Forming a government – how long will it take?

Researchers at Linköping University have used a new method to calculate how long it can take to form a government after a general election. They have also used the method – which uses what are known as signed networks – to predict which political coalition is the most probable outcome.

Angela Fontan and Claudio Altafini. Angela Fontan and Claudio Altafini. Magnus Johansson

“A fundamental characteristic of parliamentary democracies is a diversity of opinions. This diversity is often seen in antagonism between parties and blocks, which can lead to forming a government becoming a long and protracted process. Our model helps us predict how long it will be”, says Claudio Altafini, professor in the Division for Automatic Control in the Department of Electrical Engineering at Linköping University.

In recent years, many general elections in Europe have given inconclusive results. A consequence of this is that it has taken a long time to form a government, and many countries have lacked an elected government for a considerable period. This occurs most often when a parliament is hung, and no party or block has a clear majority after an election. The solution is often that the parties negotiate and compromise with each other.Claudio Altafina.Claudio Altafina. Photo credit Magnus Johansson

Belgium is one example in which forming a government took a long time. It was not until 18 months after the most recent election that it was possible finally to agree on a broad coalition government. Sweden is another example: the election in September 2018 left the country without a government. It took nearly five months to reach an agreement that made it possible to form a minority government consisting of the Green Party and the Social Democrats, with support from the Centre Party and the Liberals. All parties were compelled to make political concessions, and that required a long negotiation phase.

The enemy of my enemy

Researchers at Linköping University have now used a new method to calculate how long it can take to form a government after an election. In addition, the model can be used to calculate the most probable coalition that will form a government. The results have been published in the scientific journal Scientific Reports.

“The Swedish election in 2018 aroused our interest in using signed networks to analyse the process of forming a government. Briefly, it is based on the principle of ‘The enemy of my enemy is my friend’. By including antagonism between the parties in the network, it is possible to predict with reasonable accuracy how long it will take before a government can be formed”, says Claudio Altafini.

In its simplest form, a signed network consists of a graph with nodes and edges that connect them. In this case, the nodes are the parties and the edges are connections between them. If the ideologies of the parties are close, the connection between them has a positive sign. If they are far from each other, it will have a negative sign. The overall balance between negative and positive connections in the graph correlates well with the duration of the government negotiations.

Angela Fontan is doctoral student in the Department of Electrical Engineering and principal author of the article.Angela Fontan.Angela Fontan. Photo credit Magnus Johansson

“We had developed a model for collective decision-making on signed networks, and were looking for areas of application. It turned out that general elections in countries with a parliamentary system were extremely suitable. Antagonism is an integral property in politics, and basically our model quantifies the difficulty of reaching a decision based on the amount of antagonism. The further the parties are from a balanced situation, the longer it will take to form a government”, says Angela Fontan.

Accurate predictions

Signed networks are normally used when investigating social networks, human behaviour, and to a certain extent in biology. Here, however, the researchers have shown that it is also possible to quantify democratic processes. They have looked at data from elections during the past 40 years in 29 European countries to test and validate the model, using the election results and the government actually formed. The predictions of the model in the best cases were 90% accurate and the average correlation was between 40% and 70%.

Other methods have traditionally been used to predict how long it will take to form a government, such as descriptive statistics, game theory and political analysis. Angela Fontan believes that the network-based approach can be a useful supplement to traditional methods.

“It provides a new perspective on politics. The model at the moment is quite simple, but it can be improved to include several other parameters. In addition, it can be a good starting point for discussions and provide a broader and more interdisciplinary perspective on political science”, says Angela Fontan.

The article: A signed network perspective on the government formation process in parliamentary democracies Angela Fontan, Claudio Altafini Scientific Reports 2021 doi: 10.1038/s41598-021-84147-3

Translated by George Farrants

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