While Sweden’s Moderate Party basks in the glow of record high support, the struggle by its junior partners for recognition and a unique identity could ultimately spell the end of the four-party centre-right Alliance, contributor Naomi Powell explains.
Ministry posts, electoral victory and above all the power to govern – even if it must be shared. For the political parties in Sweden’s ruling Alliance, the advantages of coalition government are clear.
But as the Alliance moves into an historic second term, analysts say its junior parties - the Christian Democrats, the Liberal Party (Folkpartiet
) and the Centre Party
- must carefully weigh the benefits of cooperation against the costs of living in the growing shadow of prime minister Frederik Reinfeldt’s Moderates.
“Voters ask what do the Christian Democrats stand for today? What does the Centre stand for today?” said Jenny Madestam, a lecturer in Stockholm University’s political science department.
“These are good examples of parties with an identity crisis. The Centre party and the Christian Democrats have during the last four years been selling out their souls for this cooperation. ”
A price may already have been paid, observers say. All three junior Alliance partners lost ground in the last election as support for the Moderate party continued to swell. The Centre party lost six of 29 seats in the Riksdag while the Liberals lost four of 28 seats.
And the Christian Democrats saw five of 24 seats slip away as their share of the popular vote sank to 5.6 per cent, cutting dangerously close to the 4 per cent threshold necessary to enter parliament.
Compare those performances to the Moderate Party’s gain of 10 seats in the Riksdag and an additional 3.83 per cent per cent of the popular vote – enough to bring it tantalizingly close to claiming the title of Sweden’s largest party from the Social Democrats.
For the Christian Democrats, who have faced sinking results in three consecutive elections, the matter of party profile has become “very urgent,” said party press chief Martin Kit.
“We contribute very much to the politics of the Alliance but our share isn’t always visible enough,” he said.
“Everyone is quite aware that we have to do better. We can’t rely on anyone else giving us the credit.”
Claiming a share of the spotlight without unsettling the carefully crafted stability of the coalition will be no easy task, analysts say. Much of the Alliance’s electoral success was due to Reinfeldt’s ability to keep it on a steady track through its first term, said Svend Dahl, a lecturer in political science at Gothenburg University.
The ruling parties have proven willing to compromise and though they may disagree behind closed doors, rarely do ministers present anything other than a united front to the public.
Given previous differences among the individual Alliance parties, this is “quite an achievement,” he said.
“One of the main reasons the Social Democrats were able to dominate was the lack of cohesion among the centre-right parties. They typically spent elections attacking each other.”
But the compromises that have kept the Alliance running smoothly may also be damaging the junior parties’ ability to distinguish themselves to voters, analysts say. With few debates among the parties or outward rifts among members, the lines between them naturally fade. The largest party becomes the coalition’s public face and support for the junior members begins to slip.
Stefan Dahlberg, a lecturer in political science at Gothenburg University, points to the Centre Party’s compromise on nuclear power as a key sacrifice that blurred the ideological divisions between the Alliance partners. An outspoken opponent of nuclear power in the 1970s, the Centre Party agreed with its Alliance partners last year to revoke a ban on new nuclear power plants. The step was viewed as a major concession.
“That really was the only issue unique to them,” said Dahlberg. “Now its policies all resemble the Moderates’. That’s problematic and it’s something they did to be part of this Alliance.”
The Christian Democrats have likewise been less vocal on the issues that once defined them – namely gay marriage and family life, said Madestam.
Michael Arthursson, newly appointed Centre party secretary, questioned the impact of the nuclear power decision on voters. However, those within the Centre party who disagreed with the decision may have spoken less on the party’s behalf during the election, he said.
Though the Centre party needs to strengthen its message, it need not wither behind its senior partner, Arthursson added. Certainly not all junior parties in coalitions fade while the senior partner thrives. Between 1976 and 1982, for instance, the Moderates grew in size while serving as a junior partner in a coalition with the senior Centre Party.
“They talked about their ideas and what they wanted to do,” Arthursson said. “There are ways of doing this. You don’t have to get smaller just because you are small in the beginning.”
One of the spoils of coalition participation – a cabinet post – can be used to raise the profile of a party. In the right hands, the position can establish a smaller party as a leader and a key player in government policy decisions.
“It depends how you play your cards,” said Jonas Hinnfors, professor of political science at University of Gothenburg.
“You need to be passionate, strategic and attract media attention.”
But not all posts are equal. Studies show that smaller coalition parties without a prominent cabinet post are more likely to suffer at the ballot box.
“What we know going all the way back to WWII is that the one way it costs to be in a coalition is in terms of electoral performance,” said Kaare Strom, a professor at the University of California, San Diego who specializes in coalition politics.
“The smaller you are and particularly if you don’t have a prominent minister to represent you, like a Prime Minister or Finance Minister, you tend to do particularly poorly.”
As the Minister for Local Government Financial Markets, Mats Odell
played a key role in steering the Swedish economy through the economic downturn, said the Christian Democrats’ Kit. Yet the accolades went to the Moderate Party and in particular, Finance Minister Anders Borg
“Anders Borg did a very good job, but we also contributed in a big way and I think very few people were aware of that,” said Kit.
Centre Party leader Maude Olofsson’s efforts during the auto crisis as Minister of Enterprise and Energy were also largely overshadowed, analysts say.
“It’s a difficult discussion,” said Per Henriksson, Communications Director, Moderate Party.
“I don’t think we can sit in Stockholm and decide the Moderates should target a particular group of voters and the Christian Democrats should target another.”
Over its next term, the coalition will attempt to make it easier for the junior parties to speak for the Alliance as a whole, he added. At the moment, all parties are reviewing their election results and developing their own platforms. They will then reconvene in the new year to form a central coalition platform.
“All parties need to develop policies and find out what the voters are looking for,” said Henriksson.
“That’s what we’ve been doing in the Moderate Party since Reinfeldt became leader in 2003. The other parties they have done it, but I think they need to do it more.”
With the Moderates firmly in control of the Prime Minister’s office as well as the high profile ministries of finance, defence, justice, and foreign affairs, the opportunities for the junior parties to step out into the spotlight this term could be few and far between, analysts say.
And the flipside of building a niche in a single area – as the Liberal Party has done with education – is “seeming like a single issue party,” said Dahlberg.
“It is problematic,” he said. “At some point they have to ask, what is best: to be a small government party or a bigger party in opposition?”
But the price of breaking rank with a coalition can be dear and when a ruling block splits, it often guarantees victory for the opposition. Indeed, getting out of a coalition can be tough.
“If they leave, they might risk losing voters who are upset that they threatened the Alliance and may have made room for the Social Democrats in the next election,” said Hinnfors.
The spectre of the four per cent threshold makes the issue is even more complicated for the Christian Democrats. In 2006, the party benefitted more than any other from “tactical votes” cast by individuals who would not have supported it if it were in the Alliance, said Dahlberg. Studies show the party would not have made the crucial threshold without these votes, he added.
Still no coalition lasts forever.
“During the second term, the question of identity for small coalition parties will be essential,” said Dahl.
“During the last election, the opposition parties were united by a desire to be elected. That made it possible to accept compromise. Now that that has been achieved, there is potential that the tensions within the coalition will arise again.”