Politics For Members

Five political crises in Sweden's history and how they were resolved

Catherine Edwards
Catherine Edwards - [email protected]
Five political crises in Sweden's history and how they were resolved
STOCKHOLM 1990-02-15 Voteringstavlan vid omröstningen i riksdagen om regeringens proposition om lönestopp 15:e februari 1990 i riksdagshuset i Stockholm. Foto: Lars Hedberg / TT / Kod: 1990.

Sweden's political landscape has changed significantly in recent years, leading to a situation where for the first time a sitting PM has been toppled in a no-confidence vote. But it's not the first time the country has experienced political turmoil, so we look back at previous crises, what caused them and how Sweden got through them.


1958: The last snap election

Elections outside the usual cycle (currently terms run for four years, but previously it was three) are extremely unusual in Sweden, and have happened in 1887, 1914 and 1958. 

The last time they took place, it was a row over pensions that prompted the early vote. At the time, Sweden had a bicameral parliament (the single chamber system with a total of 350 MPs would not be introduced until 1971).

The Social Democrats, then led by Tage Erlander in coalition with the Centre Party, had failed to get their proposed pensions reforms passed by parliament. Although the left-wing bloc had one more mandate than the right, at 116, one Social Democrat MP was absent on the day of the vote, leaving it neck-and-neck. The Centre Party was not happy with the Social Democrats' plan to push through their reforms anyway, so left the government, but at this point did not choose to work with the right-of-centre parties.

So a snap election took place, with the result that the Social Democrats picked up an extra five seats, Erlander returned to power as head of a one-party government and completed his term until 1960.


1976: Nuclear power causes a rift 

After the 1976 election, a right-of-centre coalition made up of the Moderates, Centre Party, and the People's Party (today the Liberals) took power, breaking 44 years of Social Democratic rule.

But there were internal divisions, and the one that proved to be decisive was nuclear power. Prime Minister and leader of the Centre Party Thorbjörn Fälldin wanted to stop the expansion of nuclear power, but his two partners disagreed. The reached a compromise whereby new plants could only be set up if there were clear plans on how to store nuclear waste, but when Fälldin saw that these rules were not stopping expansion, the disagreement ultimately led him to resign, and the People's Party completed the government term as a single-party government. 

At the next election in 1979, Fälldin again took power and stayed in the role of PM for two terms, first with a three-party government with the Moderates and People's Party, the second term in coalition only with the People's Party.


1990: A break in the left-wing bloc

In the 1988 election, the Social Democrats won 45 percent of the votes, making it a minority government. Whereas today the Social Democrats govern in coalition with the Green Party (who actually entered parliament for the first time in 1988), back then the government relied on the support of the Left Party but did not include them in a coalition, meaning no Left Party MPs were government ministers.

In early 1990, Sweden was facing a financial crisis, so Prime Minister Ingvar Carlsson announced a set of measures including wage freezes and a strike ban aimed at stopping inflation. The latter issue was a step too far for the Left Party and the day after Valentine's Day, the relationship between the two left-wing parties broke down. The Left voted against the government's proposals, which were defeated with a majority of 190 votes.

Ultimately, Carlsson returned as PM just a few weeks later and the Left Party agreed to support the government once again in return for some policy concessions, but it's reasonable to argue that this split was a line in the sand, after which the Social Democrats could no longer count on the Left's support.


2014: The December Agreement

1958 might be the last time a snap election took place, but one was called for March 2015, and only averted after a last-minute cross-party deal.

In September 2014, the Social Democrat-Green government took power, but as a minority government. This led to it struggling to get enough support for its own budget. In Sweden, opposition parties may put forward their own alternative policy proposals, which can be passed if they win a parliamentary majority. Historically, this has not been all that common because the government typically has the support of the majority. The difference in 2014 (and today) is largely due to the influence of the Sweden Democrats. In 2014, no party had wanted to cooperate with the far-right party to build a government reliant on their support, but they voted for the opposition's budget rather than the government's.

After the conservative budget was passed, Löfven called a snap election, but this was averted after talks over the Christmas period. The four centre-right parties, the Social Democrats and the Greens struck a deal to stop something similar happening again, agreeing to implement the opposition's budget, but saying that in future, if it looked like a future government budget won't get enough support, then the main opposition parties either wouldn't vote for or wouldn't put forward a rival budget. However, the agreement was called off just a few months later.

2018: A very close election and an uneasy alliance

Sweden's September 2018 election was incredibly close, with just one mandate separating the right- and left-wing blocs and neither netting enough votes to gain a majority.

With eight parties represented in parliament, finding a compromise was tough, and it took four months of talks between the parties before any one prime ministerial candidate could gather enough support to take office.

This time, the crisis was solved temporarily through the January Agreement, a deal between the Social Democrat-Green government and two of their former opposition rivals, the Centre and Liberal parties. 

However, it's up for debate whether we can say this crisis was truly resolved. It was an uneasy alliance, with the Left Party disappointed in the concessions the Social Democrats made to the right, and declaring from the outset that it would pursue a no-confidence motion if certain decisions were taken, particularly around employment rights and rental laws. In June 2021, the Left made good on that promise, voting with the right-wing opposition parties in a no-confidence vote that brought down the government and triggered the current crisis.

Editorial note: This article was amended on July 1st to reflect the fact that electoral cycles were previously three years, and that there were only three right-of-centre parties in parliament after the 1958 election. Thank you to member Richard for alerting us to the mistakes.


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