An election without winners: Swedish politics faces an uncertain future
Emanuel Örtengren // 05.09.2018
When Jimmie Åkesson, leader of the nationalist Sweden Democrats, entered the stage at the party’s summer festival in early August he exuded confidence: “Now we are approaching the finishing line – but not just as contenders… we are about to win”, Åkesson declared.
But with the Swedish election on September 9 drawing near, it is unclear what exactly ‘winning’ would entail. Certainly, the Sweden Democrats’ ascent in the polls has been nothing but meteoric: after increasing their vote share from 5.7 percent in the elections in 2010 to 12.9 percent in 2014, the latest ‘poll of polls’ show the party at nearly 20 percent today. However, the party remains isolated in parliament, and even Åkesson himself doesn’t expect the Sweden Democrats to be part of the next government.
However, that does not mean that any of the traditional coalitions will win either. Due to the Sweden Democrats’ explosive growth, neither the leftist bloc (the Social Democrats, the Greens and the Left Party) nor the centre-right coalition (the Moderates, the Centre Party, the Liberals and the Christian Democrats) is likely to win a majority of seats in parliament.
Furthermore, Sweden’s shifting political landscape is putting the stability of these coalitions to the test. Due to the large influx of refugees and a sharp rise in shootings in recent years, immigration and law and order have become two of the most important issues to voters. And the new fault lines run within coalitions as much as between them.
For example, the Green Party’s former leader Åsa Romson famously cried when announcing the Social Democratic-Green coalition government’s new, tougher immigration policy during the refugee crisis in 2015. Likewise, the Centre Party controversially supported the government’s amnesty proposal for 9,000 Afghan immigrants this spring, which sparked conflict within the centre-right coalition.
The Social Democrats, Sweden’s traditional governing party, have found it particularly challenging to reinvent themselves in this new political landscape. The Social Democrats are trying to frame this election as a ‘referendum’ on what kind of welfare services Swedes want, but this message is not as resonant as it has been in the past. Much like their sister parties in other parts of Europe, the Swedish Social Democrats’ support has plummeted. The party has lost more than one in three voters since 2002 and is now at 25 percent in the polls, which would be their worst election result since the introduction of universal suffrage in Sweden.
All of this makes Ulf Kristersson, leader of the Moderates, the strongest candidate to become Prime Minister. However, since Kristersson’s centre-right coalition most likely won’t win a majority in parliament, the Moderates have to pick their poison:
1. They can they break the Sweden Democrats’ isolation and rule with their support. This is similar to the situation in Denmark, where the nationalist Danish People’s Party has had a confidence and supply agreement with liberal-conservative governments.
2. Alternatively, they can form a grand coalition which includes the Social Democrats, much like the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats have done in Germany.
If Kristersson chooses the first option, there could be a significant backlash from more liberal centre-right voters, and both the Centre Party and the Liberals have refused such an arrangement. If he forms a grand coalition, the disenchantment with the political establishment might grow even further, bolstering the Sweden Democrats.
A third option for the Moderates might be to form a government by themselves and broker deals with the other parties in different constellations depending on the issue. Such a government would be weak and find it hard to enact the major liberal reforms of the rigid housing and labour markets that Sweden sorely needs.
Thus, it is hard to claim that there will be any real winners emerging from the 2018 Swedish elections. Most of all, the election provides an illustration of two pan-European phenomena: the rise of nationalism and the demise of social democracy. While Sweden is not the first European country to experience such an upset of the traditional party system, the Swedish case is especially striking given that nationalism has long been outside the political mainstream and because of the Social Democrats’ historical dominance in Swedish politics. After September 9, that era will definitely draw to a close.
Emanuel Örtengren is a Project Coordinator working with economic policy at Timbro, the largest free market think tank in the Nordics.