By Thomas Sedelius (Dalarna University)
The polling stations closed on Sunday, 9 September, at 8pm as Sweden voted on all available parliamentary positions on the same day: the 291 municipal councils (Kommunerna), the 23 provincial chambers (Landstingen) and the 349 seats in the national parliament, the Riksdag. Here is my brief post-election comment focusing on the national level only.
As of this writing, a number of foreign and early votes are yet to be added, which means that the figures below are subject to adjustments. Preliminary turnout in the Riksdag election was 84.4 percent (85.8 percent in 2014) but will probably be higher following the counting of the remaining votes.
In line with pre-election polls, neither of the two main blocs – the red-green bloc that includes the current government coalition between the Social Democrats (S) and the Greens (MP), and their non-coalition partner, the Left Party (V); and the four-party center-right opposition – the Moderate Party (M), The Liberals (L), the Christian Democrats (KD) and the Center Party (C) – known as the Alliance — won a majority. The red-greens managed to collect 40.6 percent altogether and the center-right Alliance won 40.3 percent of the vote. Currently these figures translate into a super-thin one-seat lead in parliament for the red-greens (144) over the Alliance (143), which is well below the 175 seats necessary for a majority.
The main challengers, the populist anti-immigration party, the Sweden Democrats (SD), won 17.6 percent of the vote — up from 12.8 percent at the election in 2014. Yet, it remains to be seen whether SD’s increasing number of parliamentary seats will actually translate into any substantial influence over government.
Within the red-green bloc the Left Party is probably most happy with the result, up from 5.7 to 7.9 percent. During the term 2014-18, the Left Party has held a comfortable outside partner relation with the Social Democrat-Green government coalition. Campaigning on a welfare agenda focusing on equality, feminism and climate, they have attracted a considerable number of dissatisfied voters from both the Social Democrats and the Greens. The paradox, however, is that their potential influence, which has been substantial during the past term, is highly dependent on a new government led by the Social Democrats. A scenario, which looks anything but certain at this point.
The Greens fell from 6.9 percent in 2014 to 4.3. An unusually hot Swedish summer with temperatures well beyond 30 degrees Celsius, followed by several wild fires in forests across the country, contributed to a sense of climate urgency among the Swedish citizens, but did little to help the Greens in the polling. The Greens, it seems, have paid a high price for being the minor party in the coalition.
The Social Democrats, led by PM Stefan Löfven, managed to stay on top as the largest party of the country. Yet, historically, the 28.4 percent (31.2 percent, 2014) is the worst result for S since the beginning of Swedish democracy. In spite of a booming economy with one of the highest employment rates in Europe, increased disposable income levels, and a national debt below 30 percent of GDP, the party has failed to translate such strong economic figures into increased voter support. Under the banner of “A stronger and safer Sweden!”, the Social Democrats struggled to get the election debate to be about welfare reforms – including health care, pensions, and schools. One major exit poll suggested that voters overall did consider health care, school and social welfare to be among the most determining issues for their vote (VALU 2018). Yet, this was apparently not enough to attract the number of votes needed.
An early analysis of the exit poll confirmed the Social Democrats lost a substantial number of votes to the populist SD, the right-wing anti-immigration party with racist origins. SD campaigned intensively on a message that Sweden’s welfare state is under threat by the large number of refugees arriving to Sweden in the 2010s, and especially following the immigration crisis in 2015. Their campaign narrative was much about linking violent crimes and gang shootings in deprived areas to high concentrations of immigrants. Since 2015, most other parties have taken a more restrictive approach to migration, including the Social Democrats and its main opponent, the Moderate Party. These parties now largely agree on a strict refugee reception policy and tight border control. Yet, they could hardly prevent the SD from propelling immigration to the center of the political debate. Even so, the SD’s result of 17.6 percent is well below more optimistic prediction polls, and SD remains only the third largest party in the Riksdag. Several pre-election opinion polls placed them second, just behind the Social Democrats, and a few polls even had them on top. Apparently, immigration and refugees as well as law and order, were less determining issues for voters than what SD would have hoped for – ranked well behind issues of health care, equality, school and education.
Also for the center-right bloc, the Alliance, the election outcome was a mixed blessing at best. The liberal-conservative Moderates (M), led by opposition leader Ulf Kristersson, have struggled to attract the electorate all since the former PM and party leader, Fredrik Reinfeldt, left the scene in 2014. Although Kristersson received positive ratings on his election campaign, his party machinery was unable to reach anything close to the figures under his predecessor. However, the 19.8 percent is actually quite relieving for the Moderates and the fact that M remains bigger than SD in parliament is probably the most crucial factor for the Alliance. Yet, the Moderates has lost 3.4 percent of its vote share since 2014.
Within the Alliance, the Center Party has appeared as the loudest opponent of SD’s anti-immigration rhetoric. It seems as this strategy has attracted liberal voters both from other center-right parties as well as from the red-green bloc. The Center Party won 8.6 percent of the vote, up from about 6 percent in 2014. The party leader, Annie Lööf, may hold a key in the government formation process, as she is currently a strong advocate of bloc-breaking negotiations between the Alliance and the red-green parties.
The Christian Democrats (KD) came out surprisingly strong at the very end of the election campaign. As recent as in August, poll predictions placed KD well below the 4 percent threshold, which would have severely weakened the whole bargaining position of the Alliance. The performance of party leader Ebba Bush Thor seems to have appealed to many voters and she managed to put health care high on the agenda. The party went up from 4.6 in 2014 to 6.4 percent – thereby securing an overall stronger result for the Alliance.
Finally, the Liberals (L), ended up almost on par with its 2014 result and won 5.5 percent of the vote.
Well, Sweden is not in chaos, and the election campaign was low-key even by European standards. Minority governments are anything but a new phenomenon in Sweden. In fact, since the constitutional reform in 1974 majority governments are exceptions (Fälldin 1976-78; 1979-81 and Reinfeldt 2006-10). Pragmatism and broader compromises across the parliamentary landscape have guided most previous governments including the Löfven cabinet since 2014. What is new this time, however, is the growth of SD. With over 17 percent, the populist party will not be easily ignored in parliament. Yet the other parties have made promises ranging from ”no, SD will never be part of our government” and ”no, there will be no negotiations with SD” to ”no, we will not be dependent on the support of SD”. To the extent that such hard-line promises will be kept, new and non-traditional bloc-breaking negotiations are needed. The Löfven cabinet will probably have to leave office either by his own decision or by a joint Alliance-SD vote of no-confidence within the next two weeks. But from there on, some kind of bloc-breaking deal is necessary to avoid re-elections. Moderate party leader, Ulf Kristersson, will probably be asked by the Speaker of Parliament, to form a new government. It is by no means certain that he will succeed though.
The Center Party and the Liberals in particular have expressed that if the Alliance is to form a government under the circumstances that the red-green bloc is bigger, as current results suggest, it would have to be with the consent of the red-greens to avoid dependence on the SD. It cannot be ruled out therefore that these two parties, in the end, would be compelled to tolerate a Social Democratic PM once again. That said, however, there is now a considerable non-left majority in the parliament, which would make a renewed government attempt by PM Löfven rather unlikely to succeed.
In one way or the other, the long-standing tradition of minority rule in Sweden will continue, although this time the parliamentary landscape seems extremely puzzling. Indeed, the government formation process might be just as tight and exciting as the election race.
Photo source: https://www.theguardian.com/world/live/2018/sep/09/sweden-election-live