Sweden’s Election: Mixed Results, Uncertain Future
John Bryan, Writer on European Affairs
26 September 2018
Sweden’s recent general election on September 9th was watched with intensity around the globe. Given that it is a country of only 10 million people, this would seem to be a disproportionate reaction. Yet Sweden has long aimed to punch above its weight in its global image as a “moral superpower”. This was part of the reasoning that led the country in 2015 to admit the most refugees per-capita of any country in Europe. Three years later, the electoral ramifications of that decision would be felt. But to what degree?
The party that is the focus of international media attention is the Sweden Democrats (SD). Originally born in a political merger involving white-nationalists, the SD has since undergone inner reform aimed at softening radicalism and roundly rejecting outright racism. As a result, many party members have been expelled for extremism.
Nevertheless, they have campaigned with a familiar style that plays on Swedes’ fears, pointing toward unwillingness among migrants to assimilate, the development of so-called “parallel societies” within heavily immigrant suburbs, and rising levels of crime as evidence of a crisis in Sweden – a crisis stemming from irresponsible levels of immigration. They oppose multiculturalism and argue that the priority regarding asylum seekers is to aid them in returning to their country of origin.
With the international focus being on the SD, it seemed that they might storm Swedish politics. Some projected the SD taking up to a quarter of the vote and second place in the Riksdag (Swedish legislature). However, when the results came in, the SD achieved a more moderate 17.5 percent of the vote, a little less than 5 percent better than their last showing, and good enough for third place. In first place were the Social Democrats with 28.3 percent of the vote, followed by the centre-right Moderates with 19.8 percent.
This puts commentators in an awkward spot. The nationalists improved, but not as much as expected. Swedish politics has been complicated, but not overturned. Sweden has long been used as a go-to case to serve political rhetoric: as either progressive paradise or leftist hellhole depending on the commentator’s political persuasion. For these individuals, a clear result in this election could have confirmed everything they believed about the country. Without an easy answer here, the question remains: what does this election mean for European politics?
Focussing on the momentum of the european right-wing populist movement heading out of the election seems like a faulty approach. Given the mixed results and the size of the country, it is easy to overreach on perceived importance. What’s more important, rather, is to look at what comes next for Sweden’s government, in particular the choices made in forming a coalition.
Swedish elections are carried out by proportional representation, whereby a party’s percentage of the popular vote translates proportionately into the same percentage of seats in the Riksdag. The Riksdag has 349 seats, and thus for any bloc or coalition to obtain majority power they need to collectively control 175 seats.
There are two major political blocs in the Riksdag. The left wing “Red-Green” bloc (which governed previously in a minority government) consisting of the Social Democrats, Greens, and the Left party; and the centre-right Alliance, comprised of the Moderates, Christian Democrats, Centre Party, and the Liberals. Under the new seat distribution, neither bloc can form a majority government.
There are a number of potential solutions. The Red-Green bloc could govern with the support of the Alliance on major bills and shared interests, the Alliance could govern with Red-Green support, or the Alliance could seek the support of the populists in return for the implementation of certain key policies. Every option seems troubled from the get-go. The Alliance, led by Moderate leader Ulf Kristersson, sees it as their turn to govern. As a result, Prime Minister and Social Democrat leader Stefan Lofven lost a no confidence vote on September 25, likely giving Kristersson the chance to form a coalition. Lofven will have to step down as Prime Minister, but still intends to regain that position and form a new government. Thus, this exchange signifies considerable enmity toward cooperation between the major blocs.
Any attempt to work with the Sweden Democrats has its own issues. The Liberal and Centre parties, allies of the Moderates, have made it clear they will not support a government which works with the Sweden Democrats. For years, the major political parties have maintained a cordon sanitaire toward the SD, a sort of collective refusal to work with them on any issues.
This position contrasts starkly with Scandinavian neighbour Denmark. In Denmark, the radical right Danish People’s Party has played important roles in government formation, acting often as a source of support for the day-to-day operations of the Liberal-Conservative coalition in its long rule from 2001 to 2011, and again from 2015 to present. As a result, stricter immigration policies have found their way into the Danish mainstream.
While the main blocs will seek out a deal in each other first, failed talks and heated politics could well break the establishment’s hard-line stance. There is no ideal result. If the SD are invited into mainstream Swedish politics, it would be exceedingly difficult to exile them again. If they are excluded by an alliance between the major political blocs, the populist impression that the establishment only looks out for itself will likely grow and fester. If all talks break down, new elections will be called and faith in Swedish consensual politics will likely diminish.
For watchers of European politics, the election results ought not to be overstated in importance. Rather, the ability for Sweden’s traditionally stable consensual governing style to survive this age of fragmentation will prove more useful in comparative analysis. After all, establishment infighting and precarious coalitions loom over many European countries, including Germany itself.