No confidence vote succeeds against Swedish government

The government of Prime Minister Stefan Lofven was ousted in a no confidence vote with 181 votes against it in the 349-seat Swedish parliament, the Riksdag, on 21 June. The prime minister has a week to decide whether to go to a snap election or resign to allow the speaker of parliament to facilitate the negotiation of a new government. According to Reuters, this makes Lofven “the first Swedish prime minister to be ousted by a no-confidence motion put forward by the opposition.” If there is a snap election, it would be the first since 1958.

The government is a minority government of the Social Democrats and Greens, with a policy-based agreement to allow it to govern signed with the Centre and Liberal parties. It also has had tacit support from the Left Party, but the agreement with the two center-right parties calls for the Left to have no policy influence. This is where things got delicate, as a policy of easing rent controls prompted the Left to vote against the government. Reuters notes:

“Rental reform is part of a platform agreed between the government and the Centre and Liberal parties and is not a policy the Social Democratic party is keen on.”

The Left leader, Nooshi Dadgostar, says that, despite voting with the right against the government, it would never help “a right-wing nationalist government” take power. The mention of “nationalist” refers to the Sweden Democrats, the third largest party, whose gains in the 2018 election greatly complicated building governments and parliamentary support. See the comment thread on the 2018 election for an interesting discussion of Sweden’s fraying ideological blocs and the challenges of building cross-bloc support. It was the Sweden Democrats who proposed the no-confidence motion.

An election would not otherwise be due till September, 2022, and recent opinion polls do not suggest that an early election held in the very near future would produce a result much different from that of 2018. So maybe the parties in the current government, its support parties, and the Left will somehow come to an agreement to reconstitute an arrangement, minus the specific policy measure that ruptured parliament’s fragile tolerance for this government.

Sweden, 2018

Sweden’s general election was today, and it seems it will be a close result. The anti-immigration Sweden Democrats were polling in second place, but the polls aggregated at the Wikipedia page on the election suggest their support was falling sharply in the last phase before the election.

I do not know Swedish politics well enough to tease out the likely coalition or support arrangements that might result. But I open this thread as a place for those who are following the results.

Besides, we learned in 2014 that Swedish inter-party bargaining can be a little unpredictable.

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.