7 December 2018

Will Sweden ever get a government?


There are plenty of governments in crisis in the world today. The British government was found in contempt of Parliament earlier this week (and is generally in Brexit-related chaos), Italy’s populists are in a deep budget crisis and France has been in the grip of violent protests over fuel prices.

Then again, at least those countries have a government of some sort – after months of political toing-and-froing since September’s elections, we Swedes are still waiting for ours to take shape. So what is taking so long? And do we even really need a government?

It’s always tricky to form a government in multiparty parliamentary systems. Belgium currently holds the record – after the June 2010 elections it took them 541 days to eventually form a six-party coalition government. It’s not quite so surprising it took so long when you consider that some 11 parties each won less than 20 per cent of the vote. After the next election in 2014 it took a mere 135 days to form a government.

2017 was certainly a bumper year for protracted political horse-trading. In the Netherlands it took 208 days to muddle together a coalition, Angela Merkel had to toil for 171 days to form a government and the Norwegians had to wait 123 days to get theirs up and running.

The current situation in Sweden is, however, quite unusual. Between 1945 and 2016, the average number of days taken to form a government has been just six. In Norway the number is sixteen. In Italy, where they change prime ministers on an almost annual basis, it’s 80. Belgium and the Netherlands are joint top with an impressive 104 days.

For those in the UK used to the usually decisive first-past-the-post system, this must all seem rather odd. So why does it take some countries so long to form a government? In short, uncertainty and complexity.

The number of bargaining parties, of course, increases the complexity of the situation. Another important factor, according to a 2015 study, is the level of ideological conflict and elite turnover within the parties. Parliamentary elections can result in big name politicians being booted out, which increases the levels of bargaining uncertainty.

In Belgium, the linguistic divide and federalisation process have certainly made things trickier, particularly as the country’s electoral system provides no national constituency: campaigns are run largely independently on both sides of the language border and parties. In recent years, the number of parties has further increased, making Belgium one of the most fragmented party systems in the world.

Sweden’s low number is due to the stable five decades of Social Democratic rule that I’ve mentioned here before. But it may be about to become dramatically higher. Since 2006, Sweden’s governments have all been made up of coalitions.

In September’s election, no fewer than eight parties won seats in the Riksdag. Since coalition governments are nothing new, inter-party blocs had already formed before the election – though that has not helped things run any smoother.

The Alliance, made up of the centre-right Moderate Party, the Christian Democrats, the Centre Party and the Liberals, was in government from 2006 to 2014 but received only 39.6 per cent of the vote.

The centre-left bloc (the “Red-Greens”) is made up of the former government: the Social Democrats and the Green Party, as well as the Left Party. They received 39.4 per cent.

Even though the Alliance got the most votes – by 0.2 per cent – the bloc is still too small to govern because the populist, anti-immigration party Sweden Democrats (SD), who received 19.2 per cent, won’t let anyone through unless they give them a seat at the table. Since no party is willing to negotiate with them, parliament remains deadlocked.

In fact, the Centre Party and the Liberals are so desperate not to be seen to cooperate with SD that they voted down a proposal to make their Alliance colleague, the Moderate Party leader, Prime Minister.

Having thus basically broken up the Alliance, the Centre Party and the Liberals now find themselves bargaining with the Red-Greens in the hope that they’ll gain influence in return for supporting the Social Democrat leader Stefan Löfven in the parliamentary vote next week and become prime minister.

All this delay does raise an interesting question – do these countries actually need a government at all? Belgium was just fine for a year and a half without one. Of course, they had a caretaker administration, as has Sweden at the moment. So, while technically there is a government – it has fewer powers, but is still perfectly capable of handling day-to-day affairs.

But that means choosing pragmatism over ideology. The Belgian caretaker government, for instance, is not allowed to initiate controversial legislation (the parliament decides which affairs are deemed controversial), which makes it difficult to effect any real change.

However, spending a long time forming a government also poses a number of challenges for parliamentary democracies.

First, and similarly to having a permanent cabinet made up of civil service, structural reforms and much-needed policy measures are not being implemented for every day there’s a caretaker government in charge as controversial and political issues are avoided.

Secondly, the bargaining almost always takes place behind closed doors. As parties break their promises, voters are left in the dark and forced to wait another four years (in Sweden’s case) to hold them to account, which is deliberately made difficult because of the lack of transparency.

The bargaining process also allows the mainstream parties in Sweden to consciously ignore almost 20 per cent of voters as they refuse to negotiate with the SD. Despite being the third largest party, SD were never given the task to try to form a government by the Speaker, while the Centre Party, which got less than half the SD’s vote share, was given the chance to.

In prosperous, relatively stable democracies, such as Belgium and Sweden, you can barely tell when the country is in political limbo. There are no riots, people still get paid their pensions and public services carry on as usual. But if you’re interested in changing the status quo and care about election promises it can prove a very testing time.

Although about the only clear thing from the election was that a majority of Swedes want a new Prime Minister and a centre-right agenda, Stefan Löfven will most likely be back in Rosenbad if not next week, then soon. And as the Alliance has already broken down, if Löfven does become Prime Minister again, he’ll certainly benefit from a divided opposition.

What’s the way out of this deeply unsatisfactory situation? I’d like a new election, please.

Sofia Svensson is a CapX intern and a freelance writer.