Sweden: A quest for political stability?
17 November 2022 /
The new Swedish government just took office after September 2022 general elections which led to a unique composition of the national parliament. The victory of the Right-bloc – and in particular the support from the far-Right Sweden Democrats (SD)- has been a hot topic of discussion in Stockholm, but also in Brussels and most European capitals. The consequences of the turn to the Right of the Scandinavian Kingdom, seen until now as a figurehead of social democracy, promise to be important. Let’s take an overview of it in a country that has recently been characterised by political instability and the growing polarisation of its society.
The 2022 elections, surprises and a new government
The 11th September general elections results came to a surprise in Europe, resulting in a new wide-reaching Right-wing coalition government lead by the conservative Moderaterna (Moderate, M) Ulf Kristersson with the controversial backing of far-Right Sverigedemokraterna (Sweden Democrats, SD).
The Centre-Left Socialdemokraterna (Social Democrats, S) remains still the largest party with 30.2% of the votes, however, it is the progression of the far-Right Sweden Democrats that has been making the headlines, becoming the country’s second biggest party with 20,5% of the votes. The composition of the Swedish parliament, the Riksdag, highlights this political fragmentation. Parties composing the new government are only made of 103 seats (the majority being 175 seats). Additionally, the biggest governmental party, the conservative Moderates (M) has fewer members of parliament (68) than the Sweden Democrats (SD) which grants external support to the government (73). On the counterpart, the country’s main party, the Social Democrats, leads the opposition with 107 seats in the parliament despite the gain of seven seats in the elections.
It is in this context that Ulf Kristersson and the Moderates had to carry out complex coalition talks. A controversial agreement had been reached between the Right-wing coalition and the far-Right Sweden Democrats on the 14th of October. This agreement has been analysed by several analysts and newspapers as a huge victory for the Sweden Democrats since it grants them, among other things, civil servants in all departments and ministers. But also a systematic negotiation priority with the government on budgets and bills, as well as quite radical shifts in immigration, integration, crime and security policies.
This agreement, called the Tidö agreement, has been heavily criticised by the opposition and by a part of the public opinion as well as creating some division in the coalition itself, particularly within the small centre-Right Liberaterna (Liberals, L). The party (represented by 16 seats in the parliament), which has always been the most critical on the Right-bloc regarding cooperation with the far-Right, has welcomed the governmental agreement in a rather cold way. Its leader, Johan Pehrson, said that “his party had to compromise its positions during the month-long negotiations”. Other Liberals members of parliament have been more critical regarding the agreement. Several local leaders and branches of the party have been calling for emergency meetings in regard to the breaking of the red lines that the party traditionally imposed itself in regard to cooperation with SD.
Swedish domestic politics invites itself to Brussels
The appointment of the new Swedish government and the coalition agreement has led to heated discussions at the European level. The pivotal role of the SD in Swedish politics has made many uncomfortable in Brussels, starting with the centrist Renew Europe and to a lesser extent the centre-Right European People’s Party, the European affiliates of the Swedish Liberals and Moderates, respectively. The political situation in Sweden has been causing real turmoil on the Renew Europe benches in the European Parliament. Many have called for the eviction of the Swedish Liberals and its only MEP, Karin Karlsbro, from the Renew Group. At the forefront of this sling is Macron’s Renaissance party (also a member of Renew), which is itself in a frontal battle with the far Right domestically.
The new government in Sweden is only one of the latest political developments in Europe that sees a far-Right party heavily increasing their political influence on national politics. In a similar fashion, other countries have seen an identical shift of their national governments to the Right, such as Italy. What is singular in the Swedish case is that it takes place in Scandinavia, a region known for traditionally supporting Left-wing core ideals. Sweden has historically been at the forefront in Europe regarding various political issues such as the fight against climate change, the implementation of a so-called ‘feminist diplomacy’ or an ambitious integration policy based on a highly sophisticated welfare state. The new role of the Swedish Democrats in governmental action is therefore to raise concerns in Europe regarding key policies and values such as commitment to rule of law, fundamental rights, or the fight against climate change. Those concerns have been enhanced by recent declarations from the Sweden Democrats leader, Jimmie Åkesson, seeing the new government as a ‘paradigm shift’. He has at the same time advocated for the passing of particularly controversial bills such as the interdiction of begging or the creation of a state-wide DNA registry of foreigners.
It comes as no surprise that the first decisions of the new government do not go in the direction of alleviating the fears expressed in Brussels and the different European capitals. The first decisions of the Kristersson government, supported by the Sweden Democrats were to end the practice of ‘feminist diplomacy’ that had been introduced by the then-ruling Social Democrats in 2014. This diplomatic practice has long been presented as a success and a distinctive element of the diplomatic practices of the Scandinavian Kingdom, which has since been copied by other countries such as Canada or France. Furthermore, the new government, having just come to power, has also decided to axe the Ministry of Environment and to relegate the competencies in the field of climate and environment under the Ministry of Energy, Business and Industry. These decisions, strongly criticised by the opposition, have a symbolic political significance in a country that has been at the leading edge of women’s rights and particularly vocal on climate issues for decades. Consequently, it will be interesting to analyse the priorities that the Swedish presidency of the Council of The European Union, which will succeed the Czech presidency, will be.
Political instability in Sweden, a recurrent feature?
The victory of the Right-wing bloc with the support of the far-Right and the establishment of a minority government in parliament bodes well that negotiations on each bill will be particularly complicated. This situation is part of a longer-term polarisation of Swedish society and a decade-long trend of political instability in Stockholm. For a country known for its stability it is surprising to see that during the last five years, a total of six different governments have succeeded each other, which is more than other countries that have been structurally unstable in their political institutions, such as Italy and Belgium had in the same period. Another interesting aspect is that all the governments that succeeded each other since 2014 were minority governments that had to rely on external support from other parties in the Riksdag. It seems then that Swedish politics is rather sensitive to different crises between members of the coalitions and different subjects have crystallised Swedish politics in the last years, in particular concerning integration, immigration, security or housing policies.
It is clear that this situation of political turbulence is the result of a deep division in Swedish society. Here one can return to the words of the leader of the Sweden Democrats Jimmie Åkesson on the ‘paradigm shift’ of the new government. The issues of immigration, security and integration were more than ever at the heart of the election campaign and two drastically opposed models were facing each other. On the one hand, an identity-based model, defended by the Right, and on the other hand, a Left-wing model that has also made the fight against crime one of its priorities, but integrated into a broader progressive political project. When using election slogans, the Right-wing bloc used strong secretary dialectics like ‘Let’s get Sweden in order‘ for the Moderates, the Christian Democrats used ‘Ready to make Sweden safer‘ or the Swedish Democrats with a very Trumpist slogan ‘Sweden will be good again… and no empty words‘. In opposition, the Left-wing bloc relied on slogans referring to the common good and unity such as ‘Together we can make our Sweden better‘ for the Social Democrats or ‘Everyone will join when Sweden transitions‘ for the Greens.
These opposing models are very strong in Scandinavia, where the question of immigration and integration have become questions of self-definition and national identity. As is the case in Denmark and Norway, Sweden is a very multicultural society with 19% of its population being foreign-born in 2018 and a third of its population having a foreign background. This multiculturalism is relatively recent in Scandinavia and only began in the late 21st Century. This has allowed populist movements and the radical Right to put the notion of ‘Swedishness’ at the top of the political agenda. The question ‘what is being a Swede?/what is Sweden?‘ is then central to understanding the fragmentation of Swedish society between those who see as a distinctive sign of the country its welfare state and others who see national identity under the identitarian prism.
The political situation promises to be turbulent for the coming legislature in line with the characterised instability of the last years. But what is truly at stake here is the two radical opposing visions of society in a deeply divided country that is trying to reinvent itself. The famous idea of « Lagom », best translated in English to “moderation” or “in balance”, which the Swedes like to claim as a national motto, would do well to be more present in the corridors of the Riksdag for the years to come.