By Bryan T. Bayne. Special thanks to Jonas Axelsson, who provided valuable commentary and insight.
Swedish politics have a reputation for being a boring, predictable, and consensus-driven low-key affair. Not anymore. Last Thursday (17.06) the formerly-Communist Left Party announced that it no longer had confidence in Stevan Löfven’s Social Democratic government and was leaving the coalition. Today a supermajority in the Riksdag has voted to oust the prime minister and ushered in a new era of political instability in Sweden. At the heart of the issue is a dispute over the housing market, however, its causes harken back to the instability produced by the 2018 elections and broader debates on immigration.
The Roots of Instability
The 2018 Swedish general elections produced its first hung-parliament in a hundred years. Both the Left and Right blocks received 40% of the vote, while the populist, anti-immigration Sweden Democrats party got 17.5%. After four months of protracted negotiations, the Center Party and the Liberals—both members of the Right block—decided to back the formation of a Social Democratic-led minority government to keep the Sweden Democrats out of government.
The result has been an unstable caretaker government with fragile left and right flanks. To remain in power, the center-left Social Democrats must simultaneously appeal to the Left Party and the center-right Center Party, who both deeply mistrust each other. The Center Party has accused the Left of being radical extremists and supported the Social Democratic government in hopes of reducing the Left’s influence.
Eventually, however, balancing between conflicting demands became impossible and shared mistrust of the Sweden Democrats was no longer sufficient to guarantee the continuity of Stefan Löfvan’s premiership. Even though the Centrists are not part of the governing coalition, the prime minister has usually favored them to avoid the accusation that it is the Left and Green Parties who really are in charge of matters in Stockholm. Recently, the government announced that it would support researching the feasibility of scrapping rent-controls for newly-built apartments—a long-held Center Party demand—in hopes of fixing Sweden’s chaotic housing market. The Left Party accused the government of breaking its 2018 coalition agreement, claiming the measure would lead to skyrocketing rents. It threatened to bring down the government if the measure was not torpedoed—and followed through with its threat.
Is Sweden pivoting to an anti-immigration stance?
The fact that the government has collapsed due to housing policy notwithstanding, Swedes are under no illusion about the true root cause of instability: immigration. The anti-immigration, culturally-conservative Sweden Democrats has grown exponentially: from 5.7% of the vote in 2010 to 17.5% in the latest elections. And they are projected to keep growing in future elections.
In many ways, however, the Sweden Democrats are not your typical European populist party. They lack a charismatic leader like Donald Trump or Boris Johnson. Though often described as a far right party in English-language media, their economic policies are generally centrist; indeed, since 2015 they have received a massive influx of formerly-Social Democratic members who are unhappy with immigration. The party has purged its most radical members and rebranded itself as an intellectually-credible, young, serious anti-immigration but pro-welfare-state party. Even though it is not particularly enthusiastic about the EU, it is not Eurosceptic either. Its leadership resembles Austria’s PM Sebastian Kurz much more than America’s Trump or France’s Le Pen: decidedly to the right in the cultural wars, yet an advocate of more welfare and a bigger role for the state.
Thus far, cooperation with the Sweden Democrats was anathema. Merely suggesting it would have been political suicide. No more. Since 2020, the Liberals, the Moderates, and the Christian Democrats have all suggested they would be open to forming a coalition with the Sweden Democrats—leaving the Center Party as the only member of the Right Block opposed to such a move.
There has also been talk of the Social Democrats and Sweden Democrats cooperating in the future. Their policies are similar in most fields except for immigration and culture, but that is changing quickly, as the Social Democrats are increasingly adopting a more restrictive stance towards immigration. For now, Stevan Löfven seems adamantly opposed to such a move, but it is not an unthinkable scenario after the next elections. Indeed, 61% of voters want other political parties to start cooperating with the Sweden Democrats—and on the local level, many parties have already done so. If this cooperation becomes national, Swedish politics would start resembling Danish politics, where all mainstream parties have adopted anti-immigration stances and, as a result, populist parties have nearly disappeared.
What happens now?
Now that Stevan Löfven’s government has been voted out, the Parliament will attempt to elect a new caretaker prime-minister. If successful, it is widely expected that this would be a center-right politician. There are no guarantees, however, that a solution can be found. Not without the Sweden Democrats, at least. If parliament cannot agree on any names, then by law an early election must be called. For the first time in decades, Swedish politics has become unpredictable. Expect much more turbulence to come.
Picture Credits: Frederik Rubensson, Flickr.