, Cristina was a postdoctoral fellow at University of Oslo (2014-2017). Her recent work has been published in journals such as Party Politics, Political Research Quarterly, Comparative European Politics, and French Politics. Full profile.


Petra Schleiter is Professor of Comparative Politics at the Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Oxford. Petra’s research focuses on the consequences of comparative political institutions. She has developed a strong research profile in this area with work that explores the effects of semi-presidentialism, presidentialism, party systems, fixed parliamentary terms and flexible election timing, caretaker conventions and recognition rules on a variety of political outcomes. Her work has been published in leading journals in the discipline including the American Political Science Review, Journal of Politics, Comparative Political Studies, the British Journal of Political Science, Party Politics, European Journal of Political Research, Parliamentary Affairs and elsewhere. Full profile.

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