Sweden has historically been a pinnacle of political stability. Despite the assassination of Prime Minister Olof Palme in 1986, the Scandinavian country has avoided much of the stormy politics characteristic of other European countries. Since World War II, Sweden has only had eleven different prime ministers, five of whom have served for seven consecutive years or more.
That stability is now gone. What was left of it was put to sleep on November 24th when, as The European Conservative reported, newly elected Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson was forced to resign less than eight hours after being approved by parliament.
In what the Financial Times described as a day of “political circus,” the new normal in Swedish politics was put on full display for the world to see. But this new normal did not appear out of thin air. The new “messy standards of Swedish politics,” in the words of Politico.eu, is in reality the logical end stage of a long process of deteriorating political and parliamentary standards.
At the center of the mess is the Swedish Democrats (Sverigedemokraterna or SD), a conservative nationalist party opposed to large-scale immigration. They did not create the mess: it originated with other parties pledging to put the Swedish Democrats in a “freezer,” to never let them become part of the political mainstream.
As a result of the efforts of these parties, there were two crises for the Swedish government this year, one in the summer and one on November 24. In both cases a sitting prime minister was forced to resign over minor political issues that could nonetheless not be solved by the Riksdag parliament, because some of the parties refused to have anything to do with the SD.
Historically, political stability in Sweden relied on two distinct coalitions, right and left, forming predictable majorities between elections. That began to change after the 2010 election when the Swedish Democrats for the first time won seats in the Riksdag. Primarily due to their opposition to immigration, the SD quickly won plenty of enemies and no friends among the parliamentary establishment.
Bluntly, the SD were branded a caput lupinum, that is, a party that one could treat with contempt without facing moral retribution from the political mainstream. They were excluded from the inter-party negotiations that are routine for a working parliament. Neither the left nor the center-right parties wanted anything to do with them. On occasion, in absurd expressions of political dogma, some parties even voted against their own legislative bills when the SD declared support for them, so as not to be perceived as “cooperating” with the immigration skeptics.
If the ambition was to make the Swedish Democrats go away, it failed: voters have increasingly flocked to them. They more than doubled their votes from 2010 to 2014, and in 2018 they leapt from 12.9% to 17.5% of the votes.
As a result, the other parties are paying an increasingly excessive price for their refusal to collaborate with the SD. This past summer, that price was Prime Minister Stefan Löfvén himself. A Social Democrat, Mr. Löfvén fell victim to the new “messy” antics of Swedish politics when he was forced to resign after the Riksdag gave him a vote of no confidence.
It was the first time in its history that the Swedish parliament had ousted a prime minister in a no-confidence vote. A rational outside observer would assume that there was a serious reason for the vote, perhaps that the prime minister had been engaged in corruption or had shown excessive levels of incompetence. None of that, however, applied. Instead, the vote of no confidence came after Mr. Löfvén’s cabinet announced that it was moving forward with a proposal to relax apartment-lease regulations. The SD and the Left Party were both opposed to the deal, as was Mr. Löfvén’s own party, the Social Democrats. But in order to keep the Swedish Democrats out of influence over legislation as well as the prime minister’s office, the Social Democrats and the Center Party—supportive of Mr. Löfvén’s government—agreed to move forward with the rent-control reform.
Had the Social Democrats, their coalition partners in the Green party, and the Left sat down and worked together on the issue, they could have killed the rent control reform bill and avoided the prime minister’s resignation. However, due to their adamant refusal to invite the Swedish Democrats to any legislative negotiations, the prime minister put himself and his cabinet in a situation where instead he was forced out of office.
While Mr. Löfvén was later reappointed, the two weeks between his resignation and his return shed light on just how gridlocked the Riksdag has become. This gridlock being entirely caused by the persistent refusal among most of the parties to bring the Swedish Democrats into the mainstream.
Less than two months after his confidence crisis, Mr. Löfvén himself poured more gasoline on the parliamentary dysfunction fire by announcing his permanent resignation. Part of his reason was the concern that his coalition government, consisting of the Social Democrats and the Greens, would not be able to get its government budget through the Riksdag.
Parliament voted on the morning of November 24 to appoint a successor to Mr. Löfvén. After Ms. Andersson had replaced him as chairman of the Social Democrat party, the Riksdag vote to confirm her as prime minister was widely considered a mere formality.
Ms. Andersson was indeed approved. But then the Riksdag voted on the budget for fiscal year 2022, and the governing coalition lost the vote. In its place, the parliament adopted the budget bill that had been put forward by the Swedish Democrats, the Moderates and the Christian Democrats.
Directly after the budget vote, however, the Green Party explained that they could not govern on a budget that had been co-authored by the Swedish Democrats. On principle, they did not want to implement SD policy. The Green Party left the governing coalition. In compliance with the constitution, Ms. Andersson was therefore forced to resign less than a workday after being appointed.
Understandably, these events appear inexplicable to the outside observer. The best way to understand them is in the context of the ideological fault lines in Swedish politics that were created around the Swedish Democrats. These fault lines are relatively new to Sweden, but they have been a staple of politics for a long time in other European countries.
While the ideological divisions are centered around immigration, they reflect a deeper, more principled disagreement between the political mainstream and a resurgent conservative movement. Loosely speaking, one could compare the conflicts in the Swedish parliament with those between some Western European governments and the political majorities in Hungary and Poland. Beyond immigration, the Swedish Democrats are more conservative on social issues and cultural values than other parties in the Riksdag. In fact, the SD defines itself as a socially conservative party with a nationalist foundation, a unique ideological position in Swedish politics.
While two moderately conservative parties, the Moderates and the Christian Democrats, have brought the SD into the legislative mainstream—making them parkettfähig as one would say in German—others have doubled down on their opposition. Among those, the Greens and the Center Party have stood out.
The Greens and the Center Party were also the agents of the turmoil of November 24. Both these parties are diametrically opposed to the Swedish Democrats on immigration, but they are also ideologically very far from the socially conservative nationalists. The Greens are firmly planted left of center, while the Center party is a bit more difficult to define. The latter’s political practice is best described as libertarian: defense of free market capitalism combined with a lax, leftist approach to social values.
The Center Party has consistently worked to marginalize the SD. The Greens often refer to them as “the browns,” a reference to the origin of the Swedish Democrats: the party was formed in 1988 as an offshoot from groups associated with ‘white nationalism.’ From the start, the Swedish Democrats sought to distance itself from such views and officially rejects fascism. Over time, the party has evolved into one with unwavering respect for democracy and parliamentarianism.
The transformation of the Swedish Democrats has perhaps been greater than that of the Left Party, which up until 1990 called itself the Communist Left Party. Yet, despite the SD’s transformation—or perhaps as a direct result of it—the Center and Green parties persist in their attempts to strip the Swedish Democrats of any political relevance. For this reason, on the morning of November 24th the Center Party voted for Ms. Andersson as the next prime minister. So did the Greens, pledging allegiance to their coalition with the Social Democrats.
Then came the budget vote. The Social-Democrat-Green coalition needed support from the Left Party to win. Given the events of this past summer—the Left Party helped oust her predecessor—Ms. Andersson negotiated a budget deal with the Left on an otherwise trivial issue: a modest increase in entitlement benefits to retirees.
At that point, the Center Party sprung into action. While Ms. Andersson was negotiating with the Left, the Center Party decided against providing the necessary support for the newly elected prime minister in the budget vote. To them, making a deal with the Left, a former Communist party, was as unthinkable as letting the Swedish Democrats have any influence.
As a result, the bill proposed by the Swedish Democrats, the Moderates, and the Christian Democrats won a plurality of the votes. Absurdly, Ms. Andersson was now saddled with the task of starting her prime-ministerial career by implementing a conservative fiscal plan. To her credit, she was ready to do so—but the Greens were not. Once they stormed out of the governing coalition, Ms. Andersson was left with no other choice than to resign.
On November 29, Ms. Andersson was again appointed prime minister of Sweden. Despite finally being able to form a Social Democrat only cabinet, however, she has not found herself out of the stormy waters. The fault lines that were put on full display on November 24 remain. The democratically elected parties that on principle will not cooperate with other democratically elected parties, have not changed their minds.
The recent events in Swedish politics are a reminder of the long-term consequences of parliamentary dysfunction. While constitutional terms and parliamentary practice vary from country to country, the immigration-centered political battle is ongoing across the continent. Furthermore, just like in Sweden, this battle is just the tip of an ideological iceberg. Underneath the surface are deeper disagreements on economic policy, social issues, cultural values and—ultimately—the very future of the West.
Sweden eventually got its first female prime minister, but she is bruised and battered by the election and confirmation process. She will have to spend a lot of her time in office dodging more political turbulence. Whatever she does to evade it, will only be temporary solutions: the underlying conflicts will not be solved until the underlying issues are properly addressed.
Perhaps the greatest risk is that the ambition to keep the boat afloat on a stormy sea will make its captain lose sight of the long term. Politicians who seek temporary political solutions to permanent policy problems often find themselves reaping a poor harvest. When voters have reasons to believe that parliamentary dysfunction is driven by disrespect for their opinions, the political landscape will only grow more polarized.
Parliamentary democracy can be adapted and stretched, but there comes a point when the tensions are so great that the structure itself breaks.