After a lot of huffing and puffing, there was no extra election. But hey, this is politics and huffing and puffing is what we should expect and the noises from the process shouldn’t be confused with the eventual outcome.
So, what we have is an agreement between the government and the Alliance parties opening for a rather peculiar form of minority democracy: Basically, even if neither of the two blocs win a majority in the Swedish parliament, they agree on letting the largest bloc form the government and pass the annual state budgets. The entire set-up could be compared with the rules of single-round first-past-the-post elections where a candidate doesn’t need a majority but only a plurality of the votes to win the constituency. But in terms of government formation, I think this is a first.
How did we get here in the first place? By a combination of extreme party-system pluralism (Sweden now has eight relevant parties in the parliament, including one anti-system party) and moderate pluralist mechanics (the Social Democrats and the Alliance compete for government power and have an antagonistic relationship). The problem arises when an anti-system party gets so strong that it can disrupt the usual alternation of governments – on the one hand, the Alliance doesn’t want to cooperate with the Social Democrats on political issues, on the other hand the Alliance doesn’t want to lead a government relying on the parliamentary support of the Sweden Democrats.
We could argue that the 2014-2018 Swedish parliament is no different from the 2010-2014 parliament: After all, the Alliance lost its parliamentary majority – despite increasing its share of the popular vote – following the 2010 election. The mechanics continued to work, though, because the Social Democrats were reluctant to use the Sweden Democrats to defeat the Alliance government (it did happen in a limited number of votes).
The massive Social Democratic losses in the 2010 election also meant that the Alliance could argue that a continued Alliance government would reflect the electorate’s choice. Finally, the constitutional rules in force in 2010 meant that the Social Democrats could only remove the Reinfeldt government by proposing a vote of no confidence and getting the support of the Sweden Democrats in parliament.
In 2014, both the electoral winds and the constitutional rules had changed: The Social Democrats may not have won the election, but the Alliance certainly lost – and following the new rules in the Swedish constitution there had to be a vote on the prime minister. This put everybody in an awkward situation: If the Sweden Democrats abstained from voting against Reinfeldt, there could be no majority against a continued Reinfeldt government but as Reinfeldt decisively had ruled out governing on the Sweden Democrats’ votes, he would have no working majority. On the other hand, Löfvén could only be elected prime minister by a plurality and only if either the Alliance parties or the Sweden Democrats abstained in the vote of confidence – and all similar votes during the parliamentary term. He wouldn’t get a working majority but he could get a working plurality. And this, after all the huffing and puffing, is the essence of the December agreement.
If we look at the European political systems which have had to deal with anti-system parties, the established parties have opted for one of two alternatives: Either forming some kind of grand coalition, isolating the anti-system party or parties, or trying to integrate the anti-system parties by entering formal or informal agreements with them.
The first strategy is the traditional German strategy where CDU and SPD would rather form grand coalitions than include extreme parties in governing coalitions. Giovanni Sartori – to return to the headline of this post – would argue that this blocks the healthy competition between alternative governments and in the long run leads to a surge in support for the anti-system parties. (Here, we should note that Sartori was discussing parties that were in anti-democratic such as Communist and Fascist parties or anti-parlamentarian such as the French poujadistes and Gaullists rather than today’s leftist and populist parties)
The second strategy is the Danish strategy where governments both on the left and the right have tried to create working relationships with parties of the extreme left or right and integrate them in the parliamentary mainstream. Over the years the Danish right has been considerably more successful in creating a working relationship with the Danish People’s Party than the Social Democrats in doing the same with SF and the Red-Green Alliance. One reason may be that the growth of the DPP has directly harmed the Social Democrats while the Social Democrats are also competing with SF and the RGA for voters.
The Swedish agreement is a curious creature but in my view it is closer to the first strategy: It is a grand coalition with regard to constitutional matters which attempts to cancel the impact of the Sweden Democrats. It makes sense because the Alliance is feeling the electoral competition from the Sweden Democrats (unlike the Danish Liberals who up until now did not compete with the DPP for votes) but from a Sartorian perspective we could also argue that it attempts to keep the forms of moderate pluralism in a system which effectively is polarised pluralistic. The question – which no-one can answer until 2018 at the earliest – is if this is a viable option.