Change in Germany and Sweden

The centre-left’s modest European revival has taken a step forward in Germany and hit a small roadblock in Sweden.

First Germany, which went to the polls back in September. The three parties whose colors are red, yellow and green, and which are therefore inevitably tagged as the “traffic light” combination – Social Democrats, Liberals (FDP) and Greens – won a clear majority between them (406 of the 736 seats) and set about trying to work out a coalition agreement.

Yesterday, to no great surprise, they announced that they had succeeded. The deal still has to be approved by the membership of all three parties, but this time around that is expected to be pretty much a formality. The new government should be ready to take office in early December.

Social Democrat leader Olaf Scholz will be prime minister (or “chancellor”); the Greens’ Robert Habeck will be his deputy, FDP leader Christian Lindner will be finance minister and Greens co-leader Annalena Baerbock will be foreign minister. Their apparently smooth, businesslike relationship contrasts with the unsuccessful talks that the two smaller parties had with the Christian Democrats following the 2017 election.

This is the coalition that many observers (including me) thought should have happened in 2005. On that occasion the Liberals refused to come to the party, leading instead to a grand coalition between Christian Democrats and Social Democrats, which held office for 12 of the following 16 years (the exception was the period 2009-13, when Christian Democrats and FDP won a majority between them).

Sixteen years later, the three have agreed on an ambitious program. Coal is to be phased out by 2030, cannabis is to be legalised, immigrants are to eligible for German citizenship (including dual citizenship) after five years, the voting age is to be reduced to 16, and a lot of money is to be spent (including an increase in the minimum wage) while supposedly maintaining fiscal discipline.

In the short term, this will all take second place to the fight against Covid-19, currently surging in Germany as in much of Europe. (There’s no trace in the agreement of the Covid-denialism that the FDP has flirted with in recent times.) But over its four years, the government will be judged on the extent to which it can fulfil its promises while keeping the country on an even keel both socially and economically.

Meanwhile, in Sweden, readers may recall that the centre-left government of prime minister Stefan Löfven, in office since 2014, had a near-death experience earlier this year. Löfven was defeated on a vote of confidence, but his conservative opponents were unable to construct a majority, and when given a second chance he prevailed narrowly, 176 votes to 173.

Löfven later announced that he would retire from the top job following this month’s Social Democrat party congress. Finance minister Magdalena Andersson was duly elected as party leader in his place, and yesterday she won the support of parliament to become prime minister – the first female prime minister in Sweden’s history.

But as we discovered mid-year, the governing coalition’s majority is very fragile. Seven hours later, before even being sworn in, Andersson resigned when parliament rejected the government’s budget. The liberal-agrarian Centre Party, not officially part of the government but critical for its majority, voted for the opposition’s budget instead, whereupon the Greens walked out of the coalition.

So Löfven remains nominally in office as caretaker prime minister, and Andersson will now reformulate her government, apparently with only her fellow Social Democrats as ministers, and try again. Keeping together a majority that stretches from the centre to the far left isn’t easy, but since none of its components are keen on an early election – although the most recent polls show something of a centre-left revival – the most likely outcome is that they will again agree to overlook their differences and allow Andersson to take office.

In both countries, the moral is that co-operation across what one might describe as the broadly progressive side of the political spectrum is possible, but not easy. What makes it both possible and necessary in much of Europe is democratic electoral systems, which allow the full range of opinion to be represented in proportion to its public support.

It is very likely that if Australia had such a system, our centre-left, centrists and Greens would jointly win a majority that would require them to work together to keep out the hard right. It would do them good, and it would probably do the country good. But it remains as far off as ever.

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