What does a mainstream party do when the only way to get into power is either by striking a deal with its historic rival or by accepting support from a populist party previously considered beyond the pale due to its past?
This is the dilemma that will probably face Irish politicians and Fianna Fáil in particular after the next election. Do they agree to be the junior partners in a grand coalition with Fine Gael or do they cross their red line and do a deal with Sinn Féin, knowing that this might allow them to gain short-term power, but would change a longstanding norm of Irish democracy.
It is also the dilemma currently facing Sweden’s Moderate Party and Ireland’s two big parties should be watching what happens next. Last week’s general election saw the two centre-right and centre-left blocs finish level on about 40 per cent each. The Alliance, which governed from 2006 to 2014, does not have enough seats to form a majority. And nor does the ruling centre-left coalition, led by the Social Democrats.
There are multiple possible coalition permutations, but ultimately they boil down to two main options for the Moderates if they want to sit again in cabinet.
First, they could form a “grand coalition” with the Social Democrats, their longstanding main opponents, with whom they have never governed before. Or they could form a minority government propped up in parliament by the far-right populists of the Sweden Democrats, who got 18 per cent of the vote – their best election result to date.
Both of the above options are high risk. If the Moderates and Social Democrats governed together, it would reinforce the idea among the public that there is increasingly little difference between the traditional parties. This is a sentiment that has been growing in the last decade across western democracies and has fuelled the rise of populists from Sweden to France to the Netherlands.
On the other hand, if the Moderates accept support from the Sweden Democrats, they would cross a large red line in Swedish politics. Until now, the centre-right and centre-left blocs have agreed that the Sweden Democrats’ neo-fascist past makes them unacceptable partners. If the Moderates do a deal with them now, the argument about the Sweden Democrats’ legitimacy is over for good.
Opposition to any kind of co-operation with the Sweden Democrats came across very strongly in interviews conducted with leading representatives of the four Alliance parties in Stockholm late last year for an Australian Research Council project.
Most of those spoken to said they could not look beyond the Sweden Democrats’ white supremacist background. As one MP put it, even if many Sweden Democrats have swapped shaved heads for sharp suits, “they joined a Nazi party”. Another argued that, since there is no such thing as a free lunch, the Sweden Democrats would want influence on its key issues, namely harsher policies on immigration and protection of the welfare state (for Swedes).
The only dissenting voice was from an MP who said he thought that his party’s exclusion of the Sweden Democrats allowed them to appear as victims of the political elites. His view was that dialogue with the Sweden Democrats might in fact serve to expose their lack of substance while allowing the centre-right to be seen as taking seriously the concerns of the far-right party’s supporters. It would help avoid tarring a significant group of the population as “deplorables”.
These debates are not just happening in Sweden. It is now a pressing dilemma facing mainstream parties in western democracies: how should they react to successful populist challengers? Should they ostracise them, as happens in France and Sweden, or should they do the opposite and govern with them, as they now do in Austria and Norway?
The jury is still out on whether inclusion or exclusion is a better long-term strategy for dealing with populists. Like the Sweden Democrats, Marine Le Pen’s National Front (now Rassemblement National) has risen to record highs despite ostracism. While in Italy, Matteo Salvini’s League is more popular than ever, after multiple times of being “put to the test” in government over the past two decades. And being in office has certainly not moderated the League either.
A leading member of the Sweden Democrats puts it this way: “Whatever the mainstream parties do, we will continue to rise.” By that he meant that, whether the others co-operate with them or not, his party is increasingly setting the political agenda.
He is right. Mainstream parties across Europe find themselves playing on the populists’ ground, especially over the past decade. In the competition of ideas, they are chasing the game, rather than changing it. And, until they redress that, they will increasingly find themselves having to face the Swedish dilemma.
Duncan McDonnell is professor of politics at Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia. His next book, with Annika Werner, International Populism: The Radical Right in the European Parliament, will be published in May 2019