Denmark coalition crisis?

On the rare occasion that a government is headed by the third largest party in parliament, and is backed by the second largest, which happens to be a “far-right” or “populist” party, one might expect the governance to be challenging. So it goes in Denmark.

This week, eight months into the single-party minority government of Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen, one of the government’s parliamentary support parties has threatened to pull its support. But it is not the right-wing Danish People’s Party that is causing the problem, it is the smaller governing partner, the Conservatives, who have just 6 seats in the 179-seat parliament.

According to The Local, the Conservatives have “lost confidence in Environment and Food Minister Eva Kjer Hansen.”

Kjer Hansen’s critics specifically accuse her of giving into the farm lobby on norms governing the use of fertilisers, leaving water supplies exposed to increased pollution from agricultural runoff.

Thus far, Rasmussen is backing the minister, and has called for talks with his partner.

[the above was edited on 28 February in response to a clarification in the comments]

 

Denmark election, 2015: Connecting election results and government under multipartism?

For better or worse, Denmark’s election yesterday is a clear example of the connection (or lack of connection?) between election results and likely governing alliances in a multiparty system.

The party of the (outgoing) Prime Minister, the Social Democrats, actually gained seats and remains the largest party by a 10-seat margin. However, Helle Thorning-Schmidt submitted her resignation because her “Red” bloc will have fewer seats than the (former) opposition.

Meanwhile, the core party of the traditional Danish right, the Venstre (liberals, not actually “left”) lost 13 seats, but will be part of the new government. In fact, its leader, Lars Løkke Rasmussen, is the most likely next PM. A Guardian headline even declares that he “wins slender victory”.

The big gainer in the election is the “populist” Danish People’s Party, which gained 15 seats and finished second. It is thus the largest party in the expected new governing “bloc” (if it is even accurate to call it that). However, its leader surely will not be prime minister, and may not even be in the government. More likely it will support a minority government* of the center-right.

So there we have it: the PM’s party gains seats, the largest party by a good margin will head the opposition, the second largest party will be an outside support party, and the PM will come from the party whose seats declined the most!

None of the above is meant necessarily as criticism: in a multiparty parliamentary system, the government is comprised of that set of parties that is at least tolerated by a majority of elected representatives, not necessarily the largest (or even second largest!) party. In general, I admire the Danish electoral, party, and governing systems. But an outcome like this does raise questions about the accountability mechanisms of this pattern of multiparty politics. At the very least, it offers a great teaching case–too bad the Danish could not hold this election a couple of weeks ago when I was indeed teaching a course for which this is highly relevant!

Finally, for fans of Borgen, some help from The Local Denmark.

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* I can’t argue with the first two sentences of that article: “It seems to be the season for shocking elections. Rarely has the job of political scientists been so interesting.”

Finland election, 2015

(Revised and extended, 19 April, 9:30 a.m. PDT)

Finland has a parliamentary election on 19 April. The Center Party, which fared usually poorly in 2011, is leading all polls. But leading polls in Finland can mean under 25% of the vote.

An article in the Canberra Times captures a little of the flavor of Finland’s candida-centered open-list system and large number of parties:

The scene was a street market in an outer Helsinki suburb. Beside stalls selling long worms of coloured candy, and soft toys, and root vegetables, were the stands erected by four or five political parties. Outside each stood at least half a dozen candidates, including our interviewee, handing out their own personal campaign leaflets and engaging, when a voter showed the slightest interest, in vigorous political discussion.

Finland’s electoral system is, to an outsider, of mind-boggling complexity. The Helsinki district sends 22 members to the 200-member, single-chamber national parliament. Each party’s share of that total is proportional to the total votes cast for all its individual members.

The four major parties in Finland can each expect to send between four and six members to the national assembly from the Helsinki district. But which four or six? In Australia, party power brokers decide who tops the list of senatorial candidates, and who gets relegated to an unwinnable place on the list. In Finland, that’s decided by the number of votes each individual candidate garners.

The Finnish voter is faced with more than 50 candidates in any one district. There’s a list posted in every polling booth, where each candidate is assigned a number. You write one number, and only one, on the ballot paper. You are choosing, with that one vote, which party you prefer, and which candidate you want that party to send to the Parliament.

Even if the article does not say “open list”, it is a good (and too rare) example of a news piece at least acknowledging the different process of voting.

This election also marks the first under a somewhat revised electoral system, as Yle News notes:

A reform in electoral districts means that the 2015 elections are substantially different from those of years past – what was hitherto four constituencies have now been been merged into two separate constituencies. [Justice Ministry’s election chief Arto] Jääskeläinen estimates that counting in these new South-East Finland and Savo-Karelia constituencies will take a little more time than usual.

“Substantially different” is a bit of an overstatement, as there were fifteen districts, and only four of them are affected. The country’s mean magnitude thus increases from 13.3 to 15.4, which is hardly a major increase to what was already a quite highly proportional example of districted PR.

Of course, increasing the district magnitude for the voters in these former four is a substantial change for them. These were among the districts in which alliance lists were most common, as smaller parties would forge joint lists with larger ones to reduced wasted votes. (The parties in such alliances in low-magnnitude districts would run separately in the districts with higher magnitude.)

Yle News will carry live results after polls close at 8:00 p.m., Finnish time. They also have posted English-language interviews with the party leaders.

Estonia election, 2015

Guest post by Rune Holmgaard Andersen

On March 1, Estonia held its sixth general election since regaining independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. The turnout was 64.2%; a marginal increase from the 63.0% in the 2011 election. 19.6% of the electorate cast their vote through the internet. In addition to the four parties represented in the last Riigikogu (parliament), two new parties – the Free Party (FP) and the Estonian National Conservative People’s Party (ENCP) – entered the political scene. The FP is a ‘purifier party’ mainly consisting of conservative defectors from the Pro Patria-Res Publica Union (PP-RP), whereas the ENCP is a genuinely new far-right nationalist-populist party. While loosing three seats, the Reform Party could, for the third time in a row, declare itself winner of the election

Table 1. Vote and seat distribution

2015 2011
Votes (%) Seats Votes (%) Seats
Reform Party (RP) 27.7 30 28.6 33
Center Party (CP) 24.8 27 23.3 26
Social Democratic Party (SD) 15.2 15 17.1 19
Pro Patria-Res Publica Union (PP-RP) 13.7 14 20.5 23
Free Party (FP) 8.7 8
Estonian National Conservative People’s Party (NCPP) 8.1 7
Other, not passing 5% electoral threshold 1.8 0 10.5 0
Seats in the Riigikogu 101 101

Laakso & Taagepera Effective number of parties (seats): 4.7 (2015), 3.8 (2011)

 

Estonia has a tradition of majority governments, and the best prediction is that this will also be the outcome of the upcoming coalition talks. As outlined in Table 2, the seat distribution allows for eight different “minimal winning coalitions.”

Table 2: Possible minimal winning coalitions

  Coalition Seats
1 RP + SD + PP-RP 59
2 RP + CP 57
3 CP + PP-RP + FP + NCPP 56
4 CP + SD + PP-RP 56
5 RP + SD + FP 53
6 RP + SD + NCPP 52
7 RP + PP-RP + FP 52
8 RP + PP-RP + NCPP 51

The Reform Party has been at the helm of every government since 2005, and is likely to remain in power during the coming election period. The party has shown itself very flexible when choosing among possible junior partners, and political differences have seldom been allowed to block the formation of beneficial power-sharing coalitions.

The willingness to trade politics for power was most recently displayed during April 2014, when newly appointed party chairman, Mr Taavi Rõivas (35), decided to form a new coalition with the Social Democrats (SD), thereby leaving its long-term coalition partner and closest political ally, the Pro Patria-Res Publica Union, in the shadow. However, following the “Bronze Soldier” riots in Tallinn in April 2007, the Reform Party has ruled out any cooperation with the Center Party (CP), which enjoys overwhelming support among ethnic Russians, as long as long-serving party “godfather,” Mr. Edgar Savisaar, remains in control of the party. Hence, unless Center Party back-benchers rebel against Mr. Savisaar, a two-party coalition (option 2) between the Reform Party and the Centre Party seems unlikely. The same goes for the only two minimal winning coalitions not including the Reform Party (option 3 and 4). Neither the Social Democrats, the Pro Patria-Res Publica Union or the two new parties are likely to engage in any form of cooperation with Mr. Savisaar, even if they were offered a good bargain.

Ruling out coalitions with the Center Party leaves five options, which all include the Reform Party. However, option 6 and 8 are also unlikely as none of the remaining four parties will be willing to associate themselves with the Estonian National Conservative Party.

With the two “pariah parties” out of the game, only three options are left: a coalition between the Reform Party, the Social Democrats, and the Pro Patria-Res Publica Union (option 1), a coalition consisting of the Reform Party, the Social Democrats, and the Free Party (option 5), and, lastly, a coalition uniting the Reform Party, the Pro Patria-Res Publica Union and the Free Party (option 7). All three options appear politically viable which gives the Reform Party, being the pivotal player, a strong bargaining position. Given its newness – and thus somewhat questionable discipline – Mr. Rõivas might be wary of inviting the Free Party to join the government coalition. However, doing so would severely weaken the bargaining power of both the Social Democrats and the Pro Patria-Res Publica Union. Both the Social Democrats and the Pro Patria-Res Publica Union are eager to secure themselves a membership of the government, and will, with the prospect of having the Free Party in government, be willing to sell themselves cheaply. The Pro Patria-Res Publica Union holds a grudge against both the Reform Party, having been dismissed from the government back in May 2014, and against the conservative PP-RP defectors that now form the core of the Free Party. Hence, while they are both policy-connected minimal-winning coalitions, the risk that bad blood will affect the daily working of the government might make options 1 and 7 unattractive choices. While the marriage between the Reform Party and the Social Democrats has not been a happy one, they both have an interest in staying together. Option 5 – a coalition with the Social Democrats and the Free Party – offers the Reform Party a workable majority and, with a scorned but eager Pro Patria-Res Publica Union on the side-line, plenty of outside options should the Social Democrats of the Free Party fall out of line.

No matter which of the three options materialize, the political outlook for Estonian politics is likely to remain unchanged. As evident from latter years politics, the name of the Reform Party is largely a misnomer. The Reform Party will stand surely for domestic stability, but has little appetite for implementing a much needed municipal reform to solve regional economic imbalances or to take action to curb the ongoing problem of large-scale emigration. The Reform Party, the Social Democrats, the Pro Patria-Res Publica Union, and the Free Party are all pro-NATO and pro-EU, and will work towards further integration with its Western neighbors. In particular, Estonia will seek to deepen its ties with the USA in order to gain security guarantees in its relations with Russia, which is seen as an immanent threat to Estonian sovereignty. Politically, Estonia is likely to move even further towards its Nordic neighbors.

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Rune Holmgaard Andersen is a PhD student at the Institute of Political Science at the University of Tartu, Estonia and assistant lecturer at the University of Roskilde, Denmark. Through more than 15 years, Rune has followed Estonian politics. He is an expert on neo-institutional economics, post-communist political and economic transition, and popular perceptions of democracy.

 

 

 

 

“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.

The ways a cabinet can be terminated

There is a literature in political science on government (cabinet) termination in parliamentary democracies. This is not a review of that literature. Rather, it is an accounting of three recent cases that illustrate different ways that a government in a parliamentary democracy can end.

We can have a party based on an electoral majority that seeks a fresh mandate. That is, a party–or bloc of parties running together in the election– that has won a majority of seats, but, for strategic reasons, decides to hold an early election. Exhibit: Japan. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (Liberal Democratic Party) announced a snap election on 18 November, despite about two years remaining on the term and a comfortable majority won in the 2012 election. The election will be 14 December.

We can have a coalition government, formed by bargaining among multiple parties after an election, which holds a majority of seats. The parties might have a falling out over one or more policy issues, and the parties break up the government rather than resolve their differences within it. Exhibit: Israel. On 2 December, Prme Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fired two ministers, each of whom heads a party that was in his coalition: Finance Minister Yair Lapid (of the Yesh Atid party) and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni (of HaTnua). The firing, which meant the breakup of the coalition, followed weeks of rancor over the budget and a bill backed particularly by another coalition partner, the Jewish Home party, that critics (including the ceremonial president) said would elevate the state’s Jewish character over its democratic character. New elections will be 17 March.

We can have a minority cabinet, in which the party or parties holding ministerial positions do not hold a majority of parliamentary seats, with no available backing from among the non-governmental parties in parliament, and which fails to get the support needed to pass its budget. Exhibit: Sweden. On 3 December, the minority center-left government of Prime Minister Stefan Lofven lost a budget vote, 153-182, and announced there would be a snap election. The wild card here was the Sweden Democrats, a far-right or “populist” party that neither Lofven nor the center-right opposition wanted to be seen to deal with following elections that were held less than three months ago. When the center-right would not back the budget, the government effectively lost its right to continue governing. A new election is expected to be set for 22 March.

One could say that these were listed not only in chronological order, but in reverse order of “necessity”. There was no reason why Japan needed an early election–its government has a solid majority. The Israeli election call is also not exactly necessary–the parties whose leaders Netanyahu fired were not in anything like open rebellion even if they were in policy disagreement (which is, after all, natural in coalitions). It was, however, a coalition that the PM himself clearly never wanted, and was forced upon him by the election results in early 2013 and the bargaining stances of other parties (specifically, Yesh Atid and Jewish Home). Polls show the potential of a much stronger right-wing bloc in a new election. So, it is an opportunistic call, but arguably less unnecessary than Japan’s. The Swedish situation, on the other hand, is one of real deadlock.

Of all these countries, the one that has the lowest tendency towards early elections is Sweden, even though minority governments are quite common there. Usually, however, they have had a fairly reliable “outside” party to back them on budgets or other confidence matters. Israel has frequent early elections–although this one will be earlier than any in years–and usually has oversized governments (meaning containing more parties than actually needed to have a parliamentary majority–such as the just-collapsed one). Japan usually has electoral-majority governments, but has had many early elections, including the famous one of 2005, also called by a government that had a secure election-based majority, but wanted (and got) a bigger one to push through reforms blocked by intra-party resistance.

All these great examples of early elections in parliamentary systems, and it wasn’t even my teaching quarter for any of my comparative democracy courses.

Sweden’s 2014 election

In Sweden’s general election on 14 September, the bloc of center-left parties headed by the Social Democrats won 43.7% of the vote, with the incumbent center-right parties reduced to a combined 35.3%. The anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats have around 12%, or roughly a doubling of their support from 2010.

Stefan Löfven, the Social Democrat leader, has ruled out cooperation with the Sweden Democrats, as has the outgoing center-right leadership. That means that the statement I have heard and read in various media that the Sweden Democrats “hold the balance of power” is evidently false. In fact, center-right PM Fredrik Reinfeldt has already resigned.

The Guardian reports:

Löfven hinted instead at deals with the two smaller parties in the country’s rightwing alliance, whose combined 11.5% share would bring them close to a majority. “I want to say that the hand is extended to other democratic parties,” he said. “Our country is too small for conflict.”

I do not know enough about Swedish politics to assess this. Maybe someone can help. The two major blocs are often reported as “alliances”, in the sense of signaling in elections their intent to govern together, given a favorable election result. Normally, I’d expect pre-election alliances to imply also going into opposition as a bloc. This sort of election result can change things, but how readily would parties within an alliance in Sweden break and extend support to (or even enter a cabinet of) a government of the other bloc?

A related question is, to what extent (if at all) do the parties within an alliance cooperate in the elections themselves?

A final note, also from the Guardian:

Reinfeldt’s minority government benefited from the tacit support of the far right, whose MPs voted in favour of an overwhelming majority of their measures. But it has always refused any formal cooperation.

Presumably even such tacit cooperation is less an option for Löfven, and appears in any case to be ruled out by his public statements.

And a final final note: Löfven had not previously been elected to public office; this is quite unusual for prime ministers in parliamentary systems, especially long-established ones. In fact, just 21 of 377 (5.6%) of PMs in parliamentary democracies have no prior experience as an elected national or regional MP, or regional or municipal executive, according to the Samuels and Shugart dataset.*

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* Or 24 of 391 (6.1%) have no parliamentary experience. (There are some missing data on some of the other experience variables.) For democracies older than the median parliamentary system in the dataset (18 years), only 6 of 203 (2.96%) PMs lack prior electoral experience.