Sweden faces political uncertainty after the election in twelve days. What sort of government could emerge? For a political scientist, this is a fascinating situation. Among much else, it reminds us that the rules of the political game are vitally important in shaping political outcomes. But they are not the whole story.
The rise and decline of bloc politics
Sweden, like most European countries, is a parliamentary democracy. Its voters elect the members of parliament, and they, in turn, choose the head of government, the prime minister.
If one party has won a majority of the seats in parliament, as often happens in Britain, the leader of that party is the obvious prime ministerial choice. Thanks to the proportional electoral system, only very rarely has any Swedish party won its own majority. In practice, though, the designation of a prime minister has usually been easy. The months of post-election wrangling that we see in Belgian and Dutch parliaments, for instance, have never been needed here. The process has been straightforward in Sweden because parties have grouped themselves in a rather neat and predictable way. This is “bloc politics”.
Traditionally, there have been two Swedish blocs, one on the left, one on the right. (Without much in the way of ethnic or religious division, there was little else to mobilize political parties around.) Indeed, the system increasingly resembled a simple two-party system. In 2004 the four centre-right parties formed the “Alliance for Sweden”, which everyone soon just called the Alliance. Then, before the 2010 election, the Social Democrats responded by forming “red-green co-operation”.
Today, though, all that seems a long time ago. In the current campaign, the Alliance parties have failed to produce a joint manifesto. Their joint initiatives have been half-hearted. Meanwhile, the parties in the current coalition government, the Social Democrats and the Greens, no longer even pretend to agree on much.
Why have the blocs loosened up? The answer is the arrival of an eighth party in parliament, the Sweden Democrats (SD).
Sweden Democrat leader Jimmie Åkesson. Photo: Henrik Montgomery/TT
The great disruptors
Swedish politics has changed. SD – which, according to polls, might win something between 18 and 25 percent of the vote – has both shaped and reflected a new political agenda. Questions about the distribution of wealth and resources, which, like the blocs, can easily be organized on the left-right axis, have been pushed aside in voters' minds by issues related to law and order, ethnic integration and – above all – immigration and asylum-seeking. Crucially, these emotive policy issues split both blocs.
In 2015-18 the biggest party in each bloc, the Social Democrats and the Moderates, tacitly accepted that lots of voters agreed with SD's hard line on these issues. The two parties adjusted their own policies accordingly. Other parties in their blocs, however, did not. Now it is hard to see how, say, the Moderates and the Centre Party could agree on enough to renew the Alliance. For the same reason, another coalition between the Social Democrats and the Greens is difficult to imagine.
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The Alliance, moreover, is also split by a strategic but closely related question: how to relate, or not relate, to SD. For some in the Alliance, the maintenance of what political scientists call the cordon sanitaire around SD – in other words, a strategy of isolation – is non-negotiable. For others, some sort of accommodation with SD might be conceivable. On this, the “government question”, then, the Alliance is fundamentally divided.
Couldn't the Social Democrats and Moderates just forget their traditional blocs and team up together, in their own “grand coalition”? Perhaps. This has been the solution in Germany in recent years. One Swedish newspaper, Expressen, advocates such an outcome.
Yet it looks unlikely. For a start, the two old rivals might not win a parliamentary majority between them. The need for additional coalition parties would surely make any deal far more complicated. Anyway, it would be psychologically difficult. After the 2014 election, there was in fact a variant of a grand coalition. The two blocs decided that the smaller one would allow the bigger one to govern. It was known as the December Agreement. It proved too much for many Moderates to stomach.
Coalition partners Stefan Löfven and Gustav Fridolin. Friendly today, but what about after the election? Photo: Henrik Montgomery/TT
Parties avoiding commitment
So both blocs are split. Neither can win its own majority anyway. Cross-bloc majority combinations look unwieldy and far-fetched. No other party wants to deal with SD. Does that make Sweden ungovernable? Not necessarily. The rules of the game come back into the picture here.
In establishing which individual has the “confidence” of parliament to lead a government, Sweden uses a so-called negative procedure. Put simply, it gives a potential prime minister a considerable benefit of the doubt. The candidate doesn't have to show that he or she has the support of a majority in parliament. Rather, the candidate has to show merely that there is no majority against his or her candidacy.
That distinction sounds arcane, but it makes a real difference. It has the effect of letting divided or conflicted parties off the hook.
Take the Centre Party. It has done well in the polls; it could be Sweden's fourth-biggest party, with about 10 percent of the vote. But it has painted itself into a corner. Its leader, Annie Lööf, says that she wants a centre-right government. But, she insists, the Centre would never sully itself by participating in one that needs the acceptance of SD for its survival.
Those pledges look hard to reconcile. Because of the parliamentary rules, though, the Centre's leader might yet manage it. Perhaps she could regret, publicly and bitterly, the emergence, again, of a Social Democratic prime minister – while her party, again, tolerates just that outcome, by declining to vote against such a government or its budget. Perhaps she could indeed refuse to take part in a centre-right government that is accepted by SD – while her party holds its nose and itself tolerates just such a government. A centre-right prime minister would probably be a Moderate. But it is conceivable that Lööf herself could assume that mantle – and thus emerge as the prime ministerial candidate whom newly elected Swedish parliamentarians dislike the least.
Quite possibly, then, Sweden will emerge with a rather extreme form of minority government – one whose only party has attained just a quarter or even a tenth of the seats in parliament. That is a recipe for slow, painstaking legislative negotiations on everything. It might not be what Sweden really needs. But it is not a recipe for chaos. In parliamentary politics, especially in Sweden, it may be better to be tolerated than liked.
Nicholas Aylott, associate professor of political science, Södertörn University.