27 December, 2014

There will be no snap election in Sweden.

Remember, a few weeks ago anti-immigration Sweden Democrats (SD) brought down the government by voting for the opposition’s budget, leading PM Stefan Löfven to call a snap election after only two months in office.

Löfven has now struck a grand coalition deal with the centre-right opposition parties in a bid to avoid a chaotic election in March while freezing out SD. He will remain PM, accept the opposition’s budget for this year with some changes and, crucially, secured a commitment that over the next two terms (2015 to 2022) the opposition will – under no circumstances – vote against the sitting government’s budget.

A quick glance at the debate in Sweden and there are broadly three competing views on this deal:

Game, set and match Löfven

He will remain in office and if he gets re-elected in four years’ time, he has guaranteed support for a centre-left budget up until 2022. For its part, the centre-right opposition got very little.

Löfven blinked

And was forced to march his troops down the hill again after having hastily called a snap election. He now has to rule guided by the opposition’s budget (or at least part of it) for the first year in office. More importantly, he failed to split the four party centre-right coalition which could come back to haunt him.

A running recruitment campaign for SD

The two camps above both triumphantly claim that the anti-immigration element has been kept out “unlike in Denmark” (a phrase you hear a lot in Swedish media) where the Danish People’s Party has been kingmaker for years. They have a point.

However, there’s a third, and far more uncomfortable view: yes, Swedish consensus politics survived the day, but in terms of voters’ perception, this grand coalition deal risks leaving SD as the only de facto opposition party – in turn, giving it the perfect platform for steadily gaining a greater share of the vote.

Who will win in the end remains to be seen, but think about it: for the next eight years, there will be no actual opposition in Sweden on the most important issue in national politics: the budget. The implication is that the sitting government can propose whatever it wants – on taxes, healthcare, immigration – and the opposition is obligated not to vote against, no matter how much it disagrees on substance. At least if the cross-party deal – which is an informal one to be fair – holds. SD could have a field day whenever there’s a crunch budget vote.

In Spain, Podemos has managed to grow so big so quickly, precisely because it has positioned itself as the only opposition party. The ones standing up to a running grand coalition ‘stitch-up’ – key decisions based on rules rather than democratic politics. So has Syriza in Greece. The driving force there is austerity but the political psychology that is so lethal – ‘the same outcome no matter how I vote’ – is similar.

Some 800,000 Swedes voted for SD in September (12.9% of the electorate). We don’t know where the limit of the party’s support lies. It could well take eight grinding years to find out. By then we will also know whether Löfven’s gamble will be regarded as a masterstroke that neutralised the populists.

Or as the biggest Pyrrhic victory in recent political history.