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.


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.


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.


Hvordan Norge unngikk en Decemberöverenskommelse – Kontraktsparlamentarisme på norsk

Av: Jo Saglie

Jo Saglie är seniorforskare (Forsker I) vid Institutt for Samfunnsforskning i Oslo där han forskar om politiska partier, kommunalpolitik och urfolkspolitik. I detta inlägg diskuterar Saglie Norges nuvarande regering. Denna består av två högerpartier, vilka har ett explicit kontrakt med två stödpartier i mitten. Ett av de två regeringspartierna är Fremskrittspartiet (Framstegspartiet), ett parti som för något decennium sedan inte ansågs som politiskt rumsrent av de övriga partierna i Stortinget.

I august 2014 diskuterte Torbjörn Bergman og Hanna Bäck svenske regjeringsdannelser på denne bloggen, og spesielt forholdet mellom regjeringspartier og støttepartier. I et par inlegg i juni 2015 analyserte den danske statsviteren Jacob Christensen tilsvarende fenomen i Danmark. Også Norge har en slik situasjon. Norge praktiserer – som Sverige og Danmark – negativ parlamentarisme: det kreves ikke at et flertall i parlamentet støtter regjeringen før den tiltrer. Kontraktsparlamentarismen (Bergman & Aylott 2003; Bale & Bergman 2006), med skriftlige avtaler mellom regjering og deler av opposisjonen, kan imidlertid være et funksjonelt alternativ til et slikt tillitsvotum, og gi regjeringen et sikrere grunnlag.

En forskjell mellom de tre landene er likevel forholdet mellom de tre landenes høyrepopulistiske partier (som for øvrig er ganske ulike) og det politiske etablissementet. I Sverige strever de etablerte partiene med å finne ut hvordan de skal forholde seg til Sverigedemokraterna. I Danmark takket Dansk Folkeparti nei til tilbudet om å bli regjeringsparti. I Norge har derimot Fremskrittspartiet fått plass i regjeringen. Hvordan fungerer dette, og hvordan fungerer kontraktsparlamentarismen i Norge?

Etter stortingsvalget i september 2013 fikk Norge en mindretallsregjering av Høyre og Fremskrittspartiet (FrP), med støtte fra Venstre (som er Norges liberale parti) og Kristelig Folkeparti (KrF). Den sittende rød-grønne flertallskoalisjonen hadde mistet sitt flertall ved valget, og de fire partiene hadde på forhånd lovd at et nytt flertall skulle gi en ny regjering.

Samarbeidsviljen må forstås ut fra situasjonen foran forrige valg, i 2009. Venstre og KrF sa da at de ikke kunne støtte en regjering der FrP var med. FrP, på sin side, ville ikke støtte en sentrum-høyre-regjering hvis de selv ikke fikk bli med i den. Disse uforenlige kravene kunne gitt en svært interessant parlamentarisk situasjon hvis de fire partiene hadde fått flertall. Slik gikk det ikke, men i valgkampen ble det lett for de rød-grønne partiene å angripe det de kalte «kaoset» på borgerlig side.

Dette ville høyresiden unngå i 2013. Personskifter blant partilederne gjorde også et samarbeid enklere. Dermed ble det en ny politisk situasjon i 2013. Fremskrittspartiet hadde lenge hatt ambisjoner om regjeringsmakt, og nå godtok omsider også de andre partiene FrP som en regjeringspartner.

Men hvorfor en topartiregjering – med en avtale med de to andre partiene – og ikke en flertallskoalisjon med fire partier? Høyre ville nok foretrukket en firepartiregjering. I mange spørsmål ligger Høyre mellom FrP og KrF/Venstre, slik at et kompromiss mellom de fire ville ligge nær Høyres primærstandpunkt. For Venstre og KrF ble derimot avstanden til FrP for stor. De ønsket ikke å gå inn i en regjering der tyngdepunktet ville ligge nærmere Høyre/FrP, og der de måtte forsvare en slik regjerings politikk. Som opposisjonspartier, men med en avtale med regjeringen, ville de kunne synliggjøre sin egen politikk. Samtidig ga både avtalen og den parlamentariske situasjonen dem betydelig innflytelse.  Slik fikk Venstre og KrF et bein innenfor og et bein utenfor regjeringen – en situasjon som har klare fordeler.

Regjeringsdannelsen foregikk I to trinn. Først forhandlet de fire partiene om en mulig regjeringsdannelse. Det ble avklart at Høyre og FrP skulle danne regjering, og de fire partier ble enige om en del politiske og prosedyremessige spørsmål i den såkalte Nydalen-avtalen.[1] Deretter forhandlet de to regjeringspartiene fram en mer omfattende regjeringserklæring.

I Nydalen-avtalen beskrives partienes felles verdigrunnlag, og en rekke mer eller mindre konkrete policy-standpunkter som de er blitt enige om. Til slutt følger noen «kjøreregler» for hvordan samarbeidet mellom regjeringen og Venstre/KrF organiseres, gjennom møter og konsultasjoner. De to støttepartiene trekkes likevel ikke direkte inn i regjeringens arbeid. Avtalen er heller ikke særlig forpliktende. Riktignok sier avtalen at «Samarbeidspartiene som er i regjering forplikter seg til, i alle saker som behandles i Stortinget, først å søke løsninger og flertall sammen med Venstre og Kristelig Folkeparti.» Men det slås også fast at «Avtalen er ikke til hinder for at regjeringen eller partiene i Stortinget danner andre flertall, så lenge avtalens intensjon og prosedyrer er fulgt.» Venstre og KrF kan altså gå sammen med den rød-grønne opposisjonen og stemme ned regjeringens forslag i Stortinget, hvis saken ikke dekkes av avtaleteksten, og hvis de i det minste har forsøkt å bli enige med regjeringen.

Avtalen inneholder også et tilllegg om utlendingspolitikken, som er nesten like langt som selve avtalen, og langt mer konkret. Venstre og KrF var opptatt av barnefamilier som kunne bli utvist, selv om de hadde bodd flere år i Norge. De fikk gjennomslag for at barnefaglige hensyn skulle veie tyngre i utlendingsmyndighetenes vurderinger. Til gjengjeld gikk de med på andre innstramninger.

Ikke overraskende ble dette et vanskelig saksfelt for regjeringen. Etter hvert viste det seg at Justisdepartementet – ledet av FrPs Anders Anundsen – ikke hadde iverksatt den avtalte politikkendringen for asylbarn. Den rød-grønne opposisjonen fremmet mistillitsforslag mot Anundsen. Venstre og KrF var enige i kritikken mot Anundsen, men valgte å stemme mot mistillitsforslaget. I stedet ville de forsøke å tvinge ham til å oppfylle avtalen.[2]

For et tidligere protestparti kan overgangen til regjeringsmakt være vanskelig. De fleste av Fremskrittspartiets statsråder har tilpasset seg statsrådsrollen uten problemer. Partiets nestleder Per Sandberg står på sin side utenfor regjeringen, og uttaler seg fritt. Dette kan appellerere til velgere som synes FrP-statsrådene har blitt for moderate, men Sandbergs impulsivitet skaper ofte dårlig stemning i KrF og Venstre – for eksempel da han sa KrF hadde ansvar for at unge mennesker fra Norge sluttet seg til IS for å begå terrorhandlinger.[3]

I 2013 ønsket deler av KrFs høyrefløy å gå inn i regjeringen ­– men det vil de ikke lenger. Det er slett ikke bare forholdet til FrP som gjør samarbeidet vanskelig for KrF. For eksempel ønsker regjeringen å åpne for flere søndagsåpne butikker (et saksfelt som ikke dekkes av avtalen), noe KrF er sterk motstander av.

Den norske kontraktsparlamentarismen fungerer rimelig bra, og bidrar til å stabilisere den parlamentariske situasjonen. I hvert fall er situasjonen mer avklart og stabil enn i Sverige! Det er riktignok betydelige spenninger mellom regjeringen og støttepartiene – men dette skyldes nok de underliggende politiske realitetene, heller enn utformingen av avtalen. Fremskrittspartiet mener at Venstre og KrF har for mye makt i forhold til partienes størrelse. Venstre og KrFs makt springer imidlertid ut av disse partienes medianposisjon i Stortinget, og ville vært der også uten avtalen. Og ingen avtale kan dekke over den betydelige politiske avstanden mellom Venstre/KrF på den ene siden og FrP på den andre – en avstand som gjør at vi kan spørre om «borgerlig» i det hele tatt er et fruktbart begrep, og hva det i så fall betyr.

Nydalen-avtalen gjelder bare fram til valget i 2017, så hva vil skje da? Arbeiderpartiet ser muligheten for at KrF kan skifte side. De to partiene er langt på vei enige om blant annet fordelingspolitikk og skatter. Avstanden mellom dem er likevel stor i spørsmål som familiepolitikk og abort. Fram mot valget i 2017 blir kampen mellom Høyre og Arbeiderpartiet dermed ikke bare en kamp om velgerne, men minst like mye en kamp om KrFs tillit.

Jo Saglie är seniorforskare (Forsker I) vid Institutt for Samfunnsforskning i Oslo där han forskar om politiska partier, kommunalpolitik och urfolkspolitik


Bale, T., og Bergman, T. 2006. “Captives No Longer, but Servants Still? Contract Parliamentarism and the New Minority Governance in Sweden and New Zealand.” Government and Opposition, 41: 449–76.

Bergman, T., og Aylott, N. (2003). ”Parlamentarism per kontrakt – blir den svenska innovationen långlivad?” Riksdagens årsbok 2002/03. Riksdagen: Stockholm.

[1] http://www.krf.no/globalassets/vedlegg/avtaler/samarbeidsavtalen.pdf

[2] http://www.aftenposten.no/nyheter/iriks/politikk/Anundsen-unngikk-mistillit-i-Stortinget-etter-asylbarnsaken-8025333.html

[3] http://www.nrk.no/norge/sandberg-beklager-bare-delvis-sine-uttalelser-1.12219143

What a difference a vote makes?

By: Torbjörn Bergman

On 14 September 2014, general elections will be held to the Swedish Riksdag. After the elections, there will be a vote on the Prime Minister (PM). Such votes have been held before, but only when a PM has resigned and a new one has been elected. However, in 1998, when Göran Persson simply continued in power after losing big in the election, and no vote was held, the then Conservative party leader, Carl Bildt, was infuriated and demanded rules that prevented such a outcome (huge electoral losses for the PM, but no Riksdag vote). Such rules were a part of the constitutional reforms that amended the Swedish constitution from 2011.

The mandatory vote is new, but it does not really change the Swedish system of negative parliamentarism. In it, the basic principle is that a government can form and function as long as it tolerated by the Riksdag. This is fundamentally unchanged since 1917 (see Bergman 1995). In keeping with such traditions and norms, the new vote is not about who gets the most votes, rather it is a mandatory confidence vote and an incumbent Prime Minister has to resign only if more than half of (175 or more) all MPs vote against him.

So, does the new vote change anything, in the sense that things would be different if it had not been mandated? Not much, is probably the correct answer, but a few aspects still deserve to be mentioned. For one thing, the parliamentary party groups have to consider how to vote (yes, no or abstain) and because of the way that the vote is constructed, abstaining has the same real effect as voting yes. And this, abstaining, can then easily be interpreted as support!

If the new party Feminist Initiative gets enough votes, there might be 9 parties in the Swedish Riksdag. With nine parties, and if the parties join coalitions only as unitary actors, there are in theory 512 possible outcomes, 512 different governments that could potentially form (if we include the possibility of a non-partisan cabinet, 511 combinations otherwise). With eight parties, the number today, there are 256 hypothetical outcomes.

One of the 2010 potential coalitions, the four government parties in the “Alliance”, have in the period 2010-2014 managed to steer most of their government proposals through the Riksdag. The latest newcomer party in the Riksdag, the Sweden Democrats (SD), is not “coalitionable”, but in parliamentary decision-making, the party actually often agrees with the three (center-left) Red-Green opposition parties. Even slightly more often it agrees with the Alliance government. However, when “push comes to show”, according to figures from the parliamentary research service (RUT), and information which appeared in the media in January 15 2014, when the Sweden Democrats had the chance to decide which side would win, i.e., when they were pivotal, in 9 of 10 cases they voted with the government! In that sense, the government is dependent on the Sweden Democrats (för mer nyanser, se Politologerna)

At the same time, the Government and especially the Prime Minister has often clearly denounced the SD and their views on asylum, immigration and integration policies. By agreeing on a deal with one of the Red-Green parties, the Green Party, the Government has ensured that the SD seems to have been less real influence in this area than could perhaps have been expected. This is in contrast to some local governments, where the SD seems to have had a much more direct impact (Bolin et al 2014).

The Alliance PM, Fredrik Reinfeldt, has indicated that the Alliance will only remain in power if it I remains bigger than the Red-Green party group. Or, rather, that it is “reasonable” that the biggest bloc forms the next government. But what will he do if the Sweden Democrats still can decide who wins majority votes? And what will the Red-Green parties do?

A minority government only including the Social Democrats and the Greens would have to rely on getting both the Left Party and at least one of tre current government parties to support its proposals. The same two parties with the Liberal Party would imply a real change in Swedish politics, and its long standing “two blocs pattern”. But perhaps neither is very likely? In fact, come October, Reinfeldt might still lead a government that is trying to govern, even if the Alliiance has fewer seats than the Red-Green parties.

Noteworthy is that come October, Reinfeldt will actually be able to continue in power unless the SD actively votes against the Alliance government – also if the SD abstain in the vote! Perhaps holding a vote will in this sense not make much difference, but it is somewhat ironic that a vote that has as its “founding father” the former PM Carl Bildt, will serve to demonstrate that the Reinfeldt government is actually quite dependent on the Sweden Democrats.

Torbjörn Bergman is professor of political science at Umeå University and head of the research project Governments in Europe at Södertörn University.