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Why Sweden Ended up at a Political Dead End

Nearly four months after the elections, Sweden is still without a government. Why can’t individual parties from one political bloc cooperate with a party from another bloc? Why can’t the blocs cooperate in general? In our previous article on the subject, we postulated that the electorate has become tripolar – effectively ensuring that no pole gets a majority alone. Today we ask: Why is the Swedish democratic system so deeply built around to the two pole-system that it cannot keep up with the tripolar electorate?

Roughly two weeks back, Europe Elects covered how Sweden ended up in this deadlock. This week we turn to explore why. The question of why such a separation persists between the two main coalitions – centre-left Redgröna and centre-right Alliansen – remains more or less unexplored. Further, is there another explanation for the consistent and merciless exclusion of Sweden Democrats from political considerations besides the explanation of “moral values”?

There most probably is another explanation. The way Swedish democratic institutions and electoral system are arranged generates incentives for parties to streamline their ideology and preserve their orthodoxical purity. Over time, reinforcing the same system results in a concept called path dependence, where each successive step makes it more costly and less profitable to change the direction. All up until the dead end. In short, the answer might be suitable institutions and too easy decisions.

Shangri-La of political parties – The Swedish electoral system

Democratic systems can, in general, be divided into majoritarian and proportional systems. Sweden falls to the latter category, as do most European countries. Yet within proportional systems there exists at least two different kinds of arrangements: open list and closed list systems.

Sweden can be argued to fall into to the latter category: Swedish parties themselves decide the order of their own parliamentary candidates in proportional lists. To put it in another way, voters generally only decide a party to vote for, and parliamentary seats are allocated according to the pre-prepared party-lists. This party-ordered ranking can only get overturned by a sizeable (8%, to be exact) number of voters voting for a single candidate, however this does not affect the overall list in a meaningful way. In practice, the Swedish system mostly functions as a closed list system.

In party-centred competition, the most beneficial electoral strategy for a candidate is to promote the unified ideology of the party and its national popularity, as there is evidence to suggest that there is little-to-no electoral incentive for individual candidates to develop their own platform. Bigger party popularity leads to more seats, meaning more candidates get seats from lower positions in closed lists. A candidate of the Moderate Party (EPP) is served better by sticking to the party line and promoting it – all because of the way the electoral system works. As a result, the unified party ideology gets strengthened and affirmed.

Open-list systems create a different environment entirely: candidates have big incentives to campaign for personal recognition and noteworthiness. The personal campaigning might include going against the party platform in certain unpopular aspects, as the ranking of the candidates in a list is determined by the popularity of the individual candidate among voters. In open list systems party ideologies, as a result, are more varying, negotiable and heterogeneous.

Step by step – The placid allure of easy choices

Originally from the realm of economics, the concept of path dependence has been found to be equally powerful in the world of political science. Path dependence tells us that earlier decisions make diverging from the chosen path incrementally harder with every step, creating a positive feedback loop that gathers increasing returns up cumulatively. In other words, small earlier steps can lead to big distances over time and constrain our choices.

The second component offers insight into why the political differences of different parties and blocs are so hard to overcome in Sweden. As a result of incentives for candidates to advertise the party platform first and foremost, in party-centred electoral systems those like Sweden the ideology of the party is heavily emphasised. Voters know what ideology they vote for and know what the party they voted for will do with their vote. Thus, party ideologies are develop more delineated and monolithic than they would be in a different system.

The homogenisation caused by individual candidates builds up all the way to the national political scene. Parties get more monolithic with their clearly divided, widely accepted and distinguished ideologies. As a next necessary step, when the ideological positions of political parties are clearly demarcated, elaborated, deeply embedded and solidified across the country, parties are aware and conscious about not only their own but also about the positions of other parties. With clear party ideologies, political coalitions like Redgröna or Alliansen of like-minded parties can emerge and persist for a long time if affirmed.

This is the second phase where path dependence comes to play: When similar political coalitions have been extant for decades and get reinforced every fourth year in elections, like in Sweden, it becomes continuously more costly in terms of trust and resources to break the coalitions. Such has lately been demonstrated by the qualms of Centre Party (ALDE) and Liberals (ALDE) in breaking the centre-right Alliansen coalition

Off the beaten path – Rectifying the deadlock

Is there a way out for Sweden? It seems like the little steps taken in recent decades led nowhere but to an empty alley with a dead end. As there are seemingly no more easy choices left or simple steps to be made, the only option may be to backtrack and diverge from the path that was chosen years and years ago. This may be troublesome, as the consequences would either be political discontent or hurting long-term allies and partners.

Julius is Europe Elects’ Head of Communications


Pierson, Paul. 2000. Increasing Returns, Path Dependence, and the Study of Politics. American Political Science Review, 94:2. 251-267.

Polk et al. 2017. Hill Expert Survey data. Research & Politics (January-March): 1-9.

Rickard, Stephanie J. 2017. Electoral Systems and Policy Outcomes. Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics. Visited 22/12/2018.