By Jonathan Polk (Lund University)

The Social Democratic Party received the most votes in the Swedish parliamentary election held on 11 September 2022.[1] The Social Democrats, in government since 2014, even expanded the party’s vote share (30.3%) from the previous election in 2018 by 2 percentage points. Yet the focus of attention in Sweden has been on the continued rise of the anti-immigration Sweden Democrats, a far-right party that increased its vote share from 5.7% in 2010, the year of its electoral breakthrough at the national level, to 20.5% in 2022. In just over a decade and only four electoral cycles since first entering parliament, the Sweden Democrats have gone from a marginal, ostracized party to the second largest party in Sweden and the largest party of the right bloc. But it is the centre-right Moderates, now the third largest party, that will in all likelihood get the first chance to form a government.

Despite her party receiving the most votes and increasing on its 2018 vote share, Magdalena Andersson, the party leader of the Social Democrats, announced Wednesday night that she will step down as prime minister today. There are eight political parties currently in Sweden’s legislature, the Riksdag, and the same eight parties crossed the electoral threshold for representation in the next legislative term. Of these eight parties, four supported Andersson for prime minister: the Social Democrats (S), the Centre Party (C), the Left Party (V), and the Greens (MP). The 349 seats in the Riksdag, require 175 for a majority, and although the initial exit poll indicated a slim majority for this red-green bloc, as vote counting continued the results swung to a bare majority for the opposition right bloc. While the vote shares of S and MP increased, both C and V dropped relative to 2018, sufficiently so to deprive the left bloc a majority. There is a large gap between C and V on economic politics, producing ideological strain for both parties. S’s location between C and V on the economic left-right dimension likely complicated campaign message clarity for all three parties on these topics.

The largest party of the right bloc up until this year was the Moderates (M). At the outset of the campaign, three more parliamentary parties preferred their party leader, Ulf Kristersson, for prime minister rather than Andersson. In addition to M, these parties were the Sweden Democrats (SD), Christian Democrats (KD), and Liberals (L). With 99% of the votes counted, this four-party opposition bloc has 176 seats, just one more than the amount necessary to support a change in government. Less than 50,000 votes separated the two blocs on election night, fewer than the 97,724 votes for parties that did not reach the electoral threshold, fewer than the more than 92,000 people currently waiting for decisions on citizenship applications from the migration agency.

The campaign was contested on ground favorable to SD, with a focus on violent crime, issues of law and order, and the challenges of social segregation. Given a campaign surrounding topics emphasized by the political right, high levels of inflation and electricity prices, and two terms in government, it is all the more remarkable that S received more votes in 2022 than it had in 2018. Both the Moderates and even the Social Democrats stressed the need to “get tough” on crime and generally embraced more conservative positions on questions related to law and order and immigrant integration. This did little to stem the rise of the Sweden Democrats. Voter streams from the exit poll indicate that both S and M lost voters to SD, and most dramatically the Sweden Democrats passed the Moderates to become the second largest party in the country. This latter fact increases the complexity of negotiations to form a right-wing government.

Kristersson and M are set to receive the first opportunity to form a government even though the party received less votes than SD. This is because of the lingering ambivalence of the other Swedish parliamentary parties towards the extremist roots of SD, a party with a fascist and white nationalist history. Prior to the election, M, KD, and L all indicated that while they were now ready to rely on SD support to form a minority government, they were unwilling to formally bring the party into government and allocate it ministerial portfolios. It remains to be seen if the parties will continue to hold this line after SD’s strong showing on the 11th, but it highlights the unlikeliness that the other parties of the right bloc would support SD’s party leader Jimmie Åkesson for prime minister.

If, however, SD is relegated to support party for a minority right-wing government headed by Kristersson, the policy concessions demanded by Åkesson will be considerable, given SD’s electoral strength. But such concessions would in turn generate strain within the right bloc, particularly for L, the smallest parliamentary party, just over the 4% threshold for representation in the Riksdag. When the former four-party right bloc of Swedish parties, called the Alliance, broke apart in early 2019, disagreement about collaboration with SD was at the root of the split. While KD and M rather quickly endorsed working with SD to form a right-wing government ahead of 2022, L and C did not. The Liberals spent much of the last three years in existential deliberation about the direction of the party, frequently below 4% in opinion polls, before finally deciding to join M and KD in campaigning for a right-wing government with SD support. This decision split the party and with only a one or two seat margin, Kristersson would have little if any room for dissent in such a governing coalition. While the government formation process may not take the 134 days it did following the 2018 election, an unusually long time in Sweden, it will likely still be complex and difficult this round.

Important actors to watch in the next legislative term include L, C, and SD politicians. As mentioned, L remains internally divided on collaboration with SD and one or two L member of parliament could make the difference between legislative success or failure for a right-wing government. That said, the party barely crossed the 4% threshold and is likely not anxious for early elections, potentially chastening voices of dissent within the party. Unlike L, which broke to the right, the Centre Party, also a former member of the Alliance, chose the opposite direction, categorically refusing to work with SD and instead supporting an Andersson-led S government. C’s 6.7% of the vote in 2022 represents a decline of nearly 2 percentage points and the association with the red-green bloc generated tension within the party’s right-wing. It remains to be seen if the underwhelming showing at the polls in 2022 will empower voices calling for a different direction for the party. A complicating factor is the party’s long journey to becoming a solidly socio-culturally liberal party over the past twenty years, making any collaboration with SD quite a challenge (though a challenge L appears to have embraced). Finally, the behavior of individual SD members of parliament could have considerable consequences. In an attempt to detoxify the party, Åkesson and SD have expelled party members for overt extremism and racism in the past. With its largest parliamentary delegation yet, it will be important to see if the party and its individual members of parliament are able to avoid scandals or other actions that would jeopardize the party’s abilities to pull policy in its preferred direction.

The Social Democratic minority governments that followed the 2018 election were weak, strained by large ideological differences between support parties. With what is currently a two-seat margin for error and a stridently anti-establishment, nativist party the largest parliamentary force in any right-wing bloc, the new government could face an equally tenuous arrangement. Alternatively, we may see a further consolidation of the right-nationalist tone of the 2022 campaign in the ideology and policy-making of the incoming government.

Sweden takes over the presidency of the Council of the European Union in January 2023.

[1] Vote totals are based on preliminary figures. At the time of writing, votes from 99% of Sweden’s 6,578 electoral districts had been counted.

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