Meet the new boss, same as the old boss? Swedish Prime Minister voted out but social democrats still the most likely to form the next government

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Dr Edward Page, from the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Warwick, comments on the aftermath of the Swedish elections.

As expected, Stefan Löfven, leader of the Social Democrats and prime minster for the past four years, lost a vote of confidence in the Swedish parliament this week when a clear majority of members of parliament (204-142) voted against him remaining in post. Löfven and his minority coalition government, consisting of the Social Democrats and the Green Party, now become an interim government with strictly limited powers of office while the newly elected speaker of the house attempts to find a solution to the political crisis. The Speaker, Andreas Norlén, from Thursday onwards, faces the challenge of leading a series of discussions with party leaders to find a prime minister to nominate who would survive a parliamentary vote. The Speaker, himself elected in controversial circumstances the day before when he noted amusingly that he was ‘elected as Speaker and not a magician’, now has four attempts to find a candidate acceptable to parliament to avoid a new election is called. Löfven commented shortly after the vote that it was the opposition centre/centre-right block that faced the real crisis: “if they [the Alliance] choose to govern as the smaller of the two blocks, they will be dependent on the Swedish Democrats. If they don’t break their promise [not to be dependent on the Swedish Democrats] then an Alliance government is impossible.” This might reasonably have seemed like sour grapes at the time. But by the end of the same day, the dilemma Löfven identified had effectively split the rival Alliance group of parties and it became all too clear that unseating Löfven was not the easy path to post-Löfven politics.

How can a Prime Minister who has been voted out of his office in the morning after just 15 minutes debate – and by a substantial majority – end the day as the most likely person to be Prime Minister at Christmas? The answer is complex but it has two main dimensions.

First, the impossibly close election result led to the centre/centre-left block having one seat (144) more than the right/centre right block (143) and this in turn matters more than the Swedish Democrats gaining 62 seats. As Lyndon Johnson once remarked ‘Legislators love math. The reason is that the votecount matters more than almost anything else on Capitol Hill.’ The median voter in Sweden is with good reason viewed as substantially to the ideological right of Löfven and his Social Democrats and, by extension, nearer the ideological position of his main Prime Ministerial rival, Ulf Kristersson (of the the Moderate Party). But one seat can matter. Any proposition put before parliament by Löfven, including the all-important budget, could not be voted down by the Alliance block led by Kristersson without assistance of the Swedish Democrats and any proposition put before parliament by Kristersson, including the all important budget vote in November, can be voted down by the party block led by Löfven unless the Swedish Democrats intervene on the Alliance’s behalf.

Second, before the prime ministerial vote of confidence had been taken, the more socially liberal of the two Alliance parties (the Liberals and the Centre Party) could delay facing the contradiction of ruling out cooperation with the Swedish Democrats while at the same time seeking an Alliance government requiring support from the Swedish Democrats to survive. After the vote, however, the Swedish Democrats confirmed that they would indeed seek ‘something in return’ from any government their ‘balance of power’ role helped to form. The Liberal Leader, Jan Björklund – angered by the two more conservative parties in the Alliance (the Moderates and Christian Democrats) signaling a willingness to explore what this ’something’ might be – soon threatened to destruct the Alliance. Shortly after, the broadcast and print media reported anger within the Moderates and Christian Democrats at Björklund’s duplicity (‘doubelspel’). Would the Liberals go over to the Social Democrats? Where the Liberals go, so the thinking goes, the Centre Party would likely follow. Löfven’s dilemma had crystallized. In the space of a mere few hours from deposing its rival for prime minister, commentators were proclaiming openly that the Alliance was dead.

There are fascinating philosophical – as well as semantic – issues here as to what constitutes ‘passive support’ and ‘active support’ in the parliamentary setting. If a party supports your candidate for prime minister or your budget without you seeking this support, but you know they will do this, are you passively or actively dependent on their support? Does it really matter if you get such support if the supporters are excluded from your government? Can it be right to exclude a party from parliamentary bargaining that won over a million votes? These questions, by the evening, were drowned by the power of narrative: if the Swedish Democrats themselves demanded that they must ‘get something in return’ for their support then it no longer became credible to say that you could govern with their support and not give them influence.

If Ulf Kristersson’s path to prime minister has suddenly become much harder, what are the options? Late on Wednesday evening, the possible government options were more or less as they were at the start of the week but with the odds on the Alliance forming a government lengthening considerably and the odds on all the other options shortening as a result. This suggests four possible government coalitions will be at the forefront of the mind of the Speaker as he starts his discussions with the party leaders: (1) A minority coalition of Right/Centre Right parties (currently, Moderates and Christian Democrats) who are prepared to accept support from (but offer no ministerial posts to) the Swedish Democrats and with the remaining Centre Right parties that refuse to work with the Swedish Democrats at least tolerating this government. But why would they tolerate such a government without any ministerial posts? (2) A Social Democratic minority government with support from (and possibly ministerial posts for) the Left and Green Party. The problem here being that a clear majority in the parliament has already signaled its dissatisfaction with this ‘status quo’ option. (3) A Social Democrat-led multi party minority government composed of Centre Left and Centre Right Parties but with support from the Left Party. One problem here is that the Centre Right Parties refuse to cooperate in any form with the Left Party just as much as they refuse to work with the Swedish Democrats. But the real problem is that there is a profound lack of trust between these two parties and the Social Democrats (and Löfven in particular) who they expect to offer merely cosmetic influence (4) A majority Social Democrat/Moderate coalition (an experiment unproven in modern Swedish politics but which has the benefit of electoral maths and a nullification of the ‘balance of power’ role of the far-right Swedish Democrats). The problem here can be best put by analogy: would Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn sit in the same government?

Commentators in Sweden continue, quite reasonably, to view the flaws of each of the above options to be so great that none of them are plausible. And yet, the very same commentators are also in broad that a government will be formed and an extra election will not be needed. Putting aside the odds on each option actually happening, it is telling that Stefan Löfven would be the prime minster in three of the four alternatives. It may seem improbable that Löfven remains the most likely to be selected as the next prime minster after a resoundingly vote of no confidence. But the Social Democrats do seem to be at the centre of all of the least unstable governing options that could minimize the influence of the Swedish Democrats. As Sherlock Holmes once exclaimed ‘once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.’

Dr Page has strong ties to research and teaching in Scandinavia and is a visiting researcher at the Department of Government (Uppsala University) and the Institute of Future Studies (Stockholm).

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