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Swedes Face Tough Election in September by Sven R. Larson

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Swedes Face Tough Election in September

On Sunday September 11th, Swedish voters will determine who should govern them for the next four years. The stakes are higher than in at least the last three elections, with Sweden being plagued by high crime, an increasingly volatile energy market and a real-estate bubble ready to burst any time.

Parliament, the Riksdag, is almost evenly split between two four-party coalitions, which in the past four years has led to political instability and unpredictable policy outcomes. Opinion polls point to an equally tight outcome in September, precipitating another four years of instability. The next prime minister, whether it be Magdalena Andersson, the incumbent prime minister who leads the leftist coalition, or Ulf Kristersson, leader of the center-right opposition, will have to spend a good amount of time just keeping their respective multi-party parliamentary base from fracturing. 

Since the last election, which was held in September 2018, Sweden has been through three episodes of open political instability. To start with, it took four months before the parliament could elect Stefan Löfvén, chairman of the social democrats at that time, as prime minister for a second term.

However, the coalition that supported Mr. Löfvén was anything but stable. In addition to his own social democrats, he had to rely on the green party, which he had invited to appoint ministers in his cabinet. He also depended critically on support from the far-left party and the so-called center party. The latter is a formerly conservative party that has crossed the aisle and—in blatant disregard for its own platform—now supports the socialist government. 

For part of the parliamentary term, Mr. Löfvén’s government also cooperated with the liberal party. They withdrew their support in 2021, putting the governing leftist coalition below the 175-seat majority threshold. This caused two parliamentary crises within a few months.

The first one erupted in June 2021 when a parliamentary impasse over his government’s budget forced Stefan Löfvén to resign. He was eventually able to be reinstated as prime minister, but not until the formerly conservative center party had accepted an openly socialist rent-control bill from the far left. 

In November last year, Löfvén resigned as leader of the social democrats. In reality, he was forced out by the party leadership who panicked over persistently bad opinion-poll numbers. Finance minister Magdalena Andersson ascended as the successor apparent; her approval vote in the Riksdag was going to be a formality.

She was elected by the Riksdag in the morning of November 24th, 2021. In the afternoon, the parliament was scheduled to hold a budget vote, and here is where things went downhill. The cabinet that Andersson inherited from Stefan Löfvén, with a mix of social democrats and enviro-greens, did not have a parliamentary majority behind it. The reason, again, was that the liberal party had withdrawn its support in the spring of 2021. 

Having more votes, the scheduled vote would pass the center-right coalition’s budget into law. Absurdly, the socialist-led government would govern based on a right-leaning appropriations bill. This made the green party throw a fit: their members of the prime minister’s cabinet resigned on the spot. Their motivation was that the center-right budget included provisions brought forward by the Swedish Democrats, SD, a conservative nationalist party.

Constitutionally, when one party leaves the cabinet, the prime minister has to resign. Which Andersson did—eight hours after being elected. 

Having not even had time to move into her new office, Andersson was forced to reconstitute her cabinet and secure enough votes to be re-elected as prime minister. Thanks to a specific provision in the Swedish constitution allowing a prime minister to be elected unless a majority opposes him or her, the Riksdag approved her for a second time on November 29th.

Since then, Magdalena Andersson has had practically no room to focus on any long-term solutions to the many systemic problems haunting Swedish society. Even though her cabinet only includes social democrats, its parliamentary support still requires her fragile leftist coalition to keep together. 

Interestingly, this dicey parliamentary situation did not prevent her government from filing for Swedish NATO membership. To join the alliance would be to fundamentally change Swedish foreign policy. It would abruptly end the nation’s formal neutrality and force a major reorientation of diplomatic relations and military capabilities. The latter is of such proportions that it affects the structure of government spending

For reasons that remain unclear even to the avid student of Swedish politics, the NATO application was rushed through the parliamentary machinery with not even a whiff of opposition or political tensions. Calls for a referendum—normal in Sweden for such major reforms—were duly hushed up. 

Why? Was Magdalena Andersson feeling insecure in her role as prime minister, and needed a major political victory to boost her chances in the upcoming election?

The NATO accession bid stands in stark contrast to the norm for how Sweden has been governed over the past four, even eight years. With the two coalitions practically neck and neck, whoever emerges as the victor in the election on September 11th will very likely have to continue to rely on political duct tape and chewing-gum patchwork to maintain parliamentary support. 

This is a new experience for Sweden. For decades, the country had stable, predictable governments with nary a whiff of political crises. That began to change in the latter half of the 1990s, when a social-democrat government responded clumsily to a persistent fiscal crisis. Since then, both the left and the right sides of the political aisle have been transformed; the best one can say about the current coalitions is that they exhibit bright political pluralism against a murky ideological backdrop.

The social democrats, which dominate the leftist coalition, are an historically “democratic” socialist party. Their influence in the mid-20th century reached far beyond Sweden, ideologically influencing such prominent European politicians as Bruno Kreisky, Helmut Schmidt, Andreas Papandreou and Felipe Gonzalez. They even inspired the U.S. Democrat party into their petered-out ambitions to build a socialist welfare state in America.

With the assassination of Prime Minister Olof Palme in 1986, the social-democrat party lost much of its ideological drive; subsequent party leaders have been focused on administering the welfare state. This contributed to their loss of voter support, falling from 45% of the votes in the 1994 election to 31% in 2014.

Thanks to their much-weaker voter base, the social democrats had to form a coalition in order to get back into power. After the 2014 election they shared cabinet positions with the greens, who had never been in power before. Their inexperience and relatively small 7% vote share forced them essentially to tow the social-democrat party line. However, they proved malleable enough to return for a second term in power in 2018.

In the meantime, the left party (formerly the communists) was growing frustrated over being denied a share in the prime minister’s cabinet. They felt taken for granted, but their tepid leader Jonas Sjöstedt refused to rock the boat. 

That changed in 2021 with his successor, the more feisty Ms. Nooshi Dadgostar. Her first order of business was to pick a fight with the social-democrat prime minister over rent-control legislation. This triggered the June 2021 parliamentary crisis. After winning a small but symbolically important victory, the left party returned to the loyal fold within the leftist coalition.

The odd man of that coalition is the center party. Historically a reliably conservative party, they began drifting left after electing Annie Lööf as their leader in 2011. Today, it is impossible to determine with any reasonable clarity what the center party actually stands for, other than maximized immigration. Another one of their trademarks in recent years has been a series of scandals where prominent party representatives have been caught engaging in pedophilia.

From 2014 to 2021, the leftist coalition also relied on the liberal party to secure a parliamentary majority. The liberals (whose male voters wear their shirts inside their underwear) has a long history of representing social liberalism in Sweden. They have a tradition of prominent leaders, among them Bertil Ohlin, Gunnar Helén and Per Ahlmark. These men were ideologically savvy and good at drawing demarcation lines between liberalism and “democratic” socialism. 

As the last century drew to a close, however, the liberals followed the general trend of de-ideologization in Swedish politics. This was particularly problematic for the liberals, who found themselves slowly drifting into political oblivion. The unstable parliamentary situation after the 2014 election granted them an opportunity to leap back into the spotlight.

Ironically, both the center and the liberal parties were part of the right-of-center coalition that governed from 2006 to 2014. They left that coalition because of the Swedish Democrats, SD. This conservative nationalist party entered the Riksdag for the first time in 2010 and gained a fair amount of seats in 2014. 

So fervent was the opposition to SD within the center and liberal parties that they preferred a socialist prime minister over one of their own who had to rely on the support form SD.

Initially, after their first parliamentary appearance in 2010, the SD found themselves being stonewalled in parliament. Sometimes this turned the Riksdag into a real-time comedy show, where the other parties would vote against their own bills because the SD were also going to vote for them. Rather than getting one of their own policy ideas passed into law, they would let it die so they could go out in the media and declare that they “never voted with the SD.” 

By 2014 this had changed a little bit, but not much. The SD was still shunned because of their unrelenting criticism of Swedish immigration policies. However, beyond their demands for closed borders and repatriation incentives, they were increasingly mainstream in their right-of-center policies. 

Since the 2018 election, however, the SD has moved into the political mainstream. One reason is simple arithmetic: winning 62 seats, they became the third largest party, behind the social democrats and the center-right moderate party. There was a growing realization among other right-of-center leaders, primarily moderates and Christian democrats, that their coalition would not be able to form a government if they continued to ignore the SD.

Leading up to the election this September, the moderates and the Christian democrats have developed permanent relations with the SD. With the liberals “coming home,” the center-right coalition is now a serious threat to the social-democrat government. However, it is not without inherent tensions: the liberals (whose voters prefer the middle of two seats) has made clear that they will not support a cabinet that includes the SD. The SD has reciprocated, leaving a potential non-socialist prime minister with only the moderates and the Christian democrats for cabinet candidates.

With the leftist coalition already having proven its fragility, and the opposition coalition promising the same, Sweden looks more or less ungovernable going forward. This is ironic, given that its political landscape has been gradually drained for ideological juice in the past couple of decades. One would assume that this would make broader coalitions easier, but it has only murkified the political landscape:

  • On the left, bland socialist social democrats are working with recyclable enviro-greens, formerly communist leftists and formerly right-wing centrists; 
  • On the right, prime minister hopeful Ulf Kristersson of the liberally conservative moderates, hopes to hold together atheist Christian democrats, moderately conservative Swedish democrats and conservatively moderate liberals.

This already-difficult situation would become even more problematic if one or two of the smaller parties fell below the 4% vote threshold for seats in the Riksdag. As if that was not enough, at least three parties are knocking on the parliamentary door, hoping to gain enough votes to make it in: conservative, nationalist Alternativ för Sverige, mainstream conservative Medborgerlig Samling, and islamist Nyans.

Sven R. Larson is a political economist and author. He received a Ph.D. in Economics from Roskilde University, Denmark. Originally from Sweden, he lives in America where for the past 16 years he has worked in politics and public policy. He has written several books, including Democracy or Socialism: The Fateful Question for America in 2024.