Regular readers will be used to my frequent complaints against mainstream centre-right parties and politicians for being complicit in the rise of the far right – with an occasional swipe at some of those on the left doing the same thing. Today it’s time to look at the predicament of the liberals, the third force in most multi-party democracies.
Last week saw the belated outcomes of two of 2018’s elections in Europe. In each case, liberals emerged with the balance of power, but they used it differently.
First, Andalusia, the large southern region of Spain. Last month, regional elections saw the far-right party, Vox, win representation for the first time. Going from left to right, party strengths were as follows:
- Podemos and allies (far left): 17
- Socialists (centre-left): 33
- Citizens (centre): 21
- People’s Party (centre-right): 26
- Vox (far right): 12
With 55 seats required for a majority, that left three possibilities for forming government: either centre-right and centre-left could co-operate, or else Citizens could throw their support to broad left or to broad right.
The third option is what happened. People’s Party leader Pablo Casado formed a coalition with Citizens, and with support from Vox he duly won a vote of investiture, 59 to 50.
Technically, Citizens could say they’d kept their hands clean because they hadn’t themselves dealt with the far right; the centre-right had two separate agreements, one with them and one with Vox. But since they’d clearly joined a government that depended on far right support, that was a distinction without much difference.
The second occasion for choice was a longer-running saga. Sweden went to the polls in early September, but it took until last Friday for Social Democrat prime minister Stefan Löfven to be confirmed in office.
Eight parties are represented in the Swedish parliament, but they can again be broken down five ways ideologically, as follows:
- Left Party (far left): 28
- Social Democrats and Greens (centre-left): 116
- Centre and Liberals: 51
- Moderates and Christian Democrats (centre-right): 92
- Sweden Democrats (far right): 62
The numbers are different from Andalusia, but the fundamental arithmetic is the same, with the same three possibilities. Failing co-operation between centre-left and centre-right, the liberals would have to choose.
It took a while. First, Centre and Liberals voted with the right to carry a vote of no confidence in the Löfven government. Then, after several weeks of negotiations, Moderate leader Ulf Kristersson was nominated as prime minister; the far right agreed to support him, but that repelled both of the liberal parties. With them voting against, he was defeated 195 to 154.
There followed another two months of talks, during which Löfven’s budget was rejected and an alternative centre-right budget approved. Finally, Centre and Liberals announced that they had reached agreement to support a minority Social Democrat-Greens government. This formally excluded the Left from influence, but it nonetheless agreed to abstain from the vote of confidence after Löfven promised that there would still be opportunities for co-operation.
So at opposite ends of the continent, liberal parties have made opposite decisions. What moral can we draw?
A few months ago I argued that even if one regards far left and far right as morally equivalent (a position I do not hold), there are good reasons to regard the far right as currently more dangerous: they are on more of a growth trajectory and they have less of an established place (or “level of domestication,” as I put it) in most political systems.
These two elections, it seems to me, substantiate that. The Sweden Democrats have more than twice the support of the Left (although both improved on their previous result), and although Vox is smaller than Podemos, the latter’s support is declining while Vox has grown suddenly from almost nowhere, in a way that has spread alarm across Spain.
We live in dangerous times. It may require some uncomfortable alliances (and I certainly hold no brief for the populists of Podemos), but the forces of sanity everywhere need to pull together to resist the authoritarian threat. If liberals aren’t willing to do that, it’s hard to see who will.
So while I don’t envy the choices that any of them had to make – politics is not a realm of easy answers – I think that Citizens made the wrong one while Sweden’s two liberal parties did the right thing.