Thursday, September 23, 2010

Close but No Tube of Smoldering Leaves

The vote count is almost over, and the coalition got one more seat, still two shy of a majority. They lacked nine votes in Värmland and seven votes in Gothenburg for those other two seats. Close, but close is not making it. It's fair enough though; they're also 297 votes short of the majority of votes among the seated parties, so the end result pretty much mirrors the vote totals1.

The center-right coalition is trying to get the Greens to support them, but it seems unworkable; the political differences are just too large in several high-profile questions. Other party combinations are even more unviable, as they'd bring together parties with completely different and opposing agendas.

This, by the way, is another reason nobody speaks to SD: they have an agenda in some important issues that differs radically from all the other parties. That makes them impossible to cooperate with quite apart from moral considerations. The SD would work with the center-right coalition as well as the left-wing of the Social Democrats would be; or be as good a fit with the center-left opposition as the Christian Democrats. They're not the only one; the Communists only got into the center-left coalition after the Social democrat party leadership was pressured from their own far left wing, and this likely cost them a fair number of centrist supporters.

So before the SD supporters go wailing in sack-cloth and ashes about how they're being unfairly shut out of government, they'd better realize a party needs to be politically and philosophically close to the other parties they want to work with. And the SD are not close; they're not even on the same planet as the other parties. For instance, the center-right coalition all accept the moral imperative of helping refugees and they wrote and supported the coalition bill for easy work immigration. I have nagging doubts that the SD would be willing to drop their opposition to immigration and turn in favour of these policies as the price for joining the coalition.

A minority government is thus most likely. Minority governments are nothing new in Sweden, and they normally manage to be quite effective. But things feel pretty polarized this time around, and the Nazi-linked SD risks becoming used as a political weapon by the two sides, to the benefit of SD and to the detriment of Swedish politics.

The coming minority government would seem to be quite safe. After all, they need only two opposition members not to vote against an important bill for it to pass. Having a minority government fall is very rare, and it should be even more unlikely in this situation. But the SD complicates matters. Iẗ́'s always fun to speculate - things are easier when you're not constrained by reality - so here is a possible scenario, with interesting (in the Chinese proverb sense) consequences:

The government writes a budget bill. They approach the Greens for support, but they are not even close to agreement - the Greens view their votes as indispensable and demands an arm and a leg, while the coalition figures the opposition don't want to vote with the SD and offers just a few minor concessions. The talks fall through and the government submits a bill with no input from any of the opposition parties.

The opposition all vote against the bill. The Communists are ready to do so no matter what and the Greens are angry at the failed talks with the coalition. And crucially, they assume at least a few of the SD members will vote for the bill. They figure the SD won't want to risk a new election when they just managed to get in. And if the government passes their budget with the help of the SD - inadvertent or not - then that guilt by association is an excellent club to wield against the center-right coalition in the next election.

But the SD is pissed off. They get no respect. None of the other parties will as much as pick up the phone, never mind hold any actual talks or give them any committee seats. They may say they're anti-politics and speaking truth to power, but now they want some of that power they've railed against, damnit. So in a fit of pique they all vote against the budget. After all, some of the Greens will vote for it anyhow, right?

So inadvertently the opposition makes common cause with the racists in SD and topples the center-right government. At that point there'd basically be two possible paths: The parties make another go at assembling a governing coalition, but that runs into the same issues as now. Or, an extra election2 is called and held.

Such an election would be very interesting indeed. The coalition have shown they lack the flexibility to run a minority government. The small coalition parties will have - in the interest of coalition coherence - been all but invisible throughout the process, raising the question of why you should vote for them at all.

The Greens will have exposed a basic weakness; it's easy to say you're straddling left and right, but when reality hits and you have to choose one or the other you end up alienating part of your own supporter base no matter what. And the opposition parties will have felled a democratically elected government by voting with a neo-Nazi minority party, something that is completely antithetical to many of their supporters.

And the SD will have a parliamentary record of complete political non-action, with a messy, costly and completely avoidable extra election as their sole and only accomplishment. Wasting hundreds of millions of tax money and six months of everybody's time is not what most protest voters like to see in their champions.

None of the parties would come off smelling like roses. And as actions speak louder than words, the floating voters would likely vote based on the performance during the few months since this last election, and would also likely want to avoid a repeat of the messy parliamentary situation. How that would translate into votes is of course a completely open question, but I would guess we'd see some rather more dramatic shift of opinion than during normal election cycles.

#1 "Fair" is really the wrong word, though. If, say, the coalition would have gotten a majority of popular votes, but just shy of a majority of the seats it would have been unfortunate, and it would have highlighted a bad corner case of the voting system, but it would not have been unfair. The election system is fixed, it's transparent, it doesn't systematically discriminate one party over others, and the rules are accepted by all parties. The result is always fair, though it's not always desirable.

#2 It's an "extra" election, not a new one. The four-year cycle isn't altered. Whoever wins the extra election only has until the next scheduled regular election. This lessens the value for the opposition of toppling a government since you don't get a full election cycle to rule even if you win.

When the Social Democrats lost a crucial vote in 1990 and resigned, one year before the next general election, the same minority government was simply reappointed by the speaker; it was seen as pointless and wasteful to hold an election for a government that wouldn't even have time to implement a budget before their mandate runs out.

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