By Kjetil Duvold (Dalarna University)

Sweden’s former Prime Minister Olof Palme once said that ‘politics is to want something’. For many people, Palme epitomised the classic Swedish welfare model of long-term and comprehensive social and economic planning, agreement between labour and capital, and a great deal of social consensus. But his assassination on a cold Stockholm night in early 1986 also laid open a society that was more fractured and anxious than the stereotypical image of Sweden as a haven of stability and peace would have it. The 1990s revealed a harsher political and social climate, which involved a severe financial crisis in 1992 and a painful recovery, higher unemployment, growing far-right activities and numerous attacks on newly arrived immigrants; in short, the exposure of a dark underbelly of society, which became prime material for a string of crime novels and TV productions – sometimes referred to as Scandinavian noir – after the millennium. Sweden was perhaps not such a perfect model to emulate after all?

Swedish party politics itself tells a story of major changes. For a long time one of the most stable party systems in the world, dominated as it was by the Social Democratic Party (S) for much of the 20th Century. In fact, prior to Fredrik Reinfeldt’s two terms stint as Prime Minister between 2006 and 2014, when he headed a coalition of four centre-right parties and cheekily borrowed Tony Blair’s ‘new labour’ slogan to rebrand his liberal conservative Moderates (M) as the natural choice for ‘middle Sweden’, S alone had ruled Sweden for 65 years out of the last 74. Yes, ‘politics is to want something’ and the Social Democrats certainly did want to stay in power!

The Social Democrats became the ’natural party of government’ and its grip on power proved difficult to break down. Since the first part of the 20th Century, there have been three centre-right alternatives: the Moderates (M, called the Right until 1969); the Centre Party (C, the Farmers’ League until 1957); and the Liberals (L, the Liberal People’s Party until 2015). In addition, there was the Left Party (V, the Left Party – the Communists until 1990) and together they formed a classic five-party system, which echoed the party systems of the other Scandinavian countries. In 1988, however, the Green Party (MP) – the first new party to enter the Riksdag (parliament) for 70 years and also a genuine new politics party – joined the ranks of parliamentary parties. The party insisted that it was neither left nor right, but it has usually sided with the left. Three years later, the party also became the first in 70 years to drop out of the Riksdag, although it returned in the next election. In 1991, in the election when the Greens fell out, two newcomers made themselves present: the Christian Democrats (KD), rooted largely in evangelical movements and in many ways similar to the Norwegian Christian People’s Party; and New Democracy (NyD), a right-wing, anti-establishment party in the same mould as the progress parties of Norway and Denmark. But like the Greens, its support collapsed ahead of the next election, largely due to internal strife. Unlike the Greens, however, it would never stage a credible comeback. Thus, Swedish politics was void of a right-wing nationalist alternative until 2010. That year, the Sweden Democrats entered the Riksdag and changed the political game for real. The Sweden Democrats (SD) are rooted in various far-right movements prior to its official launch in 1988 and only started to distance itself from the ultra-right in the 1990s. The party reached media exposure well before 2010 and the electoral breakthrough hardly came as a surprise. At 5,7% support in the election, its parliamentary presence meant that the Reinfeldt-led coalition lost its overall majority. However, an agreement with the Greens over migration helped keeping the pressure from SD at bay. Things started to become trickier after the 2014 election, when SD had grown to almost 13 per cent and became the third largest parliamentary party. The four-party Alliance lost out to the three leftist parties, Fredrik Reinfeldt resigned and Stefan Löfven (S) formed a minority government, which included S and MP. But the parliamentary headache of how to deal with the SD did not just endure: it grew significantly. A crisis emerged only weeks after the government took form and Mr. Löfven announced that fresh elections would be held. It was an election none of the parties wanted, save for the SD, and a last-minute deal was struck between the government parties and the four Alliance parties to allow the largest block to rule even if it does not hold a parliamentary majority. The December Agreement was heavily criticised for breaking the principles of parliamentarism and, indeed, democracy as such. Although the deal had submerged from the Alliance parties, it became a pet hate for many of their members and voters: it came to symbolise what they saw as a long-held elite consensus on issues such as migration. Eventually it also became a point of reference for the new leadership of M – in an attempt to distance itself from the liberal Reinfeldt era. M was facing an identity crisis and many within the party wanted to see a clear rightward shift, partly in order to recapture votes from SD and to set a new course ahead. Reinfeldt’s plea to the Swedish people to ’open their hearts’ to refugees from Syria suddenly seemed very remote. Also KD turned to the right in order to seize socially conservative voters that had been lured by the SD. Within a year, a rebellion within the KD killed off the December Agreement. The other opposition leaders took the consequences of the decision and also withdrew their support. Nevertheless, the Alliance parties never seriously attempted to challenge the red-greens, which held onto power until the 2018 election. A migration agreement between the government and the opposition (minus the SD) was signed in 2015 (ironically, the December agreement was not explicitly about the migration). At that point, the migration crisis had hit Sweden severely and a record number of 163,000 applied for asylum in 2015. Back in September, Prime Minister Löfven had declared that in ’his Europe no walls are being built to separate families’. Two months later, the government had presented a major turnaround on migration; a decision that made vice-Prime Minister Åsa Romson (MP) to openly weep in front of TV cameras. Sweden’s liberal stance on immigration would not be the same again.

The change of course on migration and asylum was an apt illustration of the asymmetrical relationship between the governing parties. The Social Democrats were fully in charge and – as always – at relative ease with the power handles. The Greens, on the other hand, were novices in the government corridors; many of their members and voters seemed uncomfortable with power politics and the support for the party took a significant dive as a result. But nor had the Social Democrats convinced a majority of the electorate that their mandate to govern should be prolonged. Ahead of the election, the party trailed far behind in the polls. At 28 per cent of the votes, their result was perhaps less bad than expected, but still their worst since the early 1920s. It was only a small comfort that the Moderates performed even worse and barely scraped through as the second largest party. Also the Greens did badly and passed the electoral threshold of 4% by a whisker. Meanwhile, the Left Party did rather well, as did the Centre Party and, unexpectedly, the Christian Democrats. The Sweden Democrats were expected to do a spectacular election and at 17,5% – almost 5% up from 2014 – it must have felt like a relative disappointment. But the fact is that they were still the elephant in the room – and the elephant was bigger than before. Hence, the process to form a new government was expected to be difficult. And it turned out to be every bit as complicated as anticipated.

The left-of-centre parties garnished one mandate more than the four Alliance parties and the Social Democrats remained the single largest party. But if the Sweden Democrats were added to the equation, the right-of-centre bloc was clearly in a majority. On that basis, Moderates leader Ulf Kristersson was quick to declare that the government had lost and that a new government, led by himself, was required. Before the election, Mr. Kristersson had promised to ’fight until the last drop’ for an Alliance government. Christian Democrats leader Eva Busch Tor was in complete agreement and also the leaders of the Centre Party and the Liberals, Annie Lööf and Jan Björklund respectively, were committed to a new government. Mrs. Lööf had even promised to rather eat her shoe than to take part in a government led by Löfven. On the other hand, both Lööv and Björklund vehemently rejected the idea of taking part in a government that required support from the Sweden Democrats. Meanwhile, SD leader Jimmie Åkesson had expressed absolutely no desire to support a government that included these two liberal and pro-immigration parties. What he wanted to see was a realignment of Swedish politics, which would include a conservative bloc of M, KD and SD. The former two have yet to endorse this idea, but are clearly willing to strike some form of agreement with SD. Åkesson himself believes it is just a matter of time before a new bloc becomes a reality.

Mr. Löfven had in common with Mr. Åkesson a desire to drive a wedge through the four-party Alliance bloc. He had called the left-right division ‘stupid’ and ’paralysing’. He had also expressed a wish to cooperate with the Liberals and the Centre Party. The question is how credible he and his party really are when it comes to cooperating; other parties are understandably sceptical about how sincere a party so accustomed to take decisions more or less single-handedly is towards genuine cooperation. The only modern example of a coalition government involving S is the outgoing red-green government, which was not exactly an equal partnership between two parties. MP had paid a hefty electoral price for its government participation and was accused by many of its members and voters for selling its soul. The trouble is that the Social Democrats do not really perceive themselves as a party among parties: it would not mind support from other parties and does express great willingness to cooperate – Löfven himself is a trade unionist with a love for bargaining – but the party seems less capable of actually forming a coalition like the one Reinfeldt and the other centre-right parties formed had formed in the past.

That none of the recognisable party alternatives could muster a majority government became obvious after the election. In fact, it was known well before the election and somehow it was the case even during the previous Riksdag. Hence, the possibilities basically boiled down to the following: a stable government would either a) have to be formed across the left-right divide, b) be based on an agreement with parties from the other side of the divide or 3) a centre-right government would need to rely upon support from the SD. The first option seemed to be a hard one to swallow: Sweden is not like Germany and Austria and a coalition between S and M was not seriously considered (although this scenario has received widespread support in public opinion surveys). Meanwhile, M and KD preferred the third option, but was prevented by C and L. The latter would not only refuse to take part in a government that would require support from the SD, but not even agree to a government led by M and KD alone. The latter was in fact voted down in the Riksdag in November. Negotiations between the Social Democrats and the two centrist parties began shortly afterwards. However, C quickly withdrew from the talks, as it felt that S was unwilling to meet their demands. A proposed S + MP government was subsequently voted down in the Riksdag in December. However, the Social Democrats, the Greens, the Centre Party and the Liberals held fresh talks and on 11 January Annie Lööv announced that her party would accept an S-led government. On the same day, an agreement between the four parties was published. The January Agreement singled out 73 areas of cooperation. Two days later, Jan Björklund had received a similar mandate from his party.

The agreement came as a shock for many on the left. It was criticised for being ‘neo-liberal’ in content and several of its points were directly in conflict with the election manifesto of the Social Democrats (and also the Greens). On the left, V was upset that the agreement had explicitly excluded the party from influence. The basic argument from C and L was that they refused to support a government that also required support from any of the ’extremist parties’, i.e. SD on the right and V on the left. V threatened to vote down the agreement, but it turned out to be an empty threat: after all, the party did not want to be seen as responsible for a right-wing government, supported by the SD. Also many within the ranks of the Social Democrats and the LO, the trade union closely associated with S, were highly critical of the deal. They argued that it was a sell-out of the party’s principles, that it would increase societal divisions, and that the party could pay a hefty price for the agreement in the future. Many within C and L were also negative about the agreement and would rather see their party stick with the other Alliance parties. The harshest remarks though came from the right. M and KD were disappointed and hurt by the fact that C and L had joined ranks with S instead of staying loyal with the Alliance. On social media, the accusations from M and KD were even harsher and words like ’traitors’ and ’quislings’ were flying around.

Yes, politics is to want something and all the parties in the Riksdag wanted something. The problem was that they wanted different things and that it was impossible to form a government which fulfilled two basic criteria: to keep the Sweden Democrats from obtaining leverage (there are obvious reference points here, such as the Danish People’s Party’s powerful position even without government participation); and to stay faithful to the left-right divide of Swedish politics. The Gordian knot of contemporary Swedish politics could only be solved by breaking one of them. In the end, there were winners and losers. But it is by means certain that the winners and the losers are the same in four years’ time.

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