WHY IS SWEDISH POLITICS SO UNSTABLE?

By Nicholas Aylott


What is happening in Swedish politics? Why is it so turbulent? Parties have been finding it increasingly difficult to construct parliamentary majorities. It took 134 days to form a government after the 2018 election, five times longer than ever before. Recently, for the first time, a Swedish prime minister lost a parliamentary vote of no confidence. His government subsequently resigned.

In this short post, I will try to explain this turmoil. The main explanatory factor is an earlier shock to the party system that still reverberates over a decade later. It has broken established patterns of party co-operation, and new ones have yet to become sufficiently broad or deep. In what follows, I eschew much non-essential detail, including personal names. I offer instead an interpretation that is based on description of recent history and informed by theory about party decision-making.

ELUSIVE MAJORITIES

Sweden has a multi-party system. Although one party, the Social Democrats, has historically dominated government and remains the biggest in the parliament, it is weaker than it once was.

It was in 2010 that the shock occurred. In the election that year, the Sweden Democrats (SD), founded in 1988 and with roots in neo-Nazi groups, became the eighth party with parliamentary representation. SD  is usually considered to be on the far right of the political spectrum. (Of course, SD’s arrival itself had various causes. But here I concentrate on the political effects.)

It is sometimes difficult to convey the anguish that SD’s breakthrough induced across the other parties. The emotional impact was only amplified by events in the next few years, such as the mass political murder in Norway in 2011 and the wave of migration that culminated in 2015. Nevertheless, SD has established itself in electoral and parliamentary politics. The other parties have been struggling to assess and react to its presence. Crucially, they have had to accept that the customary party blocs in Swedish politics, on the left and on the right, have lost too many voters to SD for either to form its own parliamentary majority.

Figure 1, a Venn diagram, places the parties within four different sets. They denote abortive attempts to construct majorities that excluded SD.

A centre-right ex-majority: the Alliance. One set indicates membership of the now defunct Alliance. Its parties won a majority in 2006 and fell only just short in 2010. But no one thinks they could do so now. In the last two elections, they ended up with 41 per cent of the seats in the parliament.

Figure 1. Party alignments in Sweden since 2010

A broad majority: the December agreement. In  2014, all the other parties sought to isolate SD, creating what political scientists call a cordon sanitaire around it. Competition between the signatory parties was to be limited. (The Left Party did not sign, but its compliance was assumed.)

The ”December agreement” proved to be unsustainable, however. Two Alliance parties, under new leaders, soon withdrew. They did not say it openly (indeed, one leader was forced out when she tried), but many in both parties preferred to stay in opposition, with the option of dealing with SD at some stage in the future, rather than prop up a Social Democratic prime minister. After all, SD seemed unlikely to disappear any time soon. It appeared, moreover, to be becoming less radical. In light of those observations, SD’s parliamentary strength – at the time, 14 per cent of the seats in parliament – was beginning to exert a gravitational pull on some other parties. The cordon sanitaire was fraying.

The split in the Alliance became manifest after the 2018 election. Two of its parties now wanted the Alliance to retake power through its reaching an accommodation with SD. But the other two, the Centre and the Liberals, were allergic to that idea.

A left-leaning near-majority: the January agreement. The Centre and the Liberals eventually opted instead to support a Social Democratic prime minister. This ”January agreement” of 2019 involved parties that did not quite control a majority of seats in parliament. So how could they expect the government that they supported to survive?

A presumptive left majority: ”January plus”. The answer lies in their belief that the fourth and final set, labelled ”January plus” in Figure 1, was stable. Put simply, the January parties took for granted the support of the Left Party, which controlled enough mandates to complete their majority. The Left was bound to be unhappy about being explicitly excluded from any influence over government, and about the policies that the Centre and the Liberals forced on the Social Democrats. But how could the Left credibly threaten to retaliate? Would it gang up with the parties of the right? Hardly.

We know now that the Left is indeed prepared to retaliate in this way. It did so a few times in 2019-20, before the pandemic. Government proposals had to be dropped when the Left found common cause with the right, even including SD.

At the same time, the Centre, in particular, has felt compelled to reaffirm the payoffs that it secured in return for breaking the Alliance. Recently, it pushed again, over rent control – and the Left pushed back. This was what escalated into the vote of no confidence in the prime minister, which brought down the government. The Left, under a new leader, has now demonstrated to the January parties that, if it feels ignored, it has both the scope and the will to damage them. The inherent instability of ”January plus”, a constellation in which one party had not actually agreed anything with the others, is obvious.

A MIDDLE WAY?

It seems likely, at the time of writing, that ”January plus” will nevertheless be reconstituted in reduced (indeed, minimal) form and stagger on until the 2022 election – although the autumn budget will be yet another test of the Social Democrats’ powers of arbitration. But when might Swedish politics rediscover a more stable parliamentary majority?

One possible answer is: after the election. Three of the former Alliance parties, now including the Liberals (under a fairly new leader), have concluded that their goals – the classic mix of policy, office and votes – are best pursued through bargaining with SD. No one knows how stable a right-wing majority would be in practice, however. And, anyway, it is unclear whether this quartet can win enough votes to test the arrangement.

Quite possibly, then, the Centre Party will once again find itself in the potentially powerful median position in parliament after the 2022 election. In that case, it would again face the agony of choice. To which possible majority could it contribute?

The Centre’s own often-declared ideal is co-operation that involves the two biggest parties, in the style of the ”grand coalitions” seen in some neighbouring countries, like Germany. In this new version of the December agreement, both SD and the Left would be isolated. Yet it would be extraordinary if the Centre could somehow succeed in its matchmaking. All evidence suggests that the Moderates prefer to work with SD than with the Social Democrats, and the Social Democrats prefer to work with the Left than with the Moderates.

Could the Centre, like its former Alliance partners, find some way to work with SD? That would be difficult.

Those other former Alliance parties found it costly to abandon the cordon sanitaire. When each did so, it broke previous pledges and probably lost some support to the Centre. That, paradoxically, has made it harder for the Centre to follow suit. Its support is currently getting on for a tenth of the electorate. The greater the share of strongly anti-SD voters among those sympathisers, the greater the electoral risks for the Centre in compromising its stance. The reputational and psychological costs of doing so would, arguably, be even greater. Its leaders have invested so much in the Centre’s vehemently anti-SD profile. That leaves one last strategic path along which the Centre could help to build a majority, and that path cleaves to the left. Needless to say, this too would be tricky. The Centre would somehow have to concede some influence to the Left if any such majority were to be stable. That would be unpalatable for some among the Centre’s sympathisers, its members and, above all, its leadership. Perhaps some formula might be found, however, even if it takes yet more time. As we have seen, changing party strategy is sometimes easier when undertaken by a new leader, less encumbered by a predecessor’s commitments.