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.

Annons

Why did Sweden’s new government call an extraordinary election?

This is a special blog post that summarises and analyses the unusual events that have transpired in Swedish politics over the last weeks.

By: Nicholas Aylott

Something sensational happened in Swedish politics this month. The prime minister, Stefan Löfven, in office for just a couple of months, opted to call a snap election for March 22nd next year. This is the first unscheduled election in Sweden for over a half a century (and the first to be held in spring for over a century). Isn’t Sweden supposed to be the country of rational discussion and compromise solutions? How can a new election have been called just ten weeks after the previous one?

In this post, I will try to answer those questions. Partly for the benefit of readers who are not well-versed in Swedish party politics, but also to try to illuminate the really central issues and interactions, I will present a parsimonious description of what happened. (Needless to say, political scientists will soon be digging for less publicly observable evidence than that to which I refer.)

In addition, I will discuss the preference orders that the key actors might have had at different stages. The discussion is inspired by the academic literature on party goals, but takes more account of process and case-specific conditions than does, for example, the excellent recent post by Hellström, Bäck and Walther (2014). It might be called an analytic narrative (Bates et al 1998), or at least the basis of one. My interpretation of the situation is essentially the following. All the actors would have preferred to avoid a new election. However, due to a conflict between their long-term goals in relation to the shape of the Swedish party system, the new election nevertheless became a sort of equilibrium outcome.

Background

Eight parties are represented in the Swedish parliament. The three most important actors in this drama are the Social Democrats, the Alliance and the Sweden Democrats.

The Social Democrats. For many years, they were Sweden’s dominant party and usually in government. Their vote has declined since the late 1990s, but they got back into office after the election last September. They did so in coalition with the Greens, who, by contrast, were making their debut in government. Löfven, the Social Democratic leader, became prime minister.

However, the coalition was well short of commanding a parliamentary majority. Between them, the Social Democrats and the Greens had just 39 per cent of the seats in parliament. This meant that they were always going to need agreements with opposition parties to get their preferred policies – above all, their budget – into law. The new government quickly agreed on a budget package with the Left Party, but that was still not enough for a majority. They three parties’ seats amounted to only 45 per cent of the total.

The Alliance. This is a collection of four centre-right parties. Together, they were in government from 2006 until the election last September, in which they won 41 per cent of the seats in parliament. That was less than the combined total of the Social Democrats, the Greens and the Left Party, which is why the Alliance government made way för Löfven’s administration.

(Of course, it would, in many ways, be more salient to analyse the behaviour of each of the four Alliance parties, rather than treating it as single actor. However, for the sake of simplicity, I do this here only to a very limited degree.)

The Sweden Democrats (SD). This party won 14 per cent of the seats in September, a historic advance. Although SD is much more moderate than it used to be, it is entirely isolated by all the others in parliament. Partly this is because SD is the only party that opposes Sweden’s (relatively speaking) generous immigration and asylum policy. On top of that, unequivocal racists are frequently revealed among its members. In the literature, such ostracism of a party is often referred to as a ”cordon sanitaire” . 

The budget

This was the issue that brought down the government.

As we saw, Löfven’s minority coalition was clearly living precariously. Its life was made more difficult by a pledge by the Alliance, made during the election campaign (Reinfeldt et al 2014), to submit to parliament and vote for its own budget, irrespective of whether it won or lost at the polls. Still, as we saw, Löfven’s new government, with the Left Party onside, had more parliamentary seats than the Alliance did. Normally, that should have been enough for it to get its budget through.

SD threatened to throw a huge spanner in these works. Its own budget package was obviously going nowhere, because no other party would back it. If it had followed Swedish parliamentary convention (Davidsson 2014), SD would then have abstained in subsequent votes on other parties’ packages. But the party threatened to break this convention, and vote for the Alliance’s budget – which would give that package a parliamentary majority.

How they might have reasoned

Tension mounted as the budget votes approached. How might the parties have assessed their alternatives?

Social Democrats. On paper, Löfven had several options if he lost the vote. Governing according to an opposition budget was one. In practice, though, that would have been intolerable for any prime minister. Why bother to take responsibility without power? Before the vote, Löfven ruled out this scenario (Dagens Nyheter 2 December 2014).

More realistically, he could have tendered his government’s resignation. The speaker of parliament would then have tried to find an alternative prime minister. In the absence of any other serious contenders, he would surely have gone back to Löfven – who could then have formed a new government, perhaps without the Greens. For sure, this would have been a government resting on an even smaller share of the seats in parliament. But, minus the Greens, whose first weeks in government had been difficult, deals might more easily be reached with the Alliance parties. Various media commentators were keen on this scenario.

Löfven also had the power to call a new election (with certain constraints in timing), but there were various reasons why few expected him to do so. For a start, there was little to suggest that it would change much in the distribution of parliamentary seats. If it did, it might well not be to the prime minister’s advantage. The Social Democrats, the Greens and Left Party had each ended up with a rather disappointing result in September, and each might just as easily do worse rather than better in any new poll. SD might increase its vote still further. Then there were the costs involved in a new campaign, both financial and psychological.

Naturally, then, Löfven’s preferred option was not to lose the vote. But how? Simple: he wanted to do deals with Alliance parties. If at least a couple of them would agree to wave his budget through (obviously in return for policy concessions), he would be in the clear. And if agreement was made with just two (or three) of them, the Alliance, as a glorious bonus for Löfven, would have been split.

SD. The party’s main goal is to change Sweden’s immigration policy. There are two broad ways in which it might hope to achieve that.

One way might be to persuade the Alliance to reach an understanding with SD. To that end, abiding by parliamentary convention and abstaining in the decisive budget vote (albeit after making the government sweat for a while) might have been a good idea. It could have been a step towards establishing SD as a more normal party, open to co-operation with others. If the party leader had been in charge of the party’s decisions, it is possible that SD would have taken precisely that conciliatory step.

But the party leader was not in charge. Soon after the September election, he had succumbed to stress and exhaustion and had gone on sick leave. If the stand-in leader had any ambitions to take over long-term, which he almost certainly did, then it would have made sense for him to follow the immediate preferences of the party’s members and supporters. They apparently wanted the government’s budget blocked (Sydsvenskan 19 November 2014).

True, a new election would be risky for SD, too. The party might not be thanked by the voters for provoking it. Its absent leader was generally considered one of its main electoral assets. Still, SD, like everyone else, probably assumed that things would not go so far. If SD could force Löfven to resign and form a new government, that would be a big prize for the party none the less – especially if that forced its bête noir, the Greens, out of office. Alternatively, if SD could force the Alliance to back down and save the government, it could then pose as the only genuine opposition – a thoroughly comfortable position for a party of its type.

Alliance. Various observers expected that if SD did not back down, the Alliance would find some pretext for making sure that its own budget did not actually win in the parliamentary vote.

There seemed little obvious reason why the Alliance should bring down the government at that point. With the prevailing distribution of parliamentary forces, a quick return to office would have left it even more vulnerable to parliamentary blackmail than Löfven’s government was. Anyway, there were, potentially, long-term electoral gains for the Alliance in allowing a Social Democratic prime minister to flounder, as his travails gnawed at possibly his party’s greatest historic asset – its public reputation for steady, competent government.

Moreover, the biggest Alliance party was in the middle of choosing a new leader. The smallest one, meanwhile, has fallen closer and closer to losing all its parliamentary seats in each recent election. A new election would present another demanding test of its ability to keep them. In a tight election, failure would very probably spell defeat for the whole Alliance.

What actually happened

Among the many events in this episode, there were perhaps four especially important ones.

  • The weekend before December 3rd, when the budget vote was due, the government began to hint that it would put it off. A Social Democratic minister sounded confident that the government’s package could be sent back to the parliamentary finance committee for further discussion (Dagens Nyheter 30 November 2015). Löfven said much the same (Dagens Nyheter 2 December 2015).

This amounted to an invitation to SD to make good its threat to vote for the Alliance budget, or at least to say that it would if the vote was held. SD would gain little by blinking at that point if the other players were playing for time. However, this could also have been the occasion for the Alliance, having seen the government squirm quite a bit, to find that pretext for allowing Löfven to scrape his budget through.

  • The day before the vote, SD duly pledged to vote for the Alliance budget. (Indeed, the stand-in leader belligerently declared his intention to vote against any government’s budget if it did not contain cuts in spending on immigration policies (and any government that gave the Greens influence over immigration).
  • On the morning of the vote, the government let it be known that it would not after all send its budget bill back to committee. This suggested that the government was consciously marching towards defeat in the vote. That proved to be the case a few hours later.
  • Most observers were still expecting Löfven then to tender his government’s resignation. But he did not. He announced the new election.

Analysis

Just because all the players in a certain situation share a preference for avoiding something, they may nevertheless fail to avoid it. Basic game theory tells us that. Partly with reference to information and claims that have subsequently come to light, I can venture some possible explanations as to why things turned out as they did.

SD‘s decisions are easiest to understand. A party with the wind in its sails, and an ambitious caretaker at the helm, was given no incentive by the other parties to back down at any stage.

As for the Social Democrats, commentators expected Löfven to resign and take the chance to ditch the Greens from his government. The Greens had indeed been unhelpful coalition partners. But this expectation paid too little attention to parliamentary arithmetic.

Dumping the Greens so quickly would have humiliated them and poisoned their relations with the Social Democrats. Without the Greens’ support, the backing of all three smaller Alliance parties was not enough for a parliamentary majority. Löfven would have had to do deals with either the biggest Alliance party or, more likely, all four Alliance parties – which, of course, had far more seats than the Social Democrats alone. Far from splitting the Alliance, then, alienating the Greens might well have cemented it.

The Alliance‘s reasoning is hardest to discern. There are several ways of thinking about its actions.

1. Some say that the Alliance was retaliating for the Social Democrats’ obstruction of the Alliance government’s budget a year earlier and, more recently, Löfven’s leftward turn after taking office. In my view, this is unconvincing. Actually, by promising to submit its own budget come what may, the Alliance had given Löfven little option but to secure the Left Party’s support for his government’s own budget, which inevitably involved making concessions to that party.

2. Some observers see a long-term project to damage the Social Democrats’ reputation as a safe pair of governing hands, which they were determined to pursue at any price. Again, this is only partially persuasive. The shorter-term risks for the Alliance in inducing a new election were too great to make such a destructive strategy, on its own, a satisfying explanation of what occurred.

3. It is possible that the Alliance miscalculated. It wanted to make the government look incapable and chaotic, but pushed its strategy a bit too far.

Löfven said later that the night before the budget vote, and after SD had announced its voting intentions, he had offered the Alliance parties a pretty much unconditional renegotiation of the government’s budget. Their blank rejection was what had persuaded the government that there was no point in delaying the vote.

The Alliance must have expected that. It may also have expected Löfven then to resign as prime minister and to try to reform a government. At that point the Alliance, having fulfilled its pledge to vote for its own budget, might have planned finally to parley with Löfven. By calling the election, he called the Alliance’s bluff.

Once more, however, this cannot be the whole story. At the very least, the Alliance must have known that there was a reasonable risk that, pushed so far into a corner, Löfven might call an election.

4. What is lacking in the previous interpretations, and in most accounts of the Alliance’s behaviour, was its longer-term strategy. What was its plan for dealing with a parliamentary situation in which neither it nor the left-of-centre trio has a majority – a scenario that looks all too likely for the foreseeable future?

Most observers (including me) could previously see two ways of dealing with this fact. Either the Alliance could hold its nose and reach an understanding with SD – a development that, to put it very mildly, would involve huge political risks. Or the parties of the right and left would have to do deals with each other, perhaps even in some sort of German-style grand coalition, and sideline SD that way.

The Alliance, it now seems, sees a third way forward. Instead of broad cross-bloc coalitions, it wants to tweak the rules of the parliamentary game (for things like the selection of a prime minister and passing a budget) so that the biggest of the potential government constellations can govern in a more or less stable fashion, even if it lacks a majority. The four Alliance leaders made that clear in a newspaper article a week after the election was called (Kinberg Batra et al 2014).

It may not be practically realistic, and it raises basic normative questions about democratic governance. But the Alliance’s government-by-largest-minority strategy certainly constitutes a plan. It is also an expression of the Alliance’s political self-interest. The essential component of that self-interest is survival.

Löfven’s desire to create and lead a broad coalition, encompassing the Greens and a couple of the smaller Alliance parties, serves the Social Democrats’ long-term interest. Even with fewer seats than previously, cross-bloc agreements would put the party back in the centre of the Swedish party system, exercising a centripetal attraction to much smaller parties around it.

The long-term interest of the Alliance – particularly that of its biggest party, but also of its smaller ones – is that this does not happen. The Alliance wants instead to make sure that Swedish politics remains a battle between a right bloc and a left bloc, because that is a battle that it can probably win quite often. It is, after all, a contest between a stable, ideologically compact right against an unstable, ideologically stretched left.

Such a strategy could explain the intransigence shown by the Alliance leaders in the days before the fateful budget vote. Their short-term goal was to keep the Alliance together – and to signal to the world their determination to do so. Hence their insistence on fulfilling their promise to submit their own budget. Any retreat from that position might have left each of them tempted by deals with the government. Their longer-term goal was to change the rules of the game to make attaining the first goal easier. If, thanks to amended parliamentary rules, future Alliance governments were viable, even if they were minority ones, then the temptation for each Alliance party to defect would be much smaller.

Conclusion

On the basis of what we know about the events surrounding the calling of Sweden’s extraordinary election, I find this fourth potential explanation the most persuasive.

In this interpretation, Sweden’s battle over the 2014 budget was part of a struggle for the orientation of the Swedish party system. In this struggle, the Alliance accepted the attendant risk of provoking a new election. In the end, so did the Social Democrats.

Nicholas Aylott is associate professor of political science at Södetörn University and research leader in the Centre for Baltic and East European Studies.

References

Bates, Robert H., Avner Greif, Margaret Levi, Jean-Laurent Rosenthal and Barry R. Weingast (1998), Analytic Narratives (Princeton: Princeton University Press).

Davidsson, Lars (2014), ”Hur negativ är den svenska parlamentarismen? Överlevnadsstrategier i riksdagen efter 2014 års val”, Politologerna 19 August (politologerna.wordpress.com).

Hellström, Johan, Hanna Bäck and Daniel Walther (2914), ”Varför blir det nyval?”, Om makt och politik 5 December (maktochpolitik.wordpress.com).

Kinberg Batra, Anna, Annie Lööf, Jan Björklund and Göran Hägglund (2014), ”Med nya regler kan vi göra minoritetsregerande möjligt”, Dagens Nyheter 9 December.

Reinfeldt, Fredrik, Jan Björklund, Annie Lööf, Göran Hägglund (2014), ”Vi godtar inte en regering som saknar stöd för budgeten”, Dagens Nyheter August 21.