Opinion: Why care about the Swedish government crisis?

Why the rest of the world should be keeping a closer eye on the political crisis unfolding in Sweden, according to this opinion piece by Dr Itay Lotem of the University of Westminster.

Opinion: Why care about the Swedish government crisis?
Prime Minister Stefan Löfven, right, with new minister Helene Fritzon and Defence Minister Peter Hultqvist at his government reshuffle. Photo: Erik Simander/TT

As news cycles get accustomed to reporting the steady flow of car-crash tweets from the White House or the daily trickle of Brexit-related revelations, it becomes all too easy to forget things happen elsewhere. This applies just as much – if not more – to a Swedish government that is in a state of near-limbo, awaiting a possible vote of no confidence after summer break.

Sweden, you said? That land of Ikea, Abba, welfare and stability, if not a kind of splendid boredom? Stereotypes aside, there is reason enough to care. While English-language coverage of the Swedish government crisis has been somewhat limited, this ongoing Nordic drama has something for everyone. More to the point, it contains a toxic mix that is highly relevant to political systems elsewhere in Europe.

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The crisis resulted from one of the biggest IT-scandals in any developed country, following the revelation that the Swedish Transport Agency’s outsourcing of its database to IBM in 2015 had resulted in leaks of classified information. The Social-Democratic government had side-stepped security regulations and ignored warnings in the urge to outsource services.

The main bulk of the public’s outrage, however, resulted from the way the government handled the crisis, the leak had been discovered and a subsequent investigation by the Swedish Security Service commenced. When the then Interior Minister Anders Ygeman caught wind of the problem in January 2016, he did not make sure the information got passed on to Infrastructure Minister Anna Johansson (who would have been responsible for the case), nor did he inform the Prime Minister, Stefan Löfven. Only a year later were Johansson and Löfven made aware of the ongoing investigation by the security services, but kept it quiet from the media and the opposition.

When Dagens Nyheter (DN), one of Sweden’s leading newspapers, revealed the leak and the cover-up, it unleashed a Nordic drama with three main actors: the first is the Social-Democratically led “Red-Green” minority government. While it presides over a booming economy, it has imperilled the country’s security through an act of neo-liberal deregulation. The second is the Conservative Alliance, or four smaller parties that constitute the traditional conservative block. Now in opposition, the Alliance has been losing ground in opinion polls and needed some positive exposure. The third is the Swedish Democrats, a far-right party with Neo-Nazi roots. It has steadily gained ground in the polls while holding the balance of power in parliament. So far, the centre-left government has been able to function on a parliamentary minority, knowing that any conscious effort to topple it would involve cooperation between the Alliance and SD, which could only discredit the former.

For the Alliance, the revelation of the scandal should have been an open goal. In a show of coordinated action, the leaders of the four conservative parties decried the very real security risk that a leak of such propositions represented (while ignoring the less comfortable angle of a case of neo-liberal outsourcing gone wrong) and then announced a motion of no-confidence. They did so with full knowledge it will go through with SD support.

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To avoid the impression of teeming up for the far-right, the Alliance’s motion did not target the Prime Minister Löfven directly, but three specific ministers: the Interior Minister Anders Ygeman and Infrastructure Minister Anna Johansson, who had been directly responsible for the mess, but also the popular Defence Minister Peter Hultqvist. While Hultqvist may have been aware of the scandal early on, he held no direct ministerial responsibility for the case. The Alliance expected this motion would force Löfven to buckle under pressure before the actual vote and announce early elections. This way, it would be Löfven’s decision to trigger a new election cycle, and the Alliance would fight it as the defenders of Sweden’s security against a discredited government.

However, Löfven did not resign. Johansson and Ygeman quickly stepped aside, while Hultqvist remained in his position. This left the Alliance in a bind. Should they withdraw the third vote of no confidence against a popular minister whom, according to polls, the public did not hold responsible for the scandal, or should they wait for a Pyrrhic victory with far-right support? All of a sudden, the Alliance’s coordinated reaction seemed like botched-overreaching. To validate this impression, they postponed the decision over the matter for after the summer break. In the meantime, the government remains intact, but the functioning of the political system hovers in limbo.

While Löfven has demonstrated an ability to weather the storm and stay glued to his seat, he is left with diminished public support. Simultaneously, the Alliance is seen as the real loser from the debacle, as a recent poll discovered Swedes considered the opposition’s handling of the crisis even worse than the government’s. The four Alliance parties lacked in consistency and gave the impression they were more concerned by electoral considerations than by the public good. Ultimately, the real winners from this crisis are Jimmie Åkesson and his Sweden Democrats, who can claim the mantle of the party that represents “real people” against a corrupt, incompetent establishment.

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Both Löfven’s survival and the Alliance’s dismal performance stoke up popular grievances with Sweden’s democratic institutions. They play into the far-right’s narrative that perceives establishment parties as indistinguishable from one another and as a result claims they lack the democratic legitimacy to govern. While the Swedish Democrats are still cordoned off by other parties, this crisis shows this strategy will not succeed for long if traditional parties keep giving voters the impression that political calculation comes before political responsibility.

For the time being, the scandal has been kicked into the long grass for as long as the sun shines and the parliament is on summer break. However, once the political season resumes, it will be important to keep a close look on the repercussions of the IT scandal, as the challenges Sweden faces are not strictly confined to the land of Abba, Ikea and stability.  

Dr Itay Lotem is a Postdoctoral Fellow in Modern Languages and Culture at the University of Westminster in the UK.