Sweden Cancels an Election

by Andrew Stuttaford

Following the rejection of the new (minority) “Red-Green” government’s budget earlier this month, Sweden was due to hold a fresh election early next year.

That’s just changed.

The Wall Street Journal explains:

Sweden’s [Social Democrat] prime minister on Saturday canceled snap elections planned for March…Stefan Löfven said his Social Democrats and junior coalition partner the Green Party had reached agreements with four center-right opposition parties to reduce the likelihood of a minority government’s budget being voted down, as was the case earlier this month. Speaking at a news conference in Stockholm, Mr. Löfven identified three areas—pensions, defense and energy—where the government and the opposition would seek common ground on policy. Finding common ground would make it easier for the minority government to push its economic policy through parliament and get at least passive support from the opposition, potentially avoiding a recurrence of the political turbulence Sweden has suffered this fall. The agreement implies that the opposition will abstain where necessary to allow the government to get its budget approved by parliament.

Since September’s election, the balance of power in the Swedish parliament has been held by the populist Sweden Democrats, an unlikable party of distinctly unsavory origins (from which it is trying to distance itself) that saw its support surge from close to zero a decade ago to some 13 percent in the election. The reason? It is the only party willing to dissent from the Swedish political establishment’s support for mass immigration, a dissent that remains taboo.

As I have noted before, the SD’s success is a reminder of the truth of Mark Steyn’s observation that ”if the political culture forbids respectable politicians from raising certain topics, then the electorate will turn to unrespectable ones.”

Over at Open Europe, Mats Persson has written a smart summary of the situation. It’s worth reading in full, but here is an extract (my emphasis added):

Löfven has now struck a grand coalition deal with the centre-right opposition parties in a bid to avoid a chaotic election in March while freezing out SD. He will remain PM, accept the opposition’s budget for this year with some changes and, crucially, secured a commitment that over the next two terms (2015 to 2022) the opposition will under no circumstances vote against the sitting government’s budget.

Persson notes that Löfven could be said to have “blinked” by scrapping the new election, but his broader point is this:

[Löfven] will remain in office and if he gets re-elected in four years’ time, he has guaranteed support for a centre-left budget up until 2022. For its part, the centre-right opposition got very little.

That’s putting it mildly. As a practical matter, Sweden’s center-right has now chosen to define itself by its support for mass immigration, something for which it is — how shall I put this — unlikely to be rewarded by voters, particularly on the right (its poor showing in September is already evidence of that).

But wherever one stands on the immigration issue there is a broader point at work, and it’s one that Persson makes well:

Swedish consensus politics survived the day, but from a voters’ point of view, this grand coalition deal risks leaving SD as the only de facto opposition party on several issues– in turn, giving it the perfect platform for steadily gaining a greater share of the vote. Think about it: for the next eight years, there will be no actual opposition in Sweden on the most important issue in national politics: the budget. The sitting government can propose whatever it wants – on taxes, healthcare, immigration – and the opposition is obligated not to vote against, no matter how much it disagrees on substance. At least if the cross-party deal – which is an informal one to be fair – holds. SD could have a field day whenever there’s a crunch budget vote. In Spain, [the far-left] Podemos has managed to grow so big so quickly, precisely because it has positioned itself as the only opposition party. The ones standing up to a running grand coalition ‘stitch-up’ – key decisions based on rules rather than democratic politics. So has [far-left] Syriza in Greece. The driving force there is austerity but the political psychology that is so lethal – ‘the same outcome no matter how I vote’ – is similar.

Indeed.

Persson notes that Sweden’s establishment parties both “triumphantly claim that the anti-immigration element has been kept out “unlike in Denmark” (a phrase you hear a lot in Swedish media) where the [populist right] Danish People’s Party has been kingmakers for years.”

That’s true enough, but the counter-argument is that the Danish People’s Party (like the not entirely dissimilar Progress party in Norway) has been drawn into the regular democratic discussion, something that has encouraged that party to distance itself from extremism. More than that, this process has operated as a healthy recognition of the fact that immigration policy is indeed something that can be the subject of “legitimate” debate.

We will have to wait to see who wins from today’s maneuvers, but it’s hard not to think that Sweden’s democracy has already lost. 

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