IN MOST DEMOCRACIES, one side needs at least a plurality of the votes to form a government. Not so in Sweden, a polite country with a system of “negative parliamentarianism”: a candidate can become prime minister so long as an absolute majority of the Riksdag, the country’s parliament, does not explicitly object. The result can resemble a family that keeps ordering the same unloved pizza because it cannot agree on anything else. On January 18th, 153 MPs voted against a second term for Stefan Lofven (pictured, right), the Social Democrat who has served as prime minister since 2014. Just 115 backed him, but 77 abstained, meaning Mr Lofven will continue nonetheless.
Sweden is one of a long list of countries driven to the brink of paralysis by the rise of populism. It had gone four months without a government after the far-right Sweden Democrats (SD) took 17.5% of the vote in an election on September 9th. Other parties shun the SD due to the party’s roots in the neo-Nazi movement in the early 1990s. With the rest of the seats in parliament split almost evenly between the left and the right, neither Mr Lofven nor his chief counterpart, Ulf Kristersson of the centre-right Moderates, were able to form a coalition.
Mr Lofven’s formula for holding power involved splitting the four-party conservative coalition, known as the Alliance, which governed Sweden from 2006-14. After long negotiations, he reached an agreement with the centre-right Centre and Liberal parties. They agreed to abstain, though they will not join the government. That leaves the Moderates and the smaller Christian Democrats grumbling in opposition.
The governing agreement between the left and the centre-right is a novelty for Sweden, which has no recent tradition of centrist grand coalitions, unlike other European countries such as Germany. It also carries risks for Mr Lofven. The 73-point policy agreement he struck with the Centre Party and the Liberals includes measures such as cutting taxes, scrapping rent controls on new housing and allowing weaker employment protections for immigrants, in order to induce businesses to hire them. This initially prompted the socialist Left party to say it might block Mr Lofven’s bid for a second term. It eventually decided to abstain, but warned that it will vote to bring down the government if the moves to loosen rent control or job guarantees go ahead.
The Social Democrats’ coalition partner, the Green party, barely cleared the 4% threshold to get into parliament in the election. Some of its members are also bitter over Mr Lofven’s moves towards the centre. The Moderates and Christian Democrats, meanwhile, accuse the Centre Party and the Liberals of betraying their electoral promises by acceding to a leftist government. Mr Lofven’s minority government is wobbly, and his second term may prove short. The Moderates may find their pledge never to co-operate with the Sweden Democrats ever harder to keep.