Opinion

Political Fragmentation Isn’t the Problem

Political stability is not an end in itself. It are the outcomes that matter.

Swedish parliament Stockholm
Parliament House in Stockholm, Sweden (iStock/Roland Lundgren)

Another political crisis in Europe, another chance to beat on multiparty democracy.

It’s not like the two-party systems of America and Britain are crisis-free, yet journalists in those countries have a tendency to find complex causes for their own political problems while reducing continental Europe’s to “fragmentation”.

Today’s example: Bloomberg, which argues the “turmoil” in Sweden “reflects a shifting political landscape” and this is a “warning to other countries with key elections looming — like Germany and France — where fractured politics have also upended old alliances.”

Framing

It’s not that Bloomberg has its facts wrong. The rise of the far right has changed the political landscape in Sweden, as Johan Wahlström and I discussed here in 2018. Old alliances, and old parties, have been upended in Germany and France.

But the agency’s framing reflects a bias.

Sweden is a multiparty democracy, but until 2014 the mainstream parties sorted into left- and right-wing blocs which alternated in power. That year, the far-right Sweden Democrats won enough seats in the Riksdag to deny either side a majority. The Social Democrats, the largest party, have since led minority governments with the Greens and with parliamentary support from two of the four center-right parties.

The government lost its majority last month, when the far left came out against a proposal to relax rent controls, which the Social Democrats had made in a concession to the center-right. The far left sided with the right-wing opposition on a motion of no-confidence in the government, forcing Prime Minister Stefan Löfven to resign. He convinced the Center Party on Wednesday to give him another chance, forestalling the need for early elections.

You can call this “turmoil”, or you can call it democracy in action. Swedish politics may have been more “stable” in the past, but that didn’t prevent the housing crisis that bedevils Löfven.

Real crisis

As I wrote here on Saturday, Sweden’s housing crisis has been decades in the making. Since a center-right government withdrew subsidies from municipal housing associations in the 1990s, policy hasn’t changed for renters.

Rents aren’t set by the market but negotiated every year between landlords and tenants’ associations. Rents must match those of comparable apartments nationwide, so landlords can’t ask a premium for an apartment in downtown Gothenburg or Stockholm. Deposits are illegal. Tenants can renew their contracts indefinitely. This all has kept rents so low that developers can barely make a profit on building rental homes anymore, so they don’t.

Half a million Swedes, on a population of ten million, are on a waiting list for a rental apartment. The average waiting time in major cities is sixteen years!

That’s the real crisis.

Messy

I don’t blame the far left for trying to leverage their position to prevent liberalization (although I think they’re wrong). Nor do I blame the center-right for eying pragmatic cooperation with the far right. If they can find common ground, why not?

This can be messy, but democracy isn’t supposed to be tidy. Parties represent different interests — in the case of the Swedish housing market: homeowners, developers, renters and buyers — and different ideas. Sometimes those interests and ideas change, and “old alliances” need to be broken up.

Take Germany, where presumably the “old alliance” Bloomberg is referring to is the grand coalition of Christian Democrats and Social Democrats that has been in power since 2013. It has been stable, but it has also left major issues unaddressed: everything from digitalization to Germany’s place in Europe and the world. Voters long for change.

The most likely outcome of the federal election in September is an unprecedented coalition of Christian Democrats and Greens. Sweden’s confidence-and-supply agreements between the center-left and part of the center-right aren’t a “warning”. They’re a template. If the next German government balances Christian democratic incrementalism with Green renewal, that could be a good thing for the country — and the EU.

When democracies appear to be orderly, that’s usually a sign that something is rotten. Consider race relations in pre-1960s America. Or the British postwar consensus, which overregulated and overtaxed the economy to the point of bankruptcy.

Compromise

Many of the Swedes waiting years for a rental apartment will be center-left voters. Right-wing parties represent more homeowners. In a two-party system, one side could have imposed its will on the other. Indeed, that’s what happened in the past, when the left was dominant and imposed a policy it thought would benefit renters.

Multiparty democracies are more likely to produce compromises the broad middle of the electorate can live with. Multiparty democracies are among the politically most stable, economically freest, most competitive and least corrupt in the world. It’s hard to believe so many countries manage to do well in spite of their political systems. Perhaps there is something to be said for giving voters more than two options to choose from?

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