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ANALYSIS: How did politics in Sweden get so fiendishly complicated?

Social Democrat leader Magdalena Andersson was re-elected as Swedish prime minister on Monday, after already being voted in, forced out and re-nominated in less than 30 hours last week. How on earth did Swedish politics get so complicated?

ANALYSIS: How did politics in Sweden get so fiendishly complicated?
The compromises that allowed Magdalena Andersson to be elected prime minister were so intricate it's a wonder she got there. Photo: Erik Simander/TT

Editor’s note: Article published on November 26th and updated after Magdalena Andersson was voted back in as prime minister on November 29th.

The obvious answer, of course, is “the Sweden Democrats”.

“The old structures collapsed when the right-populist Sweden Democrats became stronger,” explains Ewa Stenberg, political commentator for Dagens Nyheter. But for her, the source of the current complexity is less the Sweden Democrats themselves, than how the other seven parties reacted to them. 

The anti-immigration party has certainly destabilised Swedish politics, sweeping up more than one in six votes in 2018, thereby depriving the former governing parties of any chance of a majority. 

The prospect of a far-right breakthrough led newspapers from across the world to parachute correspondents into Sweden back in 2018 to tell the story of how even right-on, socialist Sweden was vulnerable to the forces that had swept Donald Trump to power in the US.

Only it didn’t happen, or at least not the way the feverish global coverage suggested. 

What they failed to realise is that while the populists might be the reason for the near-deadlock in Swedish politics, this does not make them decisive. In systems with proportional representation, sometimes even the smallest parties can matter a lot.

In 2018 two of them, the Centre Party and the Liberals, broke from the right bloc, thereby depriving the Sweden Democrats of influence. This, in turn, though, has brought the left-wing bloc under strain, as the ruling Social Democrats moved to the centre to win their support, gambling that its own traditional partners, the Green Party and the Left Party, would back it anyway.

With the old bloc politics broken, Swedish politics now feels like a game of chess for eight players, in which each player’s moves alter the position for everyone else on the board in ways it is difficult for even the master strategists in the big political parties to think through.  

You can see the result of this in the deals the Social Democrats had to line up in the run-up to the November 24th vote on Magdalena Andersson as prime minister: first there was the deal with the Centre Party not to hold negotiations with the Left Party, then the deal struck between the Green Party and the Centre Party over regulation of forests and shorelines, and finally the deal with the Left Party on pensions. 

Each deal on its own was a feat of balancing, but put together they fell: the Centre thought the deal with the Left Party was a step too far and dropped its support for the government’s budget. When the budget fell, so did the proposal to spend two billion kronor buying up and protecting mountain forest areas. This meant the big payoff the Greens had won for allowing the Centre to water down forest and shoreline protection also went up in smoke. Given that the right-wing budget also cut tax on petrol, it’s perhaps not surprising that the Greens decided to leave the government. 

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Lawmakers applaud after the vote in which Sweden’s Finance Minister and Social Democratic Party leader Magdalena Andersson was appointed Sweden’s new prime minister on November 24th, seven hours before she resigned. Photo: Erik Simander/TT

For Stenberg, the complexity of the situation goes back not to the last election in 2018, but to 2010, when the Sweden Democrats had their parliamentary breakthrough. Unlike in Denmark, Norway and Finland, where the centre-right parties accommodated the populist party, in Sweden, they refused to have anything to do with it.

“The first strategy in Sweden was to isolate the Sweden Democrats, and all the seven parties in the parliament were totally agreed on this,” she tells The Local. “But when the Sweden Democrats continued to grow in spite of this isolation, they started to ask each other, ‘is this the right strategy?'”

Whether right or not, the “cordon sanitaire” more or less held up until the long, 131-day parliamentary deadlock following the 2018 elections, when first the Christian Democrat leader Ebba Busch, and then Moderate party leader Ulf Kristersson, dropped their opposition to talks with the populists.

“It was much more traumatic in Sweden because of this change in strategy from isolation to cooperation,” Stenberg says of how the populist wave has affected Sweden. “It’s much more emotional.”

Such was the vehemence and vitriol which centre-right party leaders had heaped upon the Sweden Democrats in the run-ups to both the 2010 and 2014 elections, that in every case, dropping the cordon sanitaire required a new leader: first Ebba Busch for the Christian Democrats, then Ulf Kristersson for the Moderates, and finally this year, Nyamko Sabuni for the Liberals.

“That has happened with every centre-right party that has abandoned the policy of isolating the Sweden Democrats,” says Nicholas Aylott, associate professor at Stockholm’s Södertörn University. “This has been a difficult decision for each of them in their turn, and it’s still terribly painful for the Liberals.”

Has Centre Party leader Annie Lööf painted herself into a corner? Photo: Jessica Gow/TT

The Centre Party is now the only centre-right party that still refuses to negotiate with the Sweden Democrats. This brings its own pain. When it comes to economic and fiscal politics, the Centre is the most right-wing party in parliament. Under its leader Annie Lööf, a clique of strong free-market advocates have captured the former Farmers’ Party. But it now finds itself tied into the same bloc as the former Communists.

The tax cuts, labour law deregulation, and other concessions the party received in exchange for tolerating Löfven as prime minister in 2018 seemed an extraordinary price for the Social Democrats to pay.

But it was also a kind of trap. Without the Centre Party holding them back, the Moderates and Christian Democrats have moved ever closer to forming a new conservative bloc with the Sweden Democrats, as seen by their common budget. This will make it very difficult for Lööf to rejoin them, and that in turn reduces her leverage with the Social Democrats.

“She put all her energy into a political strategy which involved reshaping the customary party system in order to organise cooperation between the middle parties, and to keep the radical parties on the left and right completely marginalised,” Aylott says of Lööf’s approach. “Everybody can see that that strategy has now failed.” 

The outer-fringe parties, or ytterkantspartier, do not look particularly marginalised. Andersson will this week become prime minister following negotiations with one of them (the Left Party), and then rule on a budget partly drawn up by the other (the Sweden Democrats).

Rather than becoming a king-maker party that can flip from left to right depending on which side offers the most policy gains, as Lööf hoped, the Centre is now locked into the left, and if it ever wants to return to the right-wing bloc, it will almost certainly come at the price of her leaving politics.

Prime Minister Stefan Löfven (left) takes part in his farewell party leader debate on Swedish television back in October. Photo: Fredrik Sandberg/TT

Magdalena Andersson perhaps didn’t have the ideal first day on the job. But according to Stenberg, it was Stefan Löfven, the man who is still officially prime minister today, who was to blame.

His big miscalculation was to underestimate the willingness of Left Party leader Nooshi Dadgostar to topple his government over labour law reforms back in June. “If he had seen that, and dropped this proposition [on Labour reform] before it became a big conflict in the parliament, she would still have had this agreement with both the Liberal Party and the Centre Party,” she argues.

The calculations on the emerging right-wing bloc are no less complex. Just as economically, the Centre party is not really at home on the left, so the Sweden Democrats are not really at home, economically speaking, on the right.

This is why the alternative budget put forward by Moderate, Christian Democrats and Sweden Democrats, was so close to the one proposed by the government. It axed a few headline proposals, notably the Social Democrats’ “family week” proposal and the Greens’ demand for government purchases of forest areas, and it cut petrol tax. But it mainly left unemployment benefits and sick leave unchanged. 

“If you look at economic issues, the Sweden Democrats are not really a right-wing party at all. They’re centre-left,” Aylott argues. “So it maybe isn’t that astonishing that a budget they helped to negotiate ends up not being a million miles away from something a Social Democratic government can live with.”

The right-wing parties’ budget was also a political play, taking careful aim at the flagship policies of the Social Democrats and the Greens. It was designed to sting, but not to force a new election. Indeed, if Andersson had threatened to hold one, they might not have pushed it so hard.

“The crucial thing was that she acknowledged that she could live with an opposition budget and that egged on the opposition,” Aylott argues. “It meant that they could go a bit harder and push their own budget, reasonably safe in the knowledge that it wouldn’t induce an extra election for which they might get blamed.”

While what happened when Andersson resigned as prime minister seven hours after her election on November 24th – before even taking office – may have looked chaotic, it was more a procedural hiccup than a full-blown government crisis.

“It’s a collapse of the power base of the Social Democratic government, but it also contains some chinks of light,” is Stenberg’s assessment.

Andreas Norlén, speaker of Sweden’s parliament, takes a question at a press conference on Monday. Photo: Jessica Gow/TT

Aylott points to the light-hearted tone of the press conference with which Magdalena Andersson tendered her resignation, to make the same point.

“She started by saying, ‘hello again’ to all the journalists, and there was a ripple of laughter,” he says. “This Finnish journalist said, ‘excuse a foreigner, but who is actually in charge of Sweden?’, and everybody collapsed in laughter. I think that signifies that this is a mild irritation for the party, but that there are plenty of pluses.”

Indeed, while the Green Party must be fuming at the Centre Party wriggling out of its part of a deal the two spent months negotiating, it’s otherwise hard to see who loses out.

Out of government, the Greens can be more radical in both rhetoric and policy, and so try to win back enough of the support lost over two terms of coalition compromise to at least stay in parliament.

The Left Party’s leader, Nooshi Dadgostar, has shown that her party can no longer be taken for granted, as it was after the 2018 election. And while the Centre Party party has lost leverage, by not supporting the government’s budget, it showed it too must be respected.

As for the Social Democrats, the government’s collapse offers it the chance to enjoy its first period of one-party rule since 2006.

“It hasn’t always been easy and uncomplicated governing with the Greens, and to be shot of them is something that will be a relief, I think, for many Social Democrats,” Aylott argues.

This means that in the run-up to September’s election, the party can present much tougher positions on immigration and law and order than would have been possible in a coalition with the Greens. Who knows? They may even be able to outmanoeuvre the right on what could turn out to be the most important election issue.

So what will happen in the run-up to September? Will the waning of populism across Europe also affect the Sweden Democrats? Will they be able to maintain their hitherto harmonious relations with the Moderates?  Will the unprecedented number of criminals currently under arrest or on trial allow the Social Democrats to claim they are finally winning the battle against gang crime?

Now Nooshi Dadgostar has shown the benefits of playing hardball, will Lööf and Green Party leaders Märta Stenevi and Per Bolund try to do the same? If so, how will that affect Andersson’s ability to lead a government with only 100 of the parliament’s 349 seats?

Finally, will the Social Democrats get a pre-election bounce from their new, energetic, ideas-driven female leader?

As you might have guessed, it’s complicated.

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SWEDEN ELECTS

Sweden Elects: The latest political news as the election campaign kicks off

What's Sweden talking about this week? In The Local's Sweden Elects newsletter, editor Emma Löfgren rounds up some of the main talking points ahead of the Swedish election.

Sweden Elects: The latest political news as the election campaign kicks off

In an interview that could have jeopardised his job a decade ago, Social Democrat Immigration Minister Anders Ygeman’s suggestion in DN that there should be a 50 percent cap on non-Nordic immigrants in troubled areas of Swedish cities showed how the debate has shifted in recent years.

That said, his comments did not go without criticism. The Left Party slammed them as “racist”, the Greens and the Centre Party also criticised them, and so did the Moderates and some within the Social Democrats.

Ygeman himself said that he had been misunderstood, that he had never meant it as an actual proposal, and that factors such as crime and unemployment were far more important in terms of integration.

“But of course segregation is not just class-based, it also has an ethnic dimension. If you have areas where almost everyone is from other countries, it’s harder to learn Swedish, and if it’s harder to learn Swedish, it’s harder to get a job,” he told public broadcaster SVT.

What do you think? Email me if you want to share your thoughts.

Campaign posters and a new poll

The centre-left Social Democrats and the Moderates, the largest right-wing opposition party, both unveiled their campaign posters last week, which I guess means that the summer holiday lull is officially over and the election campaign is now definitely under way. Just over a month to go.

It’s interesting that the Social Democrats are clearly trying to turn this into a “presidential” style campaign, taking advantage of Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson’s overwhelming popularity compared to the Moderates’ Ulf Kristersson, whose reception among voters is lukewarm.

A poll by the DN newspaper and Ipsos a month ago suggested that 37 percent of voters want to see Andersson as prime minister, compared to 22 percent who preferred Kristersson (12 percent preferred the anti-immigration Sweden Democrats’ leader Jimmie Åkesson, and the other party leaders did not get more than four percent each).

Andersson is in the unique position where voters like her way more than they like her party – a new opinion poll by Demoskop suggests that 28.7 percent would vote for the Social Democrats if the election was held today (the Moderates would get 20.3 percent). The same poll has all the right-wing parties with a slight majority compared to the left-wing parties.

Anyway, the Social Democrats’ campaign posters cover pensions, schools (specifically, limiting profit-making free schools), crime and law and order. Climate change is conspicuously absent, but a party spokesperson told reporters it will be more prominent in its social media campaigns.

When Kristersson, on the other hand, spoke at his party’s event to kick off their election campaign, he emphasised how he’s got a viable coalition on his side – a jibe at the Social Democrats, who will struggle to get their partners (specifically the Centre and Left parties) to collaborate.

He also reiterated his praise for the Sweden Democrats, and The Local asked several experts if the Moderates are the same party that fought the 2018 election, when Kristersson promised Holocaust survivor Hédi Fried he would not cooperate with the Sweden Democrats after the election.

Election pledges

The Local’s Becky Waterton has looked at the election pledges of Sweden’s four main parties, the Social Democrats, Moderates, Sweden Democrats and Centre Party. Click here to read her guide, it’s a really useful roundup.

And what about Covid? Is Sweden’s handling of the pandemic not going to be a talking point in this election? No, at least not if the parties have their way. The Social Democrats run the government, but most of the regions (who are in charge of healthcare) are run by right-wing coalitions. So from a strictly realpolitik perspective, no party is able to attack another without putting themselves at risk of becoming a target. Best forget about it.

In other political news…

… a Sweden Democrat member of parliament has been accused of sending unsolicited dick pics to women, the Moderates want to legalise altruistic surrogacy in Sweden, the Christian Democrats want a national scheme to improve maternity care, the Liberals want to make it harder for people with a criminal record to become Swedish citizens, and Centre Party leader Annie Lööf hit the campaign trail just before the weekend by pledging to reject any proposal for raised taxes after the election.

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

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