Is Sweden Ungovernable?

The rise of populist parties has made it nearly impossible to form governments across Europe—and the deadlock only fuels support for populists.

A Swedish flag is seen in Malmo on June 6, 2015. (Harry Engels/Getty Images)
A Swedish flag is seen in Malmo on June 6, 2015. (Harry Engels/Getty Images)

It has always been tricky to form governments in multiparty parliamentary systems. But these days, as Europe’s established political parties fracture and new right-wing populist parties rise, it’s becoming almost impossible.

Sweden is the latest example of such political gridlock. A month after parliamentary elections, in which the far-right Sweden Democrats won a sizable share of the vote—17.5 percent, or 62 seats out of 349—the country’s political leaders are still struggling to form a government. The center-left coalition, led by the ruling Social Democrats, won 144 seats. The center-right Alliance, which is led by the Moderates, won 143 seats. Both fell considerably short of the 175 needed for a majority. To actually govern, then, either side would need formal or informal allies.

The process of forming the new government started unofficially the day after the election, but it took a new turn when the Swedish parliament passed a vote of no confidence in sitting Social Democratic Prime Minister Stefan Lofven. The move was led by the Moderates and supported by the Sweden Democrats. After the vote, the parliament’s speaker asked the leader of the Moderates, Ulf Kristersson, to form a government. It gave him two weeks—until about Oct. 16—to do so.

Both Lofven and Kristersson have indicated that their parties would be willing to consider a bipartisan compromise in which one of them informally supports the other in a minority government, but the two disagree on which party would get to lead that government—or how cooperation between ideological rivals might actually work in practice. Meanwhile, Kristersson has said his Moderate Party is not interested in cooperating with the Sweden Democrats, but without them (and baring a unity government with the Social Democrats), he’ll have a difficult time forming a government—a fact the right-wing party is well aware of.

But Tobias Andersson, a newly minted member of parliament for the Sweden Democrats and head of the party’s youth wing, said Friday that it was only a matter of time before Kristersson accepted his fate. “Ulf is very aware of the fact that he wouldn’t be able to form a government without our support or the Social Democrats’ support,” Andersson said. “I think he will first go forward with the entire Alliance”—that is, potentially joining forces informally with the Social Democrats—“and then it will be easier for him to tell his voters, his members, that he tried with the Alliance, it didn’t work, and now we have to do something else.” It’s tough to tell whether things will play out as Andersson suggests they will: It depends, of course, on whether the Moderates and their other allied parties stick to their word that they’re not interested in joining forces with the far-right.

But Sweden is far from alone in its political deadlock. “All over Europe, in different multiparty systems, the government formation process is taking longer and longer,” said Jakob-Moritz Eberl, a researcher at the University of Vienna who has explored this topic. “Among other things, this has to do with populist parties being in power.”

For example, in the Netherlands, Geert Wilders’s far-right Party for Freedom won 13 percent of the vote in March 2017. After that, it took a record 208 days to put a new government in place. In order to find a majority, the center-right People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy finally teamed up with three other parties with significantly divergent political views: the progressive D66 and two Christian parties, the Christian Democratic Appeal and Christian Union.

In Germany, the Alternative for Germany (AfD) won just 12.6 percent of the vote last fall but still managed to complicate the government formation process. Although there was never a question that any major party would consider asking the AfD to build a coalition, the right-wing populist party managed to make the math for forming a government difficult: attempts to strike a three-party bargain among Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives, the Greens, and the liberal Free Democrats collapsed. After nearly six months, the conservatives and the center-left Social Democrats were finally able to create the so-called grand coalition that rules today.

In Italy, traditional political parties failed so miserably in the March elections that they weren’t able to form any sort of coalition to keep the populist Five Star Movement or the right-wing Lega out of office. The center-left Democratic Party won just 19 percent of the vote and the center-right Forza Italia just 14 percent. Even had they wanted to build a unity government, they wouldn’t have had the numbers. Former center-left Prime Minister Matteo Renzi announced after the election that his Democratic Party wouldn’t partner with the Five Star Movement or the Lega, paving the way for the two populist parties to begin negotiations instead. In June, nearly three months after the vote, their all-populist governing coalition took office.

It’s not just right-wing populist parties that are contributing to the gridlock: Politics in numerous European countries are becoming increasingly fractured, with more parties entering parliament and earning a bigger share of the vote. In the Netherlands, for example, the 150-seat parliament now includes a record 13 parties; in Germany, the number of parties represented in the Bundestag went from four after the 2013 election to seven now. And it isn’t just far-right parties that have benefited from the decline of the traditional center-left and center-right parties, either. The Greens, far-left parties, and other upstart movements have also gained vote share.

But the rise of the right wing is particularly challenging because, in many countries, it is still considered completely unacceptable to include it in government. Although leaders of Germany’s major parties certainly can’t ignore the 92 seats the AfD holds in parliament, for example, it would be reputation-killing to form a coalition with it. In turn, a significant portion of parliamentarians are automatically excluded from leadership. This is a problem the German Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian wing of Merkel’s center-right coalition, will have to face after elections there next Sunday: The CSU will almost certainly need to build a coalition with another party, but it has already ruled out working with the AfD.

Should right-wing parties continue to make gains going forward, it will be increasingly difficult to exclude them from the government formation process—or, on the other hand, to form stable governments without them. “That’s a general phenomenon: the higher the number of parties you have in parliament, the more difficult it is to hammer a coalition together,” said Jan Techau, the head of the Europe program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. “The problem arises whenever a party is so stigmatized and so taboo politically, when no one wants to work with them.”

In some ways, it is more expedient to simply cooperate with upstart parties. In fact, the only countries that have avoided significant post-election gridlock were those in which one established party was willing to strike a partnership with a rising populist party. In Austria, for example, a government between Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s center-right Austrian People’s Party and the far-right Freedom Party of Austria managed to ink a coalition deal last December, two months after the country’s elections. Unlike the AfD in Germany, the Freedom Party had already served in a coalition government in the early 2000s, which helped make it a more acceptable governing partner.

Andersson of the Sweden Democrats said his party was quite there yet. “We still need a couple of years to legitimize, to normalize our party,” he said. Until then, Sweden, like other countries in Europe, is in for further turmoil. The rise of populists has slowed the process of government formation across Europe and resulted in increasingly weak governing coalitions. And that ultimately feeds support for populist parties.

Emily Schultheis is a freelance journalist based in Berlin, where she writes about European elections and the rise of populism. Twitter: @emilyrs

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