I live in Canada, which used to have, inspired by the British system, federal elections every 5 years, plus the possibility of snap elections. It was actually reformed to every 4 years, fixed.

My question is: what democratic benefits, if any, does a system which provides for the possibility of snap elections provide? Aside from following tradition and the difficulty of pushing through electoral reforms.

Obviously, there is a benefit for the governing party to put in an election while it believes it is advantageous (this can backfire, as in Theresa May's post-referendum gambit). Or it may call one to renew its mandate before an embarrassing event like a corruption report. All sorts of reasons, but none of them seem to benefit voters as a whole. This, to me, seems like it brings in temptation to gaming the system.

Adds to drawbacks the extra logistical difficulty of arranging elections at potentially random intervals.

Not having incumbent-triggered snap elections should, of course, not be taken to foregoing other mechanisms which can trigger an election. For example, incapacitation/death or a loss of confidence vote in a legislative assembly can trigger new elections. But this is not decided by the government (except for a resignation which precludes a return by the incumbent).


Quoting from wiki's article about Canadian reform:

Harper stated that "fixed election dates prevent governments from calling snap elections for short-term political advantage. They level the playing field for all parties and the rules are clear for everybody."[7]

Regardless of who said it, the above summarizes pretty well how I feel about snap elections, but I wonder if there are benefits I am unaware of.

  • Your instincts are apparently right. Although there isn't a lot of empirical work on validating your idea, one recent paper found that, on average, those calling the snap election benefit from it at the polls. Commented Apr 20, 2019 at 17:35
  • By the way, calling an election at the height of popularity is called "political surfing". Commented Apr 20, 2019 at 17:46
  • @Fizz Do you have a reference for "political surfing"? I've never come across it.
    – owjburnham
    Commented Apr 21, 2019 at 16:32
  • It may be worth a tweak in the question to acknowledge that Canada's "every 4 years, fixed" is actually not very fixed at all (as evidenced by Harper calling an election, early, during the very same Parliament in which the "Fixed" election dates act was passed). Since 2011, in fact, when the UK's Fixed Term Parliaments Act was passed, it's now harder in the UK to call a snap election than it is in Canada.
    – owjburnham
    Commented Apr 21, 2019 at 16:43

1 Answer 1


Based on my UK experience, one use-case is when no party is able to form a government, in which case an election may be essential or there is no government.

Another situation is where the majority party leader changes for some reason, and an election is held so the prime minister has an electoral mandate.

So they may be useful in exceptional situations.

  • that makes sense. however, couldn't the same result be achieved by either a third party making that electiion decision (as in the Gov General for Canada)? or by precise rules indicating that, yes, you would have an election under your cited circumstances. my problem isn't having an election per se, it is that the incumbent government calls it. Commented Apr 20, 2019 at 20:01
  • @ItalianPhilosopher: that might not be so uncontroversial either: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1975_Australian_constitutional_crisis Even if the guy who decides is elected, as in the case of Germany (their president), if he is from the same party as the PM (Chancellor) chances are he'll just agree. See politics.stackexchange.com/questions/40707/… Commented Apr 20, 2019 at 20:26
  • @ItalianPhilosopher: and closer to your proposal is en.wikipedia.org/wiki/King%E2%80%93Byng_affair Commented Apr 20, 2019 at 20:57
  • @ItalianPhilosopher It's worth noting that that (these days) the Governor General would only make the decision to call an election on "the advice" of the Prime Minister i.e. it's not really being made by a third party at all.
    – owjburnham
    Commented Apr 21, 2019 at 16:46

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