“December Agreement”–Swedish election unsnapped

Sweden was supposed to have a snap election in March; it was one of my three examples of ways in which a cabinet can be terminated in a parliamentary system just over three weeks ago. Now Sweden offers an example of how a “snap” election can be called, and then called off. In fact, I did not know this was possible. I can’t think of a similar case offhand.

Prime Minister Stefan Löfven, of the Social Democrats, and the four center-right opposition parties, along with the Green Party, have struck a deal to allow Löfven’s government to survive, and thus there will be no election in March. The anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats and the Left Party were not part of the “crisis talks” that produced the deal.

The BBC indicates that,

Under the deal, Mr Lofven will follow the opposition’s budget next year, although he can make some changes.

However, after 2015, the agreement “commits the opposition to abstain from voting against the government’s budget proposals” and “co-ordinates the parties’ polices on pensions, defence and energy issues.”

Löfven’s cabinet is a minority in parliament, hence both the initial budget defeat and election call, and the motivation for a deal.

The deal lasts till 2022. This is all quite extraordinary.

29 thoughts on ““December Agreement”–Swedish election unsnapped

  1. An interesting thing about this agreement is that it effectively changes the convention on who gets to form government. As I understand it, until now, the largest *party* in the Riksdag got to form government, even if that party’s *bloc* was smaller – so, currently, the centre-right Alliance’s four parties combined have 141 seats, three more than the governing Social Democrat+Green coalition’s 138 seats, but the Social Democrats got more seat than the Alliance’s largest party, so the Social Democrats formed government.

    With this agreement, the parties have agreed that the largest *bloc* will get to form government after the next election, not simply the largest party. It’ll be interesting to see if this is a one-time thing or if this is going to be the new normal.

  2. In Sweden the order for an extra election is issued by the prime minister, so I guess it is relatively easy for the prime minister to persuade themself not to issue an order. In systems where some other organ of state (queen, president, governor-general) issues the order on advice I’d guess unsnapping an election would be a tad more difficult. I can’t imagine any situation where an election order could be revoked once made.

  3. Technically the earliest the election to be called would have been on December 29, 2014. I guess were all surprised by the news of the snap election being cancelled but it wasn’t cancelled; and the earliest it could be called is on December 29, 2014. The agreement is through 2022. There will be an election in 2018. Who knows what will happen then, and even before then. Is this a good deal?

  4. “The parties have agreed that the largest *bloc* will get to form government.” Define “bloc.” One reason the left formed the government a few months ago was that the Left is bigger, once you ostracize the anti-immigrants, than the Right. Not the left governmental bloc, with 138 seats (Social Democrats 113 seats, Greens 25) but the total Left including the Left Party (21 seats) which gives the government external support, making the broad left’s 159 more than the centre-right’s 141.

    Or does that really matter?

    “Since the 1970s we have had minority governments except for eight years.” If the snap poll had gone ahead, it would have been the first early election in Sweden since 1958. “This allows us to show a need to agree on how the country can be governed with stability and efficiency across any bloc borders.” “Sweden has a proud tradition for solving difficult problems across party boundaries which doesn’t exist in any other country,” Löfven told reporters on Saturday.

    Only in Sweden, eh?

  5. It seems to me, at least, that having an Opposition block that is larger than the Government is not a great idea. I’m not saying have more MPs on the opposition benches, I am talking about having the Opposition being larger–to use British terms (possibly) inappropriately, the Leader of the Opposition having a larger caucus than the PM. If formal votes of confidence are not necessary, and I wouldn’t prefer them to be, than calling the leader of the largest block (whether one party or several) simply makes sense to me.

    In a perfect system, I would not even be opposed to semi-formalized rules that automatically commission the leader of the largest block to form a government unless and then until a larger block emerges that is prepared to govern.

  6. Rules identifying the largest bloc may seem intuitive, but have led to endless litigation in PNG and elsewhere in the Commonwealth. If you will recall a certain failed coalition in Canada even advanced democracies can experience significant disagreement on the content of rules and the identification of majorities.

    A far simpler rule is to have the assembly elect the chief executive within a fixed time.

    • As I saw things, the issue in Canada was a misinformation campaign by a falling government to subvert the system and a politically impotent viceregal office. I would imagine that if a similar situation happened in Britain the incumbent PM either would have resigned or called for an election before asking the Queen to prorogue. In Australia, a Governor-General or state governor would have told his first minister to sod off (or worse) if s/he had been asked to prop up a falling government.

      The problem with an elected PM (or South African style presidency) is this: what happens in a genuinely, hopelessly hung parliament without an ability to resolve through a second election? (Either a second go would have the same issues or a second go is not possible)

      • Second go situations do occur, but a largest bloc rule is no more effective at resolving them than an elect the premier rule. By contrast an elect the premier rule solves many situations that a largest bloc rule does not. The Canadian example is about as you described, but the prime minister of the day got away with claiming to represent the largest bloc. All I can see happening with a largest bloc rule is a great deal of litigation about what constitutes a bloc.

      • From what I understand, South Africa’s National Assembly holds runoffs, eliminating the least-voted candidate each time, until a candidates gets a majority. So there may be a president elected by a minority of MPs, but there can be no doubt as to who is elected.

      • JD

        It is set out in Schedule 3 to the Constitution. The chief justice presides. The lowest candidate is eliminated and there is a fresh ballot. There are rather elaborate rules for resolving tied votes. The Schedule has never applied because there has only ever been one candidate.

        The ACT chief minister is elected in the same way although the process is set by standing order, not by the (federal) ACT Self-Government Act 1988. ACT MLAs regularly describe their system as Westminster although it clearly is not.

        Both legislative bodies dissolve automatically if no chief executive is elected within 28 days in South Africa or 30 days in the ACT.

      • Alan

        I know, I checked just before I posted my reaction. I think my point stands: schedule 3 doesn’t require a majority of MPs to elect a President, only a majority of MPs voting. I do not know if that is the case in the ACT.

    • How does automatic dissolution work alongside a runoff/ low man out rule? If the South African Chief Minister or the ACT State President has only, say, 47% support on the final ballot, with 43% of Members backing the Opposition Leader and the other 10% abstaining, does the winner get to serve but only as caretaker pending a new general election?

      • gaudiatrix

        The rules call for a majority of votes cast, as JD says, not a majority of all votes that can be cast. That is the case in the ACT as well.

        It is pretty much academic in South Africa because every president has been the sole candidate in the election so there has never been an actual ballot. I suspect that is also true of the ACT but I need to check that.

      • Without claiming to be an expert, I do know that at least once, when Trevor Kaine lost a vote of no confidence in 1991, the subsequent election for Chief Minister had two candidates: Trevor Kaine and Rosemary Follet. Follet was elected with nine votes on the first and only ballot.

  7. In parliamentary democracies like Canada, no rule is required. After an incumbent government loses its majority in an election it has the choice of meeting the House (reasonably promptly) to test whether it has the confidence of a majority of MPs. If not, it resigns and the Governor General asks the Leader of the Opposition to try to form a government that has the confidence of a majority of MPs. Simple.

    • What happens if the Leader of the Opposition is now leading the third largest block? While I thought this was a theoretical question when I started typing, it occurred to me: Isn’t there some chance that in the next Canadian election the Liberals win the most seats, but not a majority, followed by the Conservatives then the NDP?

      • I think you’ll find a new leader of the opposition has to be identified with the election of a new house, just as a new speaker has to be elected.

        The situation raised by wilfrredday where a government loses its majority seems to be done differently outside Canada. A government without a majority in the house (and it is for the governor to determine that, not the government) may request the governor to do certain things but its requests are not constitutional advice and are not binding.

        Governor of Tasmania Peter Underwood 2010:

        It is the Governor’s duty to see that elections are conducted in accordance with the law and that there is an orderly transition of government that reflects the will of the people of the State of Tasmania as expressed at the ballot box. This duty has to be discharged after every House of Assembly election, after the passage in the House of a vote of no confidence in the Premier and after the passing of a motion that blocks supply.


        In the exercise of the duty to commission a person who can form a stable government the Governor will take formal advice from the current holder of that commission but is not bound to act on that advice. The Governor may also consult such academics, legal practitioners and the like as he or she thinks fit.

    • I don’t think you can claim simplicity for a convention that has engendered a minor publishing industry from the >The king and his dominion governors onwards. Nor would there have been distinguished legal authorities on both sides of the 1975 dismissal controversy in Australia and the prorogation controversies in Canada.

      Justice Evatt argued in the book not only that there is no simple solution to questions about the prerogative but that there is no possible solution. Sir Zelman Cowen, constitutional scholar and later governor-general, agreed when he authored the second edition of the book in 1967.

      • Indeed there is much debate about how the Governor-General should use discretion, where he or she has it. Notably, once an incumbent government has, after an election, passed the test of the first confidence vote, or the vote on the Address in Reply to the Throne Speech, it is no longer subject to any caretaker conventions.

        In Canada, few would dispute that, a year after an election, in the government is defeated it should have the right to a dissolution. Mind you, Canadians would benefit from studying examples in Indian States where a governing party splits, and the Chief Minister seeks an early election but has not yet lost a confidence vote; perhaps no time limit should over-ride the Governor’s duty to consult with all parties to see if a new government would have the confidence of the House. A great debate topic.

        More often debated in Canada is what the GG should do in the first year. After Adrienne Clarkson left office, she very helpfully disclosed that she had taken advice on this point, and had concluded that she should probably, if the government were defeated within six months of an election, not grant a dissolution without first consulting all parties to see if a new government might have the confidence of the House. Another great topic.

        Similarly, there has been much debate about a Prime Minister proroguing the House for a month in the face of a pending non-confidence motion which almost everyone knew would pass. Is there such a thing as a semi-caretaker convention? Our G-G and her advisors decided, with some signs of reluctance, that once a government has passed that first hurdle, there is not. The Canadian Coalition of 2008 had been formed a bit too late for that.

        And you can start a great debate about the Tasmanian election of 2010, very relevant to the current Swedish situation. The two big parties had decided to sideline the Greens. They had pledged that whoever won the most seats or, in the event of a tie, the most votes would have the right to form a government. It was a tie, with more Liberal votes. The Labor leader and Liberal leader had insisted they would stick to promises made before the election not to enter into any deals with the Greens. Accordingly, the Labor Premier resigned before the House even met. The Governor very bravely, with cogent written reasons (another great debate: shouldn’t a G-G always give written reasons for an exercise of discretion?), refused to accept the resignation until the House had met. Labor then recanted its blackmail and reached agreement with the Greens, showing the wisdom of no snap elections or snap resignations.

        But on one point there can be no serious debate: if an incumbent government loses the first confidence vote after an election, it cannot demand a snap election. This is because, if “parliamentary government” is to mean anything, a newly elected House of Commons must at least be allowed to meet and see whether it can transact public business. If an election gave no party a clear majority and the prime minister asked for a fresh election without even allowing the new Parliament to meet, the Governor General would have to say no. Similarly if it loses its first vote.

      • I am not familiar with a first year rule. There is a general principle that the parliament should continue while an alternative government can be formed, and that is found in Evatt, Cowen and Jennings. The first year rule may be another case of Canada diverging from the main Westminster trunk.

        As far as tied parliaments go, the speaker is not going to be in a position to identify an opposition leader because a tied assembly cannot elect a speaker. If, as in Australia and many Commonwealth constitutions, electing a speaker is required before any other business can be done, a tied election for speaker is going to force a fresh election. The possibility was seriously considered in 2010.

        It would perhaps have become one of those ‘please don’t tender advice I can’t accept ‘ situations.

        I think I am in a position to rest my case about the alleged simplicity of the Westminster conventions.

  8. By the time a confidence vote is held, the Speaker has already recognized a Leader of the Opposition in the new House. This is required for the seating plan, the parliamentary allowances and staff, and so on.

    A more interesting question is, what if two parties are tied, and one was the Official Opposition in the previous House? Precedent seems to be that the previous Official Opposition remains, although nothing prevents the Speaker from using some other criterion like the larger popular vote. In any event, if the Leader of the Official Opposition forms a government and it too is defeated, is a fresh election inevitable? That is in the discretion (reserve powers) of the Governor-General, so of course he or she should consult before exercising discretion; the shifting parliamentary sands may have made a new alternative likely to succeed. I think the G-G’s duty is to try to help the House find a government if one can be found.

  9. Pingback: Greek parliament can’t elect president, must be dissolved | Fruits and Votes

  10. […] One answer has to do with the way the Swedish electoral rules encourage small parties to develop around the Social Democrats on the left and the Moderates on the right, as the chart below shows. These small parties have obvious Australian parallels. The Left Party resembles the left faction of the Australian Labor Party, which in turn resembles the Social Democrats. The Liberal Party resembles the “wet” wing of our Liberal Party, which largely resembles the Moderates. The Centre Party resembles our National Party, and the Christian Democrats, inspired by the Germans, are something like Australia’s Democratic Labor Party. On the left, a new micro party, the Feminist Initiative, narrowly missed the 4 per cent threshold for parliamentary representation in the September election. The Social Democrats will be banking on the feminists clearing the hurdle in March, or collapsing altogether; either would be better than a narrow failure, which would see crucial left-of-centre votes go to no party at all. […]
    – Andrew Vandenberg, “Sweden’s mainstream resists the lure of the right: faced with the unexpected electoral strength of the far-right Sweden Democrats, the major political groupings aren’t following the usual script, writes Andrew Vandenberg.”
    Inside Story – Current Affairs and Culture From Australia and Beyond (17 December 2014)

    Anyone know exactly how the “Swedish electoral rules encourage small parties to develop around the Social Democrats on the left and the Moderates on the right”? I know votes for each party are pooled across districts, but does Swedish electoral law allow Israeli-style electoral alliances among lists?

    • It ‘encourages’ them in the sense that it ‘facilitates’ their emergence, as any proportional system would. I don’t think Sweden allows formal electoral list-combinations or remainder-sharing, although a search through the following link may reveal a different answer: val.se/pdf/electionsinsweden_webb.pdf

      • Thanks, JD, noted. I’d say Andrew should have put a comma between “develop” and “around”.
        As I’ve said before on this blog, I think a 4% or 5% threshold for alliances and lone parties, plus D’Hondt allocation, would solve a lot of the problems identified with list systems (including MMP), by encouraging coalitions to be formed before rather than after (in some Dutch and Belgian cases, months after) the election.

  11. I expect we will have a viceregal statement of reasons from the governor of Queensland in the next 24 hours, hopefully something more extended than a viceregal tweet.

    I once read a very serious argument by a Canadian that the Westminster system would collapse if governors gave reasons for their decisions. Governors have been publishing reasons in Australia since 1975.

    • I think that there are enough differences between the Canadian and Australian systems that the Canadian argument might hold some water. Long before I held any interest in Australian politics, I heard that the Australian viceroys are the umpire’s of the system–they rule on balls on strikes (or for a more Australian reference, no balls and LBWs), but they only rule when the players (politician) need a referee. An Australian governor (general) explaining the reasons behind his actions makes perfect sense in that light.

      In Canada on the other hand, if a viceroy explained his or her thinking, it may expose that that they are either completely useless and vestigial automatons doing what their first ministers say and only what their first ministers say–begging the question of why they exist–or they are not automatons and exercise a level of power behind the scenes that would beg the question of why they exist.

      No one complains when an umpire tells a player what he saw and why he made his ruling. Only Australia has umpires at the top. Canada (and even the UK to an extent) have the guy holding Season Ticket #1 make the formal decisions.

      • Except, if viceregals in Canada are only in Paul Hasluck’s phrase, mechanical idiots, then there is no obvious reason that should not be a matter of public record. The constitution should not be a state secret and, as we learn from the current constitutional mythologizing in Queensland, constitutional transparency matters.

  12. Pingback: Sweden, 2018 | Fruits and Votes

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