What a difference a vote makes?

By: Torbjörn Bergman

On 14 September 2014, general elections will be held to the Swedish Riksdag. After the elections, there will be a vote on the Prime Minister (PM). Such votes have been held before, but only when a PM has resigned and a new one has been elected. However, in 1998, when Göran Persson simply continued in power after losing big in the election, and no vote was held, the then Conservative party leader, Carl Bildt, was infuriated and demanded rules that prevented such a outcome (huge electoral losses for the PM, but no Riksdag vote). Such rules were a part of the constitutional reforms that amended the Swedish constitution from 2011.

The mandatory vote is new, but it does not really change the Swedish system of negative parliamentarism. In it, the basic principle is that a government can form and function as long as it tolerated by the Riksdag. This is fundamentally unchanged since 1917 (see Bergman 1995). In keeping with such traditions and norms, the new vote is not about who gets the most votes, rather it is a mandatory confidence vote and an incumbent Prime Minister has to resign only if more than half of (175 or more) all MPs vote against him.

So, does the new vote change anything, in the sense that things would be different if it had not been mandated? Not much, is probably the correct answer, but a few aspects still deserve to be mentioned. For one thing, the parliamentary party groups have to consider how to vote (yes, no or abstain) and because of the way that the vote is constructed, abstaining has the same real effect as voting yes. And this, abstaining, can then easily be interpreted as support!

If the new party Feminist Initiative gets enough votes, there might be 9 parties in the Swedish Riksdag. With nine parties, and if the parties join coalitions only as unitary actors, there are in theory 512 possible outcomes, 512 different governments that could potentially form (if we include the possibility of a non-partisan cabinet, 511 combinations otherwise). With eight parties, the number today, there are 256 hypothetical outcomes.

One of the 2010 potential coalitions, the four government parties in the “Alliance”, have in the period 2010-2014 managed to steer most of their government proposals through the Riksdag. The latest newcomer party in the Riksdag, the Sweden Democrats (SD), is not “coalitionable”, but in parliamentary decision-making, the party actually often agrees with the three (center-left) Red-Green opposition parties. Even slightly more often it agrees with the Alliance government. However, when “push comes to show”, according to figures from the parliamentary research service (RUT), and information which appeared in the media in January 15 2014, when the Sweden Democrats had the chance to decide which side would win, i.e., when they were pivotal, in 9 of 10 cases they voted with the government! In that sense, the government is dependent on the Sweden Democrats (för mer nyanser, se Politologerna)

At the same time, the Government and especially the Prime Minister has often clearly denounced the SD and their views on asylum, immigration and integration policies. By agreeing on a deal with one of the Red-Green parties, the Green Party, the Government has ensured that the SD seems to have been less real influence in this area than could perhaps have been expected. This is in contrast to some local governments, where the SD seems to have had a much more direct impact (Bolin et al 2014).

The Alliance PM, Fredrik Reinfeldt, has indicated that the Alliance will only remain in power if it I remains bigger than the Red-Green party group. Or, rather, that it is “reasonable” that the biggest bloc forms the next government. But what will he do if the Sweden Democrats still can decide who wins majority votes? And what will the Red-Green parties do?

A minority government only including the Social Democrats and the Greens would have to rely on getting both the Left Party and at least one of tre current government parties to support its proposals. The same two parties with the Liberal Party would imply a real change in Swedish politics, and its long standing “two blocs pattern”. But perhaps neither is very likely? In fact, come October, Reinfeldt might still lead a government that is trying to govern, even if the Alliiance has fewer seats than the Red-Green parties.

Noteworthy is that come October, Reinfeldt will actually be able to continue in power unless the SD actively votes against the Alliance government – also if the SD abstain in the vote! Perhaps holding a vote will in this sense not make much difference, but it is somewhat ironic that a vote that has as its “founding father” the former PM Carl Bildt, will serve to demonstrate that the Reinfeldt government is actually quite dependent on the Sweden Democrats.


Torbjörn Bergman is professor of political science at Umeå University and head of the research project Governments in Europe at Södertörn University.

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