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Swedish Elections 2018: Gridlock In Stockholm

For perhaps the first time since 1973, the night of the general elections left the Swedish public with more questions than answers. The left-right block system that has dominated the political landscape in Sweden for decades has now seriously come into question. 

In the largely ideologically-driven Swedish political landscape, two classical blocks can be observed. The center-right party coalition called the Alliance (Alliansen) and the center-left red-green block (De Rödgröna). Alliansen comprises the Moderate Party (M), the Centre Party (C), the Christian Democrats (KD), and the Liberals (L); while De Rödgröna includes the Social Democratic Party (S), the Green Party (MP) and the Left Party (V). Additionally, there is the so-called one-party block of right-wing Sweden Democrats (SD).

Some early projections showed Rödgröna and Alliansen obtaining an equal number of seats in the Swedish parliament, namely 143/143. Meanwhile, the unaligned and politically ostracized SD were assigned 63 mandates. Even though the final results revealed that the seats would be divided 144/143/62 in the leftist block’s favor, it provided almost no clarity as to which parties would form the next government, as neither block reached the necessary 175 seats to seal power outright. Overall, Alliansen gained 2 seats, while Rödgröna lost 15. (Valmyndigheten, Valresultat 2018).

The election exposed what some perceive to be structural shortcomings in the Riksdag. The previously mentioned 1973 elections led to the even split in the 350-seat parliament between left-wing and right-wing parties: 175/175. The only reason the sitting government remained in power was because the opposition simply could not pass a vote of no confidence through the Riksdag. However, that also meant that in case of disagreement between blocks, laws and budgets were passed using a lottery, earning that parliamentary session a fit name – the “Lottery Riksdag”. To prevent this scenario from reoccurring, the seats were adjusted to 349, an odd number. This seemingly infallible adjustment was thrown into doubt with the emergence of the so-called one-party block of SD, which is shunned by the both the traditional left-right blocks.

Image: Fredrik Fahlman, UPF Lund

Multiple Swedish news outlets called the 2018 election an election of many losers, and no clear winners. As nearly every party underperformed. The Social Democrats experienced their worst showing since the 1911 elections, despite avoiding poll-predicted catastrophic losses. (SVT Nyheter, 2018)  Possibly a sign of voters moving away from the established parties, M experienced a heavier loss.  However, the anti-immigration SD only received 17.5%, despite most polls placing them between 18-25% percentage points. Therefore, increased representation was not enough to become the largest, or even the second largest party, leaving them in what some consider to be a marginalized position.

After preliminary results were made known, all party leaders, winners or losers, were equally defiant, trying to characterize the results in ways that would further their own political agenda. M leader Ulf Kristersson, despite experiencing major losses, declared: This government did its share. It should have never assumed power, now it must step down. Prime Minister Löfven, looking confident from a clearly stronger result than expected, declared that the block politics should not be maintained but rather it should be buried.

Even though De rödgröna won 1 mandate more than the alliance, it was a bad election year for the Swedish left, because the Riksdag swung to the right more than ever, considering SD’s success. The election also highlighted the growing partisanship in Swedish politics. The blocks are less willing to let each other govern than ever before, despite ubiquitous cross-block discussion about a potential “bipartisan” government. Nonetheless, each block wants that cooperation on its own terms, which is incompatible with the opposing block’s interests.

Image: Fredrik Fahlman, UPF Lund

This showcases the difficulties of forming a viable government. The Red-green government have already faced a vote of no confidence in parliament, showing that the majority of Riksdag is against them. Regarding a potential Alliansen government, both the red-green block as well as SD have said that they are opposed to such an alternative. This has made a multitude of different options enter the discussion. Stefan Löfven’s preferred government is composed of S, MP, C and L, which would need support by V in order to gain a majority, or instead accommodate either M, SD or KD interests (Dagens Nyheter, 2018). The Left party leader has previously said that they are prepared to negotiate a budget, under the condition that they can get some of their policies through (Omni, 2018). Major ideological and policy differences persist among this broad spectrum of parties, however, which could be a major obstacle to the functioning for this possible coalition government (SVT Nyheter, 2018).

If Ulf Kristersson fails to form a government with his usual allies in Alliansen, another option that has floated is a government formed by M and KD. This is the favored option of Jimmie Åkesson, leader of SD, albeit not one he would support without conditions from his party’s side (Dagens Industri, 2018). A government consisting of M and KD could in theory be able to garner support by SD, C and L, although this is dependent on the last two liberal parties. These have promised not to become complicit in giving SD any influence, so this option boils down to how they define it: does it entail actual power-sharing negotiations, or does it only mean that M and KD adjust policies somewhat to be more in line with SD? If their promise strictly applies to the former, and the possible M-KD-government merely does the latter, then this coalition may get a majority behind them. However, recent developments have shown that the two liberal parties would at this stage not give their support to a pure M-KD-government, arguing that it would be too weak and indeed give SD too much influence (Expressen, 2018).

A one party-government consisting of either one of the two biggest parties in the Riksdag, S or M, could also be an alternative. It is however unlikely that those would be let through, especially one consisting of only M in light of what the two liberal parties have stated during the negotiation process, as mentioned above. It is unclear whether a government consisting of just S would get the support of V and/or MP, but such a government would probably still be voted down by the parties on the right. This is because all of these parties promised their respective electorates some sort of change in government, and for them to let Stefan Löfven pass as Prime minister once again would in all likelihood not be an appreciated move for their voters.

Another alternative, is for a leader of one of the smaller parties in the middle of the spectrum, namely Annie Lööf (C) and Jan Björklund (L), to lead a future government; as it is not a given that the biggest party in a government coalition should have the post of Prime minister. More centrist parties are in a unique position to negotiate depending on the issue at hand and could potentially work as compromise-brokers in wider parliamentary agreements. This could be compared to the (short-lived) government led by Ola Ullsten in 1978-1979, which had the support of little more than 10% of the Swedish electorate, but was tolerated by a sufficient amount of other parties who abstained from voting it down (Gefle Dagblad, 2010).

It must be underlined that neither of these options is the first alternative for any parties and it is highly likely that Sweden will see more than one attempt by the speaker of parliament before any of these alternatives are on the table. Given the current political deadlock, however, none of them seem impossible.

Image: Fredrik Fahlman, UPF Lund

SD, frequently referred to as the kingmaker in Swedish media, indirectly set the stage for government formation early on. A very crucial step in the new government formation was the election of the Speaker of parliament, on September 24. In Sweden the Speaker has the crucial role of giving a mandate to potential PM candidates to negotiate with other parties and attempt to form a new government.

A long-held convention in Swedish parliament was to allocate the posts of the Speaker, first, second and third Vice Speakers according to the party size in parliament, thereby the largest parties in descending order.  At first, S expressed willingness to give up the post and agree to a consensus pick through negotiations beyond the blocks, but since these outreach attempts failed, the Rödgröna put forward their own candidate, Åsa Lindestam (S), while Alliansen got behind Andreas Norlén (M). SD decision to support M candidate resulting in his election, further underlining their important role.  The day after, on September 25, obligatory voting regarding the prime minister took place. SD and Alliansen voted down Stefan Löfven and defeated the sitting government by a large margin of 204-142 (3 MPs did not vote).

The Swedish parliamentary system is characterized by negative parliamentarism. While the 175 votes remains the sacred number, in practice this means that a Prime Minister can assume power as long as a majority of the parliament does not vote against him or her. Therefore, purely theoretically, if all members of parliament abstained, the given PM candidate would still be elected without any votes in favor. By these considerations, on October 2, Andreas Norlén decided to give the first exploratory mandate to M leader Ulf Kristersson, as in the current Riksdag chances were higher for a right-wing government to be “tolerated” than the left-wing, as SD is less averse to it. Kristersson’s role as the main challenger also made such decision logical.

By the insistence of C and L in attempts to shut out SD, Kristersson first reached out to S as a potential partner in government formation and future budget negotiations, a decision that was ridiculed by many as highly unrealistic. After a widely expected categorical no from S, the former Moderaterna party leader, Carl Bildt tweeted: “whoever is surprised that S does not want to let Alliansen government through, should seek medical attention”.

L and C party leaders, both promising to neither sit in a S-led government, nor take support (active or passive) from SD seemed to have become the prisoners of their own promises, increasingly under pressure to come up with alternatives that would justify their choices. That is why Ulf Kristersson, in attempts to hold Alliansen together, reached out to S to seek its support in a logic-defying move, as S arguably led the largest block and the main opponent to exactly the same Alliansen government Kristersson tried to cement.

Thereafter Kristersson then came up with another, more realistic proposal. Knowing that SD would vote down any government that included C and/or L, he announced that the way out would be to form a government without all the parties that constitute Alliansen. By his own words, it was called “3-2-1 proposal”. Nonetheless, Kristersson still promised to enact the common Alliansen policies and election promises and to closely cooperate with any Alliansen parties on the outside. He counted on active or passive support in letting such government to pass through. (SVT Nyheter, 2018)  Theoretically, this agreement will work if L and C abstained and M, KD and SD voted for it, as these three parties (154) hold more mandates than S, V, and MP (144).

However, C and L leaders clearly expressed their dismay over the proposal. C leader Annie Lööf insisted that Alliansen government cannot be built by 1, 2 or 3 parties and any government that consists of less than 4 parties is no longer Alliansen. She added that her party would vote against it, reiterating, however, that this would not mean an automatic yes to “Löfven”. Furthermore, she continued to pinpoint the “6 parties in the middle” (except V and SD) as the ones which should form a government in some combination.

Excluding war or a major national crisis, inclusion of all 6 parties in government is extremely unlikely. L leader Jan Björklund also declared that a government consisting of only M and KD would be incredibly weak and could risk leading to new elections. He advanced 3 counter-proposals: Alliansen + S coalition, a German-style grand coalition of S + M, Alliansen + MP with S and V letting through such a government. (SVT Nyheter, 2018). Considering these developments, Kristersson gave up the exploratory mandate a day later, October 14, with Stefan Löfven being given the mandate next. (SVT Nyheter, 2018) If he fails too, the mandate may go to Annie Lööf (Dagens Nyheter, 2018).

In Riksdag, voting on a new government can only happen 4 times before extra elections are called, therefore the Speaker’s decision not to call votes and issue merely exploratory mandates instead outlines the extent of the foreseen deadlock. Even though the first attempt has failed, the number of such exploratory mandates are unlimited. While it can avert or at least delay a snap election, the formation of the next government will certainly be a strenuous and long process.

On top of this, for the first time since the introduction of parliamentarism in Sweden, not even the two largest parties in parliament can form a majority in parliament, which very much shows to what extent the current landscape is an unexplored one in Swedish politics. No matter what happens, promises will have to be broken, and the risk for “debates of betrayal”, which is often a part of politics in general, is this time even higher. Certain parties will find themselves in a very awkward position as to who to vote for and who to vote against, and especially the liberal parties in the middle of the spectrum, currently seen as kingmakers, may have a lot to lose in such a situation.

For Sweden, where the average time for government formation has been mere 6 days, record-setting negotiation times are something new. With conventional wisdom no longer applying, some unexpected options should be considered. This could include either ending the SD’s isolation, not only for government support, but also to give them actual responsibility for the first time, so they cannot claim the much electorally beneficial status “the only opposition party”; letting the fourth largest party – Centerpartiet – govern; or forming never-before attempted grand coalitions. As government negotiation mandates change hands with no end in sight, it is easy to forget that building a government is much more than mathematics.

Johan Andersson and Demna Janelidze



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