Centre-left back in Sweden

The governmental crisis in Sweden that we noted at the beginning of the month has been resolved, with the return to power of Social Democrat prime minister Stefan Löfven, whose coalition government had fallen on a vote of confidence three weeks ago.

After Löfven’s resignation, the first opportunity to form a new government went to the leader of the opposition, Ulf Kristersson, whose Moderates are the main party in a centre-right alliance that also relies in part on the far-right Sweden Democrats. He quickly gave up the attempt, and Löfven was then given another chance to see if he could command a majority.

He made it with just one vote to spare, winning 176 to his opponents’ 173. All of the Left and Centre parties fell into line (including the Centre’s dissident from last time), plus one of the two independents and one defector from the Liberals. The rest of the Liberals, however, have thrown in their lot with the opposition. That’s going to make the rest of his term very precarious.

(Strictly speaking, only the Social Democrats and Greens voted in favor of Löfven with the others abstaining, but the test of the vote was whether or not there was a majority against the government, so an abstention is practically equivalent to a “yes” vote.)

As the centre-left resumes office, it’s worth taking another look at how Sweden got to this point. Previewing last week’s crucial vote at Inside Story, Andrew Vandenberg said that the politicians had “resumed the wrangling triggered by the far-right Sweden Democrats’ unexpectedly strong showing at the 2018 elections.” But that simply isn’t true: it’s a dangerous piece of mythmaking.

The Sweden Democrats actually underperformed expectations in 2018. Polls and pundits had tipped them to win more than 20% of the vote and challenge the Social Democrats for first place; instead they could only manage third with 17.5%, more than ten points behind the Social Democrats. They did succeed in winning the balance of power between the then centre-left and centre-right coalitions, but that wasn’t new – they had held that position in the previous two parliaments as well.

The difference was that the Moderates, who equivocated both times, in 2018 came down on the side of co-operating with the Sweden Democrats, which they had ultimately refused to do in 2014. That fractured Kristersson’s coalition; the Centre and the Liberals refused to go along, and in 2018 they put Löfven back in power. Now the Centre has done so again.

So the issue is not that the far right (in Sweden or elsewhere) is some unstoppable force, but rather that it confronts centre-right politicians with a choice. Do they make deals with it, accepting its support as a way into government – at a price, because of course there is always a price, even if it’s not explicit. Or do they co-operate with other parties to lock the far right out of power, even though that might mean tolerating a centre-left government instead.

I think the second option is usually the way to go in both moral and practical terms. But it’s sometimes not clear-cut, and there’s certainly a respectable argument that offering the far right a pathway to influence in government can be a way to draw its sting – to help domesticate it in the way that the continent’s far-left parties have largely been domesticated over recent decades.

That’s what centre-right governments in neighboring Denmark and Norway have done with some success, and it’s what Kristersson tried to do in Sweden. Although it failed to win him office this time, if the current polls are any indication then next year’s election will give him another chance.


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