I left off my last post with the argument that one perspective on the December Agreement was that it was a cartel-like effort by Sweden’s established parties to marginalize the right-wing, populist Swedish Democrats. The established parties’ motives are not merely electoral or parliamentary, that is, the December Agreement was not struck merely because the right bloc parties are worried about losing votes or the left bloc parties worried about losing office. Rather, the motive springs from the broad and long-run strategic threat that the Swedish Democrats represents to the established party system.
As I showed previously, the Swedish Democrats anchor a second dimension in Swedish politics, one that run along a nationalism-vs-globalism continuum and that cross-cuts the main economic left-right dimension. What this means in practical terms is that debates on immigration policy and multiculturalism internally divide almost all the established parties, and certainly the two main parties, the Social Democrats and the Moderates. Engaging in debates on these issues is therefore a losing proposition for the established parties, and this provides a strong incentive to collude in marginalizing the Swedish Democrats and suppressing this second issue dimension. Consistent with this longer-run objective is the fact that December Agreement extends beyond the next election and runs until 2022. That’s something I found quite unusual; most coalition or outside support agreements tend to run just one parliamentary term (if that) simply because no party can see beyond the next election.
What are the prospects for success of the long-run effort to side-line the Swedish Democrats. Well, if success is cast not merely in organizational terms, but in terms of returning the party system to a unidimensional structure, then I’d say that the odds of success are low. In the main this is because I see the Swedish Democrats as the consequence not the cause of a national-global issue dimension. Further, I am not sure that Sweden’s established parties appreciate the populist & anti-elite impetus of Swedish Democrats. The effort by the established parties to sideline the Swedish Democrats thus bolsters the narrative under-pinning the Swedish Democrats: the elites don’t want to hear about regular people’s views, the elites are disdainful of and out of touch with the common man, Sweden’s politics is run by the elites for the elites, etc. In effect (and other commentators have pointed this out), the December Agreement recognizes the Swedish Democrats as the “real” political opposition — and they now have the parliamentary presence to play that role.
There’s a Canadian parallel here. One of my colleagues, Richard Johnston, wrote a very good book (Letting the People Decide*) that predicted the collapse of the federal Conservatives at the 1993 election and the breakdown of the old party system. Dick’s central insight was to point out a disjunction between elite and mass opinion over the role of Quebec (and by extension biculturalism) in Canada. The elites were largely of the view that Quebec was a distinct and equal society, but the electorate was quite divided on this issue (on fairly predictable French-English lines). Given that a majority government in Canada requires building a French-English electoral coalition (Diefenbaker & Harper excepted), none of the main parties had an incentive to discuss Quebec’s constitutional status: any votes they gained on one side of the issue, they’d lose on the other. The established party’s silence on the matter did not mean that the issue went away, however; it was there to be exploited by political entrepreneurs, specifically the Reform and the Bloc Quebecois. And we know how that ended up for Progressive Conservatives and subsequently the Liberals.
Sweden’s established parties may get lucky. Populist parties like the Swedish Democrats invariably carry a lot of awkward political baggage; they attract and are vehicles for those on the fringe. Their articulate chief spokesperson, Jimmie Åkesson, is on sick leave, and his deputies are not as political slick / talented / astute.
* Richard Johnston, Henry Brady et. al. 1992. Letting the People Decide: Dynamics of a Canadian Election. McGill-Queen’s.