Sweden's New Government Is Part of a Scary Trend

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Four months after its election, Sweden is finally poised to get a new government. Stefan Lofven is almost certain to remain prime minister, even though his party and its allies failed to win enough votes to be able to govern.

The protracted talks – and a similarly tortuous set of negotiations in Latvia – highlight an awkward reality in Europe: increasingly, ruling coalitions don’t stand for anything that voters can easily identify with.

The deal allowing Lofven to keep power will shake up a system of political alignments that has existed in Sweden since 2004, when the country's center-right parties formed the so-called Alliance to counteract the powerful center-left.

Lofven, a Social Democrat, has persuaded two Alliance parties, the Center Party and the Liberals, to back his coalition with the Greens. The parliamentary math is precarious: the coalition will rely on the support of the Left Party, the former Communists who backed Lofven’s previous government but initially balked at the new arrangement because it didn’t look leftist enough for them.

Lofven’s victory has only been made possible because, at the last moment, the former labor union boss persuaded the Left party to abstain when his premiership comes to a vote in parliament. The Left’s leader, Jonas Sjostedt, has vowed, however, to “fight every measure that pushes Sweden to the right,” threatening the government’s stability before it even takes office.

Lofven will govern on the basis of a 16-page document that looks like an untidy compilation of socialist, environmentalist and center-right ideas rather than a detailed and thought-out coalition manifesto. It aims to please everyone with tax cuts, more attention to climate change, better social assistance programs, and a more pragmatic approach to asylum and integration.

The Left can be excused for being unable to make head or tail of the new government’s real direction. So too can Swedish voters. In a recent poll, most of them considered the deal “quite bad” or “very bad.” Only 11 percent called it “very good.”

There was one overarching reason for the parties to rally reluctantly behind Lofven. Nobody wanted to join with the political force that made the biggest gains in the September election: the anti-immigration Sweden Democrats.

In the country's system of proportional representation it is hard to get around a populist party with 17.5 percent of the vote. Lofven, whose Social Democrats commanded the biggest share of the vote at 31.1 percent, has proved that is doable. 

Similarly, Latvia is about to embark on a political arrangement that works mathematically but perhaps not ideologically.

Like Sweden, it is going through the longest government-formation process in its history. Krisjanis Karins, the leader of the smallest party in parliament and the biggest loser of the 2018 election, is set to become the new prime minister. He is expected to present the final deal cementing his five-party governing coalition in the next few days.

The alliance of center-right, national-conservative and populist parties has a rather self-contradictory manifesto that combines measures to reduce income inequality with declarations of financial prudence.

The biggest reason the five are coming together is to keep out of power the country’s biggest party – Harmony, a center-left group historically backed by Latvia’s large Russian-speaking minority.

The Netherlands and Germany also went through their longest ever government-formation periods after their most recent elections. Their ruling coalitions are somewhat more cohesive politically, but it’s still hard for the average voter to understand what they stand for. It’s easier to see what they stand against: allowing populist-nationalist parties to come anywhere close to participating in government.

All these arrangements are essentially technocratic – and they favor the best negotiator. Lofven, Karins, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte and German Chancellor Angela Merkel are all known for their consummate backroom skills. Keeping the precarious parliamentary math working constantly keeps these negotiator-leaders in shape. This makes for minimalist government. Big policy shifts, bold moves, and audacious ideas are out.

Countries with relatively strong institutions – even a young democracy like Latvia – can survive for some time with this kind of government. The problem is that voters start to wonder whether they are being asked anything meaningful at the polls.

The expected protest vote in this year’s elections to the European Parliament will be another sign that this phase of mathematically possible but politically colorless coalitions built around keeping someone out of power will come at a price to the political establishment.

Minimizing that cost in the medium term may be beyond the powers of even the best negotiators. Centrists don’t have much time to re-learn how to win elections rather than prevail in back-room maneuvering.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Leonid Bershidsky is Bloomberg Opinion's Europe columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.

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