OPINION: In Sweden’s ‘Waterloo’ election the ‘winners’ turn out to be the losers

The Social Democrats came out top in Sunday's election, with one of their best election results in years. Despite this, the chances of them staying in power seem slim. In this election, the losers are the winners and the winners are the losers.

OPINION: In Sweden's 'Waterloo' election the 'winners' turn out to be the losers
Swedish pop group Abba, winners of the Eurovision Song Contest 1974 with their song Waterloo. Photo: Olle Lindeborg/Scanpix/TT

For many foreigners in Sweden used to different electoral systems, or indeed others following the results of the Swedish election from abroad, the results of this election are strange, to say the least.

The ruling left-wing Social Democrats, who have been the largest party in every Swedish election for over 100 years, took the largest share of the vote in the preliminary count (final results are expected on Wednesday, at the earliest): 30.5 percent, an improvement on the 28.3 percent they received in 2018.

The Green Party, part of the same left-wing bloc as the Social Democrats, also increased their share of the vote since 2018, gaining two extra seats – impressive for a party which as recently as two days before the vote was worried as to whether it would achieve the 4 percent threshold to stay in parliament.

Despite this, the two parties look like they will be in opposition to a government led by the Moderates, who appear to have had their worst election result since 2002, even losing their status as Sweden’s second-largest party, a position they’ve held since the 1980s.

The biggest winner in Sunday’s vote – Jimmie Åkesson’s far-right party the Sweden Democrats – may also turn out to be losers. The party took 20.6 percent of the votes, according to preliminary results and gained 11 seats on their 2018 result, but the other parties in their right-wing bloc look likely to refuse them ministerial roles in a right-wing government.

Every other party in the right-wing bloc, those will be either leading or supporting Sweden’s new government, has ended up with a worse preliminary result than four years ago, with the Christian Democrats on 5.4 percent, down from 6.3, the Moderates on 19.1, down from 19.8, and the Liberals on 4.6, down from 5.5 percent.

Yet, they are the winners. Sweden’s new prime minister looks likely to be Moderate leader Ulf Kristersson, the leader of a party which just had their worst election result in 20 years.

The only true losers in this election are the Left Party and the Centre Party, who not only have a lower share of the vote than last election, but also appear to be on the losing team.

The ‘Waterloo’ election

So, is this the Waterloo election, to quote iconic Swedish pop group ABBA? “I feel like I win when I lose”?

Depending on how much you want to read into the lyrics of Waterloo, there’s a lot which applies to these election results. The story of someone finally giving in, “I tried to hold you back, but you were stronger … and now it seems my only chance is giving up the fight.”

Sounds familiar? Just five years ago, in 2017, the prospect of the Moderates working together with the Sweden Democrats was so controversial that their party leader, Anna Kinberg Batra, was ousted for even suggesting the idea.

Following the 2018 election, and the Sweden Democrat’s 17.5 percent vote share (an increase of 4.6 percent on their previous result in 2014), the three other right-wing parties started to accept the fact that they would be unable to lead a right-wing government without the far-right party, whose support has grown in every election since its inception since 1998.

One-by-one, they gave up their former stance of refusing to collaborate with Åkesson’s party on ideological grounds and welcomed him into the fold.

“Waterloo, I was defeated, you won the war,
Waterloo, promise to love you forevermore,
Waterloo, couldn’t escape if I wanted to,
Waterloo, knowing my fate is to be with you…”

Three years ago, in March 2019, Christian Democrat leader Ebba Busch finally opened the door to the Sweden Democrats when she announced her party was open to working with “all parties in parliament”.

Again in 2019, the Moderate’s new leader Ulf Kristersson also announced that his party would be open to working together with the Sweden Democrats.

Just one year ago, following Sweden’s governmental crisis in June 2021, the Liberals switched sides, agreeing to support the Sweden Democrats and finally shifting the balance of power from the left-wing bloc to the right.

And the decision to give in and accept their fate appears to have paid off. Despite all three of them doing worse in the 2022 election than in 2018, they’ve come out on top.

“So how could I ever refuse?
I feel like I win when I lose”

Let’s just hope we’re not going be thinking “Mamma Mia, here we go again” in a couple of months.

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Sweden Elects: New finance minister under fire after first long interview

In our weekly Sweden Elects newsletter, The Local's editor Emma Löfgren explains the key events to keep an eye on in Swedish politics this week.

Sweden Elects: New finance minister under fire after first long interview


Elisabeth Svantesson has given her first long interview as finance minister, speaking to the Svenska Dagbladet daily just days after she presented her first budget on behalf of Sweden’s new, right-wing government.

The government has already faced accusations of deprioritising the climate crisis, and Svantesson conceded in the interview that its planned investment in nuclear power (which is a low-emission source of energy, but takes time to develop, so it pays off only in the long run) would also make it difficult to reach Sweden’s climate targets within the next decade.

Asked what will happen if Sweden does not meet its Agenda 2030 target, the sustainable development targets agreed by the United Nations, by that year, she said: “It would mean that we don’t meet the targets. If we don’t we don’t, but our ambition is to steer towards that goal.”

That quote, which was perceived as far more laissez-faire than the situation warrants, was met with criticism from the opposition.

“I’m astounded at how you sign agreements and vote for legislation in parliament only to ignore it when you feel like it,” said Green Party leader Per Bolund.

The Social Democrats’ former finance minister Mikael Damberg gave a diplomatic-or-patronising answer (a school of conflict avoidance that can be perfected only by a party that’s more used to being in power than not being in power) and guessed that Svantesson had perhaps not meant it like that. “Svantesson has had a lot to do this week, maybe she’s tired.”

Speaking of interviews, one Swedish newsroom has not yet been getting them, at least not with senior ministers. One of public broadcaster SVT’s top political interviewers, Anders Holmberg, points out that all four right-wing party leaders and several ministers have declined to appear on his “30 minuter”, a show famous for putting hard-hitting questions to politicians and senior decision-makers. It’s of course not mandatory to say yes to all interviews even as a politician, but it’s an unusual move.

It’s interesting that Bolund tried to attack Svantesson specifically on not following through on commitments. This has been a recurring piece of criticism since the new government was elected two months ago.

The budget was more conservative (in this particular case I mean conservative as in cautious rather than as in right-wing) than you might have expected based on the government’s election pledges, and it’s not the only campaign promise that they’ve been forced to backtrack on.

“The central thing is that they’re breaking most of their major election promises at the same time as as they’re not really managing to take care of the big social problems Sweden faces today,” Damberg told SVT.

To be fair, you would kind of expect him to say this (when has a political opposition party ever praised the government’s budget?), but significantly, the criticism hasn’t only come from the left-wing opposition.

Moderate Party politicians in the powerful Skåne region earlier this month slammed their party for failing to deliver the promised support to those suffering sky high power bills in the southern Swedish county.

“There are effectively no reforms, and they’re not putting in place the policies they campaigned for in the election,” the head of the liberal think tank Timbro told the Aftonbladet newspaper about the budget.

It will be interesting to see whether the label as “promise breakers” sticks, and whether that will affect the right-wing parties in the next election.

Did you know?

Parties make more and more pledges during election campaigns. Ahead of the 2014 election, a whopping 1,848 vallöften (election promises) were made, according to research by Gothenburg University, up from 326 in 1994.

You may not believe this, because the stereotypical image of the dishonest politician perhaps unfairly endures, but research shows that most politicians keep most of their election promises most of the time.

Swedish parties in a single-party government and coalition governments with a joint manifesto tend to deliver on between 80 and 90 percent of their vallöften, according to political scientist Elin Naurin. For coalition governments without a joint manifesto, it ranges from 50 to 70 percent.

In other news

the deputy mayor of the town of Norrtälje, who got 15 seconds – technically 26 seconds – of fame after he was left speechless when a reporter asked him to defend hefty pay rises for top councillors has resigned, saying he wants to take responsibility for what happened.

He also told SVT about his long and very awkward silence on camera that his brain had simply blacked out after having worked for 13 hours straight and gone nine hours without food in the post-election frenzy.

Sweden Elects is a weekly column by Editor Emma Löfgren looking at the big talking points and issues after the Swedish election. Members of The Local Sweden can sign up to receive the column as a newsletter in their email inbox each week. Just click on this “newsletters” option or visit the menu bar.