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Sweden Parliamentary Elections: Left and Right Down to the Wire on Premiership

On 11 September, Swedes will go to the polls to elect a new parliament following four years of various government collapses. The electoral campaign is dominated by issues like crime, inflation and whether the national-conservative Sweden Democrats should be isolated from power. Meanwhile opinion polls show a neck-and-neck race between the parties endorsing centre-left Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson (S-S&D) and the right-of-centre opposition that aims to oust her from office. However, it is unlikely that any of these two groupings manage to form a stable government.

For decades, Swedish politics was divided in two distinct blocs: the Red-Greens that consisted of the centre-left Social Democrats (S-S&D), Greens (MP-Greens/EFA) and left-wing Left Party (V-LEFT) while the Alliance consisted of the centre-right Moderates (M-EPP), Christian Democrats (KD-EPP), liberal Centre Party (C-RE) and Liberals (L-RE). However, with the national-conservative Sweden Democrats (SD-ECR) entering parliament in 2010, neither of the blocs managed to assemble a majority of seats. The two blocs’ initial reaction was coming up with creative solutions to isolate SD from political influence, forming weak minority governments.

After the 2018 election, the situation was no different: the Red Greens were one seat larger than the Alliance, but without a majority. Then Prime Minister Stefan Löfven (S-S&D) tried to continue with his initial minority government, but was voted down two weeks later in a confidence vote in parliament. A three month long political gridlock followed after which Löfven managed to form a new minority S-MP-government with support from the liberal C and L parties from the Alliance. This arrangement became known as the January Coalition as it was formed in January 2019 and broke down the traditional bloc politics Sweden had until then.

This January Coalition lacked, however, a parliamentary majority and collapsed in June 2021 when the left-wing opposition V joined forces in a no confidence motion with the opposition of M, SD and KD on the right. Löfven later formed a third minority S-MP-government which was this time tolerated by the economic polar opposites liberal C and left-wing V while the Liberals switched to the opposition. This would prove to be an unstable arrangement when Löfven’s successor Magdalena Andersson (S-S&D), mere seven hours after being appointed as new prime minister, had to resign when her budget was defeated in parliament and MP quit the government in November 2021. She returned to the office a few days later. Since then Sweden has been governed by a minority S-government supported by C, V, MP and the left-wing independent Amineh Kakabaveh with just a one seat majority in parliament .

A controversial but necessary opposition alliance

When the Centre Party and Liberals decided to support social democrat Löfven as prime minister in 2019, the Alliance consisting of them, the Moderates and Christian Democrats broke apart. Without the Alliance, M and KD lost their regular pathway to power and had to choose: either the parties would want to work with S as well or open the door to cooperation with the Sweden Democrats. Considering the strong polarisation between S and M as Sweden’s two largest parties, M and KD chose to cooperate with SD instead. The Liberals, finally in June 2021 when the January Coalition collapsed, also u-turned on their previous wish to isolate SD from political influence and joined them, M and KD forming a seemingly united right-of-centre opposition.

If M, SD, KD and L were to get a majority together in parliament after the election, they will oust S from power and try to form some sort of government amongst them which would be the first time ever SD gets direct political influence over a government. However, there are still many difficulties. The decision by L to cooperate with SD has created wide rifts inside the party leaving many members discontent. In order to mediate this split, L has made clear they will try to limit SD’s power over a right-of-centre government as much as possible and not allow them to fully enter one with ministerial offices.

M and KD agree with L that cooperation with SD should be limited to a confidence and supply agreement. According to them SD is still too radical to deliver ministers and on economic issues the parties differ too with SD being more welfarist. Yet M and KD also prefer L to remain outside of the government as a supporting party. Reason is that M and KD still distrust how loyal L is to them considering the party until recently supported a S-led government. This distrust is fueled by the possibility that a few Liberal MPs could rebel through the course of a right-of-centre government if there were to be a tight majority for the four parties and SD’s power were too big for them.

The question on how to handle SD is a challenge for M-leader Ulf Kristersson’s aspirations to become prime minister. The current electoral campaign is dominated by issues that traditionally benefit the Swedish right like inflation, the energy crisis and Sweden’s relatively high crime rate. Yet M, SD, KD and L are still polling just below a majority at 49%. The move to cooperate with SD has pushed several progressive centre-right voters from M to S. Especially among women and in the city of Stockholm—traditionally a stronghold for M—the party sees its vote share decline in opinion polls. And discussions on SD’s hypothetical power in case of an opposition majority have become even more heated now M risks to be smaller than SD according to latest polling. If realised in an election, this would be the first time since 1976 M is not Sweden’s second largest party.

Andersson’s coalition: united in what they dislike

For the Social Democrats, who have been in power since 2014, the past eight years have been a bit bumpy. The party has led weak minority governments lacking a clear majority support in parliament, saw four times how their budget was defeated or heavily amended by the opposition and had to manage various government collapses. Furthermore, the effects of the migrant crisis in 2015, the rise of violent crime in Sweden and the economically liberal reforms S as a centre-left party had to enforce during the January Coalition with C and L had initially undermined their electoral position. S had been losing voters to V on their left and SD on their right and fell to around 24% by 2021—much below the 28% S received in 2018 which in itself was the party’s worst election result in a century.

But as of now, S seems to have recovered itself a bit to polling around 30% while the right-of-centre opposition narrowly fails to assemble a majority. S took the January Coalition’s collapse in 2021 as an opportunity to renew itself by replacing former prime minister Stefan Löfven with Magdalena Andersson as party leader. Andersson has much higher approval rates than Löfven and is the only party leader with positive popularity numbers. Andersson’s popularity and the centre-right cooperating with SD have allowed S to compensate for their earlier losses by winning over liberal voters in urban areas like Stockholm where the party had been traditionally weak.

Yet the troubles for S are still there: violent crime keeps rising while prospects of forming a stable government after the election are grim. With the four right-of-centre opposition determined to oust S from office, the party is stuck with the task of somehow uniting the economic polar opposites C and V. The Left Party demands significant tax rises, the drawback of privatisations in public services while entering government for the first time ever. These are things the Centre Party—Sweden’s most economically liberal party—is unlikely to accept. Hence why C has ruled out any government participation or budget negotiations with V and instead wishes to form a grand coalition in the centre with both S and M. 

However, neither party—especially M—seems interested in making it rather likely that C will have to work with V somehow. This would put C in an uneasy position. There is a difference between the party’s voters who are open to the idea of cooperating with V and the members who are generally more economically liberal and highly dislike this arrangement. As of now the one thing that unites S, V, C and MP is their shared determination to isolate the Sweden Democrats from any political power. And for as long V and C fail to agree over a political agenda, Andersson might yet again have to see how her budgets and legislation are defeated in parliament if reelected as prime minister.

The electoral system in a nutshell

The Swedish electoral system works in a proportional Saintë-Lague framework with some balancing seats at the national level to ensure proportionality. But a crucial aspect that decides which grouping of parties manages to assemble a majority in parliament is the national electoral threshold. For a party to enter parliament and get any seats, it needs to get at least four per cent of the votes nationwide. In the past few years it has been the Liberals and Greens that often polled below that threshold and still are polling relatively close to it. And as polling shows a very tight race between M, SD, KD and L on one side and S, V, C and MP on the other, whether one party falls out of parliament is crucial.

The Greens have had a tough time in opinion polls hovering around four per cent after being a junior partner in social democratic led governments for seven years. If MP were indeed to fall below the threshold and lose all its seats, it is a big advantage for the right-of-centre opposition almost surely assuring them a parliamentary majority. The same is true for the parties endorsing Andersson as prime minister if the Liberals fall below the threshold. L has until recently polled below the threshold amid party infighting over what kind of power the Sweden Democrats should get over a government. For that reason it is likely S and M voters will vote strategically for MP and L in that respective order.

Even though the election looms close, it is hard to say by whom Sweden will be governed after 11 September. Polls show an almost fifty-fifty race between the two loose blocs. The issues of high crime rate and inflation due to increasing energy prices dominating the political debate speak in favour of M, SD, KD and L. Meanwhile prime minister Andersson’s popularity and the hesitance among many voters against SD getting political influence speak in favour of S, V, C and MP. However, considering the conflicts among each of these groups, Sweden will likely have to deal with yet another four years of a weak and unstable minority government. 

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