Will old Swedish parties destroy their political system just to stop anti-migrant Sweden Democrats?
And any path the mainstream parties choose now, the Sweden Democrats - the anti-migrant, anti-Islam outcasts that have shattered Sweden’s political consensus - stand to be the beneficiaries.
Riksdag’s voting down of centrist career politician Ulf Kristersson on Wednesday was presented as news – a historic first of a potential prime minister rejected by his peers. In fact it simply displayed on the tally monitor the implicit balance of power that has been in force since voters across the country cast their ballots on September 9.
The Sweden Democrats did not win on that day. But their 17.5 percent of the vote meant that for the first time since World War II, neither the right nor the left bloc had a majority, or even a support base for a minority government. To rule, either faction would have to either cooperate with what is now the third-biggest party in the Riksdag, or with each other.
Stefan Lofven’s incumbent Social Democrats and their Green backers lost votes from 2014, leaving them dozens short of the 175 mandates they needed in the single 349-seat chamber that controls all of Sweden’s federal politics. Despite presiding over a four-year term when the migrant crisis, escalation of crime, and widening political rifts have shaken the country’s faith in itself, Lofven presumptuously volunteered himself as the continuity figure. He was disabused of this ambition when the majority of deputies voted him out in late September.
In a two-bloc system, his downfall would have automatically resulted in victory for the bloc of traditional center-right parties and conservative, known as the Alliance, but they ended up just as short of an overall majority.
Sweden Democrats say that they are open to governing with the center-right, and polls say that voters of the Alliance parties would prefer that outcome over allowing the socialists back in. For the Alliance, there is also logic in daring the inexperienced renegades, led by 39-year-old Jimmie Akesson, to put up or shut up, knowing they would find it hard to live up to their big promises once in government.
But the Alliance will not budge – and have refused even to countenance a meeting. Perhaps afraid “normalize” their political opponents, preferring to continue calling them “far-right.” Or maybe fearful that letting them out of quarantine would encourage more Swedes to say the unthinkable.
Unfortunately, someone still has to govern, and these principled stances come at a practical cost. After similarly outsider-provoked upheavals in Germany and Italy over the past year, two months without a new government may seem like the norm, but for orderly, collegial Sweden it represents violent chaos. Particularly as, elsewhere on the continent, the factions at least looked like they were negotiating, while in the Riksdag, the speaker had to kickstart the process with this week’s forced vote that all sides knew would produce no winner.
At last new blueprints are now being touted, even if they are of potentially grotesque groupings. Aware that this could be the moment in the limelight, the Liberals and the Center Party –with 20 and 31 seats respectively– have broken away from their coalition partners saying that they would rather go across the aisle than rely on the Sweden Democrats. The splinter parties could form a coalition with the Social Democrats and Greens. A pro-business, pro-migration control liberal faction working together with a pro-immigrant environmentalist party and paternalist socialists, whom the country just decisively rejected. On Thursday, the speaker charged the Center Party’s Annie Loof, who says that she does not wish to become prime minister, with trying to form a new coalition.
If she fails, a grand coalition between the Alliance and the Social Democrats has been suggested. A look south, at the impact on Germany’s establishment parties of increasingly unwanted centrist coalitions should be warning enough. Worse than that, Sweden’s main parties have no history of peacetime cooperation and regard one another as rivals. This would be like the UK's Conservatives banding together with Labour to avoid working with UKIP.
Big prize now, or bigger prize later?
Such malformations would be a perfect gift for the Sweden Democrats, showing that the establishment will abandon all ideological principles to keep their closed shop. But other outcomes are also politically favorable. A place in government is not risk-free, but would bring them needed legitimacy and key ministerial posts, where they could focus on their narrow promises, such as restricting migrant family reunions. And a snap election, if there are three more unsuccessful votes for the prime minister, would likely bring them even more seats – not enough to form a government of its own but perhaps sufficient to finally demand a place at the lectern.
In view of this, a backroom deal between the legacy parties appears the likeliest resolution. But is it the best one? Suppose for a second that the Sweden Democrats’ inconvenient popularity is a response to genuine social problems, not the result of far-right nostalgia, as their opponents claim. What is the long game here for the mainstream? Creating outlandish coalitions that use respectability as a cover for policy-making for which there is no mandate? Or, perhaps, simply bumbling along making compromise after compromise that satisfies no one in particular? At a time where complacency has resulted in the rise of marginal parties, this seems like even less responsive government from the elites. Of course, they hope that they have aped enough of the Sweden Democrats’ anti-migrant policies that Akesson’s moment will eventually pass. More likely, however, is that, without new ideas of their own, the centrists will continue to wield power while invisibly losing it, as their growing lack of legitimacy threatens the entire political firmament.