In March, armed men attacked a village in central Mali, killing at least 130 people and burning their homes, part of a cycle of escalating violence between ethnic groups. Soon after, a retaliatory attack was launched on a village dominated by the ethnic group suspected of the first attack. All this comes in the aftermath of a 2012 civil war; several Islamist militant groups are trying to drive national and local government elites out of their areas.

With the government doing little to resolve the violence, on April 17, live on national television, members of Mali’s parliament submitted a motion of no confidence against prime minister Soumeylou Boubèye Maïga of the Alliance for Solidarity, Convergence of Patriotic Forces (ASMA-CFP) party. Maïga was appointed by President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta of the Rally for Mali (RPM) party, elected in 2013 and reelected last year after promising to unify the country and reduce the widespread violence. Members of the legislature are acutely aware that voters are frustrated with the absence of an effective government response to the violence — and suspected that Maïga was more focused on his own political ambitions than on responding to the crisis.

Before the vote could be called, Maïga and his entire coalition government resigned. Because Mali’s government relies on majority support to stay in office, political leaders must think strategically about building alliances that can keep them in power. When the leader’s party wins a majority of seats, maintaining the legislature’s support is easier. But party systems in Africa are often fragmented, and party-switching is not uncommon, which means even with strong presidential parties, presidents and prime ministers can sometimes find themselves in situations where their parties do not control a majority alone.

Keïta’s RPM party won 66 of 147 seats in previous legislative elections in 2013. With the help of allied parties such as Maïga’s ASMA-CFP, the presidential coalition controlled 115 seats, of a total 147 seats in the legislature — until that coalition weakened.

What makes parties in a fragmented legislature choose to form coalitions in the first place?

Being a minister offers you considerable control over the resources of that ministry and also comes with many personal perks. This allows ministers, who are often political elites, to distribute projects back to groups or regions that support them. An offer of a cabinet position often motivates a party’s leader to join the government.

Given that the president and his appointed prime minister want to build legislative support, and at least some parties in the legislature would like to access resources by joining the government, how do ministerial positions get divided up among the would-be coalition partners?

In a recent paper, Sona Golder and I show that African parties in a coalition share ministerial positions in predictable ways. Each party receives a share roughly proportional to the number of legislative seats it contributes to the government. As a result, governments in Mali are likely to remain unstable as long as no party possesses a legislative majority because they must rely on coalition partners for support.

How we did our research

We collected data from online newspapers, encyclopedias, government websites and a variety of other sources on which parties were in government in African democracies from 1990 to 2015, and how many ministerial positions each party received. We found that, much as is true in coalition governments in other parts of the world (such as Europe and Latin America), ministerial positions are allocated across coalition partners in specific ways. Each party gets a number of ministers that roughly represents the share of legislative seats it can offer to support the government. That proportionality is roughly consistent with what scholars have long observed in other regions.

And yet our findings will surprise many who follow African politics. Political scientists and others who study the continent often focus on the strength of African leaders and their legislatures’ relative inability to constrain them. But the fact that so many governments allocate ministerial posts based on legislative seats suggests that legislative support matters — and therefore scholars and other observers who wish to understand African democracies’ politics must consider legislatures.

Without new legislative elections, Mali’s government will remain unstable

Keïta was first elected by a landslide in 2013, which is when members of the current legislature were elected; nearly half of the country’s eligible voters, 45.8 percent, went to the polls for the second round. But for the 2018 presidential election, turnout dropped to about 34 percent, due to a combination of voter apathy and fears that militant groups might attack polling stations. Meanwhile, the legislative elections originally scheduled for 2018 have been repeatedly postponed. While voters may well have shifted their support, that’s not reflected in legislative seat shares. And so Keïta’s party must still persuade other parties to back its government.

Keïta named the outgoing cabinet’s finance minister, Boubou Cissé, as prime minister April 22. On May 5, Cissé announced his new government, comprising 36 ministers. The new cabinet includes ministers from both Rally for Mali and a party that was previously a member of the opposition, the National Renaissance Party (PARENA).

It’s unclear how stable public or legislative support for this new government is, particularly as violence keeps spreading. If the government’s popularity continues to suffer, parties may again threaten votes of no confidence. The government’s instability would become a recurring problem.

Weak and unstable governments probably would worsen the security situation in Mali. One of the most important steps to prevent this would be to organize new legislative elections. Repeated delays undermine confidence in the central government. The distribution of legislative seats probably no longer reflects citizens’ wishes — leaving them feeling that they lack representation. Legislative elections allow citizens to renew their connection with parties, and could make possible a government majority that better reflects the current political climate. This could provide a boost to popular support for the government’s efforts to restore security.

Molly Ariotti (@mollyshewrote) is an assistant professor in the department of international affairs at the University of Georgia.