The biggest story of Sweden's election is a familiar one: Political fragmentation


Sweden’s general election on Sunday was not the colossal victory for Sweden Democrats, a political party with neo-Nazi origins, that many had feared. Indeed, though the far-right party did gain a considerable amount of votes, it failed to live up to its surge in the last election in 2014, and it remained in third place.

But the Swedish election wasn’t quite business as usual, either. Instead, it told a more subtle but increasingly familiar tale now seen across a variety of European parliamentary systems and perhaps further afield, too — that of increasing political fragmentation and the slow decline of dominant political parties.

In particular, the governing Social Democratic Party seems to have had its worst electoral performance in a century. The center-left party had long dominated Swedish political life, leading coalition governments for the vast majority of the 20th century and the early 21st.

The Social Democrats are still the largest party, but they do not have the commanding lead of 20 years ago, and it is unclear right now whether they can form a government. Thankfully for them, their most important rival — the center-right Moderate Party — also had a relatively poor showing, losing 3.5 percent of its 2014 vote despite considerable problems faced by the governing coalition.

This isn’t necessarily a dramatic change. Sweden’s own form of parliamentary democracy — which uses proportional representation to distribute seats in the country’s parliament, the Riksdag, according to the proportion of votes they received — ensures some level of political fragmentation. Both the Social Democratic Party and the Moderate Party have always had to rely on the support of smaller allied parties to form working government coalitions; some would certainly argue that Sweden’s diverse political landscape is a feature, rather than a bug.

However, at present the ruling center-left bloc has only 144 seats in parliament to the center-right’s 143. More than 175 seats are needed for a majority. Sweden now looks set for some complicated talks about which side can form a workable goverment. In theory, this might mean that the Sweden Democrats could become a kingmaker, although both blocs have said they would refuse to work with the far-right party.

The growth of the Sweden Democrats in recent elections is certainly one reason for the decline of the dominant political parties and their respective blocs. But it isn’t just about them. As Sarah de Lange, a professor of political science and an expert in populism at the University of Amsterdam, put it succinctly on Twitter: “The bigger parties are getting smaller and the smaller parties getting bigger.”

If this all sounds familiar, you may be remembering last year’s Dutch election. Back then, there was widespread concern about Geert Wilders and his anti-immigrant Party for Freedom (PVV). In the end, however, although Wilders’s party came in second in the vote, many other smaller parties made considerable gains. The incumbent center-right prime minister, Mark Rutte, was still able to form a government without Wilders.

The political fragmentation in the Dutch election was more obvious than in the Swedish election: 28 parties were on the ballot in the Netherlands, and there was a notable battle for second place, with three different parties receiving around 12 to 13 percent of the total vote.

The Dutch situation also shows some of the problems that political fragmentation can create. With coalition governments requiring more parties to form a majority, they can become both more unstable and more difficult to form in the first place: It took Rutte more than 200 days to form a Dutch government last year. Some critics say that these situations also compel mainstream parties to pander toward the fringes — a criticism that certainly has emerged about Rutte.

This sort of political fragmentation is most obvious in parliaments that use proportional representation such as Sweden and the Netherlands. However, it may be apparent in other countries, too, albeit masked by voting systems that encourage two party systems. The rifts in right-wing and left-wing parties in countries that use first-past-the-post voting, such as Britain or presidential systems as in the United States and France, may be a symptom of the same fragmentation.

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