This feature is part of The Local's award-winning Sweden in Focus series, taking an in-depth look at the issues that make this country tick. Click here to read more articles.
Forming a government is typically a speedy process in Sweden, particularly compared to its European neighbours. A system of negative parliamentarism means proposed governments do not, technically, need a single vote in favour – all that is required for their survival is for a majority of MPs not to vote against them.
On Wednesday, parliament will vote on a government led by centre-right leader Ulf Kristersson. Unless any of Sweden's parties have a major change of heart at the last second, he will become the first PM candidate to lose such a vote.
“In a way, what's really surprising is the amount of time that's passed since the election and the fact that the parties are still in the same locked positions as they were before,” Johan Hellström, a senior politics lecturer at Umeå University, tells The Local.
“What we've got is two very strong political blocs that don't really want to cooperate or form a government outside their bloc.”
Parliamentary speaker Andreas Norlén and Moderates leader Ulf Kristersson. Photo: Pontus Lundahl/TT
On the left of the political spectrum, there's the Social Democrats, Green Party and Left Party. After the former two ruled Sweden in a minority government for four years, with the support of the latter in parliament, the bloc's lead was reduced to just one seat after the September 9th election, giving it 144 seats in total.
Stefan Löfven, leader of the Social Democrats, has called for cross-bloc cooperation to break the ensuing stalemate, but has so far failed to convince any of the centre-right parties to join a government under his leadership. Several prominent Social Democrats have even called on their party to back down and allow the Alliance to lead, but Löfven has refused to do this since the red-green bloc gained the most votes.
To the right of the spectrum is the four-party Alliance, made up of the Moderates, Christian Democrats, Centre Party, and Liberals. With one seat less than the red-greens (143), they too fall far short of a majority, and the parties are divided on which other groups they should work with, and how, in order to get into government.
Little progress has been made so far since the September 9th election, but the aim of parliamentary speaker Andreas Norlén, who was not available to comment for this article, is to stimulate change by forcing the parties to vote after weeks of closed-doors talks.
“This is the first time [since the election] that we're actually asking people to make choices,” notes Hellström.
The number of times parliament can vote on a government is capped at four before a snap election must be called, a prospect which would cost a lot, likely alienate a large portion of the electorate, and which only the Sweden Democrats have called for. Because of this, Hellström argues: “Each time, the parties should feel more pressure to cooperate and even form governments that would have been unthinkable before the election.”
The issue threatening to split the Alliance isn't a question of policy or a power-struggle; all four parties supported Moderate leader Kristersson as prime ministerial candidate in the run-up to the election. But now that he has officially been proposed for the post, the Centre Party and Liberals have said they'll vote against him. This boils down to a disagreement over how to handle the country's newest major political force, the far-right Sweden Democrats.
The Sweden Democrats have been more or less isolated from political decision-making since they first entered parliament in 2010, although they do hold positions on parliamentary committees. Media coverage in the run-up to the election, particularly internationally, focused on the prospect that they might become Sweden's second-largest party. They failed to reach that landmark, but the real story is the fractures caused in the country's two main blocs.
“You could say that when it comes to the political agenda, then the Sweden Democrats have already been very influential,” says Nicholas Aylott, associate professor of political science at Södertörn University.
The Sweden Democrats have not been involved in propping up a government either formally or informally, despite coming close to holding the balance of power. From 2014, the red-green minority government ruled with an agreement to work together with the Left Party on their budget, but still needed support from at least one opposition party to pass legislation.
After his budget was voted down by the Alliance and Sweden Democrats, Löfven called a snap election, saying his party couldn't govern in the circumstances. This was ultimately averted after the red-green bloc and Alliance reached a temporary solution, the so-called December Agreement. This meant the opposition parties agreed not to vote on their own budget, effectively preventing the Sweden Democrats from wielding political influence. That agreement collapsed a year later, and the far-right group have succeeded in exerting influence in less direct ways.
“If you look at policy changes the Social Democrats and Moderates have implemented regarding immigration and law and order, this was under great pressure from the Sweden Democrats because they were attracting so many votes,” Aylott explains. “The Social Democrat swing on immigration and law and order issues over the last year has been one of the biggest surprises to me in Swedish politics in recent years. I hadn't really thought that the party could re-orientate itself in that tougher way.”
With the Moderates and Social Democrats leaning further right on immigration policy, the gap has widened between their stance and that of their coalition allies – the Centre and Liberals in the Alliance, and the Green Party in the red-green bloc. This has weakened the two blocs which have been a mainstay of Swedish politics over the past decade.
And because the Sweden Democrats attract so many votes (17.6 percent in this election), the Moderates and Christian Democrats have opened the door to what's called 'indirect support' from the party. This means that the Sweden Democrats would not vote against their government proposal, but for the Centre Party and Liberals, even this kind of passive support by abstaining from the vote would be a step too far on the path to legitimizing a party with roots in the Neo-Nazi movement.
On Monday, Kristersson insisted that his government would not be “at all dependent” on the Sweden Democrats. His proposed government comprises the Moderates and Christian Democrats, without the other two Alliance partners, who have refused to participate. Even if it had the support of the Liberal and Centre, the Moderate-Christian Democrat government would be reliant on the far-right Sweden Democrats either voting in favour or abstaining. And the far-right party has repeatedly said it would need “guarantees” in order to lend the Moderate leader its support, and has already named its key demand: measures to reduce the number of new asylum seekers and those entering Sweden for family reunification.
Empty chairs in Swedish parliament. Photo: Pontus Lundahl/TT
In the run-up to the election, the Alliance stated two key aims: no direct cooperation with the Sweden Democrats, and unseating the Social Democrat prime minister. The Centre Party was particularly adamant on the former, and also ruled out indirect support of the kind Kristersson would rely on.
“The risk they took is that they painted themselves into a corner and ruled out the two most realistic options for a Swedish government,” says Aylott, referring to the Centre Party's pledge to neither support a Social Democrat-led government or any government receiving support from the Sweden Democrats.
“I think that they can't back down when it comes to the Sweden Democrats. They made such a big deal out of it that their credibility would be shot to pieces.”
If the Centre Party does take this gamble and back Kristersson's proposal, he would present his list of ministers and first statement of government on Thursday morning. But assuming that this doesn't happen, the next steps will be another round of exploratory talks between the parliamentary speaker and party leaders, after which another candidate would likely be given a mandate to try to form a government, which could be put to another vote (the second out of the total four chances). If all four tries were unsuccessful, the result would be a snap election likely to benefit few.
Since the election, only marginal changes have been recorded in opinion polls, with the Sweden Democrats and the Centre Party seeing a slight uptick in support and the Greens and Left Party in danger of falling below the threshold needed to enter parliament.
“There has not been any great movement; the electorate tends to stand by what they voted for,” Toivo Sjörén, head of opinion polls at TNS Sifo, tells The Local. “But I think that more change could happen when voting starts in parliament.”
TNS Sifo's research shows that Moderate and Christian Democrat voters would prefer direct or indirect support from the Sweden Democrats over having the Social Democrats or Green Party in government.
But when it comes to the Centre Party and Liberal voters, there is a bigger split, Sjörén says: “Whatever decision they take, some of their supporters will be dissatisfied. So they all have a great problem in how to handle that, and will have to deal with the consequences.”
He adds that according to the polls, the most widely accepted government would be a coalition including the Social Democrats, Green Party, Liberals and Centre Party.
Löfven failed at his first attempt to build a government after being given two weeks to hold talks. Photo: Stina Stjernkvist/TT
This view is shared by Kristina Boréus, a political scientist at Uppsala University.
“Every alternative is difficult, but that seems to be the least unrealistic option at the moment. The Centre and Liberals probably won't have any of problems with the Greens but they do need to change tack to go into government with the Social Democrats,” she said.
But even if this were possible, at least one other party would need to vote for or abstain for such a proposal. “The only party I can see doing that is the Left Party, and they would demand something in return – possibly on the topic of family reunification because they could get support from Centre and possibly from Liberals and the Greens.”
She adds that this combination would not make for an easy cooperation, “but since the results were what they were, they would be aware that they would have to keep together or resign”.
“If this government doesn't materialize within a few weeks, I think there will be new elections.”
There are two other likely options which could be explored before that point. One is for the mandate to go to Social Democrat leader Stefan Löfven, who may be able to form a Social Democrat-led minority government despite having failed in his previous attempt.
“It would be embarrassing (for the Centre Party) to defect from the Alliance and join a Social Democrat-led government. I think the least embarrassing way for everyone is just to let the Social Democrats get on with it; acknowledge their right to govern and let them get their budget through,” says Aylott.
“You also have to remember that the Centre and Liberals would be on the defensive if and when they accept a Social Democrat-led government because plenty of people will be uncomfortable with them cosying up to a left-of-centre government, which puts pressure on party leaders not to concede too much. In economic policy terms, the Centre is radically liberal and wants lots of deregulation and privatization and lower taxes – that's a recipe for deadlock in negotiations with the Social Democrats. So in that scenario, it's quite likely Sweden would get another four years of not really doing very much,” says Aylott.
Another option is that Centre Party leader Annie Lööf will be given a mandate to carry out exploratory talks. Writing in a Facebook post, she said that she “regretted” not being given this chance earlier in the process, and the Liberals have supported her in this.
Despite only commanding around ten percent of the vote, she does have power. Having ruled out the possibility of accepting support from the Sweden Democrats, Lööf favours cooperation with the Green Party and even the Social Democrats, and has pointed to the constellations forming in local governments across the country as an example of how this could work.
Annie Lööf talks to press following an Alliance meeting. Photo: Tomas Oneborg/SvD/TT
The party is involved in governing the vast majority of Sweden's regional governments (landsting) and municipal councils (kommuner), which held elections on the same day as the national vote.
In Stockholm, the Green Party, formerly a coalition partner of the Social Democrats as at the national level, has joined forces with the Alliance parties, one of seven regions where the Alliance is now ruling with the Greens. In Gothenburg, 24 years of Social Democrat leadership has been ended by a minority Alliance regional government, supported by the Left Party, Greens, and Feminist Initiative. This solution was praised by figures at the top of the Centre Party, with Lööf emphasizing that “patience and creativity can solve many problems”.
On the municipal level, a variety of constellations have emerged, including the Green Party working with the Alliance, and the centre-right either accepting support from the Sweden Democrats and, in at least three municipalities (Hörby, Sölvesborg and Staffanstorp), the Moderates are actively working with the far-right party – a violation of their party's official guidelines.
The Centre Party are best poised to take advantage of this climate. “For each political decision – they can go both to the left and the right. It could work because on the political spectrum, the Centre is basically the medium party, so they can cooperate with both the left and the right. I don't think it's anyone's favourite government but after this election none of the top choices will be possible,” explains Hellström.
At the national level, minority governments are the rule rather than the exception. In the 1970s, a one-party government of the People's Party (now the Liberals) led the country after winning only 11 percent of votes in the election and only 39 'yes' votes in parliament, due to the larger parties abstaining. And in 1981, the Centre and Liberals ruled together despite having less than 30 percent of seats in parliament after the Moderates left the government.
- How robust is Sweden's democracy? (clue: not very)
- The Swedish Election Playbook: a collaborative piece with Politico and The Local
- Election Q&A: Where do the parties stand on issues that matter to internationals?
- The Local's guide to the Swedish parties' election promises
Sweden looks likely, then, to find itself governed by a weak minority government led by either the Social Democrats, the Centre and Liberals, or possibly all three, perhaps working with the Green Party. In that scenario, they would rely on significant parliamentary support to pass any legislation, which probably translates as four years of timid policy. Alternatively, the Centre and Liberals may further down the line find they have little choice but to abstain and allow a more conservative government to be voted through.
What's more, unless something brings about a drop in Sweden Democrat support, the other parties may find that all they've achieved is postponing the decision of how to deal with them. This fits into a Europe-wide trend of political deadlock and slow government-building, with some factors common to each country.
Across the continent, established parties and blocs are experiencing fractures: Italy's centre-left Democratic Party has seen several groups break away to start rival parties and France's centre-left is similarly fragmented, for example, while relations have grown frostier not only between Sweden's Alliance parties but also within the red-green bloc. Weakened from within, the traditional groups have also faced challenges from the outside in the form of new, often radical, populist, and/or far-right movements on the rise.
“It's impossible to look at what's happening in Sweden without reference to comparable development in other countries,” notes Nicholas Aylott. “There have been several big things that have impacted politics across Europe: the financial crisis of 2008 and the very deep recession, the nature of work and the way the labour market is changing, and of course immigration. In Sweden, the rate of immigration has been so significant that it would be astonishing if it didn't have an effect.”
These changes have contributed to the rise of the Sweden Democrats, and of populist and far-right forces across the continent, leaving traditional parties with the dilemma of how to handle them. In Germany and Sweden, the AfD and Sweden Democrats have been politically isolated, while in Denmark, Austria and Norway, new right-wing parties have become part of government – and in Italy, a populist coalition is in power.
“Essentially the Swedish party system has gone into flux because of these changes. The really interesting thing will be to see how the Sweden Democrats are handled by the other parties over the medium to long term. So far you could say they have been completely isolated, in the same way that the AfD is isolated in Germany – that isolation has forced the main parties together,” he explains.
“You see a grand coalition in Germany too, and the need for a cross-bloc solution in Germany – isolation of the AfD has forced the main parties together. Sweden's December Agreement was a cousin of a grand coalition; an arrangement between the mainstream parties that was designed to isolate the Sweden Democrats,” Aylott explains.
“So Sweden could continue down that road, or it could do something similar to Denmark and Norway, and now Austria, in which a big challenger party on the right has been more or less brought into the fold; these parties are part of the government now in Norway and Austria and have been part of a governing majority in Denmark for a long time now.
“It will be really interesting to see which way Sweden turns.”
Thank you for reading. If you found this article valuable, please consider supporting The Local's independent journalism by becoming a Member. If you are already a Member, please feel free to log in and share your thoughts in the comments section below.