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An in depth analysis of the Swedish election - expert comment from Dr Edward Page

Dr Edward Page, from the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Warwick, comments on the aftermath of the Swedish elections.


Political deadlock in Sweden

The Swedish election was, as expected, a rollercoaster ride with the electorate waking up on Monday morning with little idea of what their government will look like when parliament re-opens on September 24.

Party leaders continued to do the rounds of TV and radio studios throughout Monday and Tuesday in an elaborate game of psychological warfare as to who should form the next government. The drama was heightened by an error in the electoral process leading to an additional mandate changing hands in favour of the Swedish Democrats (SD) with the side-effect of strengthening the hand of the embattled Swedish Prime Minister, Stefan Löfven, leader of the Social Democrats (S), in his attempt to hold on to power. Löfven had earlier declared, in a speech to party faithful, that “vi måste hålla ice i magen!” - roughly translated as “Keep Calm and Carry On!” - as the country waits for around 200,000 overseas, postal and invalid votes to be added to determine a final result. An app on the Swedish Television website quickly appeared to help voters play with different combinations of party coalitions, all of which have been deemed by experts as having no realistic chance of surviving a parliamentary vote.*

If we do not yet know who won the election, what do we know? After 6004 districts (around 97 per cent of eligible voters) have been counted, what we know is that we have a ‘hung parliament’ with the three groupings or “blocks” (left/centre left, right/centre right, and Swedish Democrats) gaining 40.6 per cent, 40.3 per cent, and 17.6 per cent of the vote, respectively. Swedish parliaments are commonly “hung” in the sense that no party or grouping has a majority of seats. But, due to the emergence of this three block party-system, as well as intense political rivalry between the two established party groupings, a period of uncertainty is now inevitable. Stefan Löfven has declared the party block system as “dead” and refused to resign despite the repeated demands of four opposition party leaders; and the Swedish Democrats now command an even stronger ‘balance of power’ position in parliament after a major boost in support. Added to the fragmentation and polarization that follows from having eight parliamentary parties spread over the left-right continuum, is the fact that the result is so even. When votes are translated to seats, the “red-green” (left/centre left) governing coalition and the opposition “Alliance” (right/centre rights) grouping are currently projected to gain 144 and 142 parliamentary seats, respectively, and with the Swedish Democrats projected to take at least 63 seats thereby cementing their “vågmästare” role where they can switch between supporting each block at will to drive forward their anti-immigration platform. Added to the political uncertainty is the fact that there will be no final result until the circa 200,000 delayed postal and overseas (“Wednesday”) votes are factored into the final result which is expected on Friday. These delayed votes (making up about 3 per cent of the total) often lead to a seat or two changing hands, having little impact on the final result, but this year they could change the face of Swedish politics. Arguably, they already have played a significant role in giving Löfven breathing space to declare that the incomplete result justified his decision not to resign despite leading his party to its worst result in 100 years. As we wait for confirmation of an historic stalemate (“dött lopp”) election - or, in Monty Python terms, exactly how dead the dead-heat really is - what can be said of the main outcomes of the election, who were the winners and losers, and what will happen next?

The main outcome is that the left/centre left (V, S, MP) (**see below for full results and party acronyms**) and right/centre right (M, KD, L, C) differ by so few votes (roughly 0.3 per cent, currently) that they may end up with the same number of parliamentary seats and, even if they do not, neither block has a clear mandate for government. What they will have - confirmed by the post-election battle of wits currently being played out in traditional and social media by the party leaders - is different types of claim to have a very limited mandate to govern. In effect, the governing left/centre group (led by prime minister Stefan Löfven) argues that their grouping (currently) has the most votes and seats and is led by the largest party, whereas the opposition Alliance of right/centre right parties is maintaining that a shift in votes in their block’s favour since the last election in 2014 means Löfven should resign and they should be allowed to govern. The third grouping (SD) - despite a worse than expected result – remains the third largest party and has made few demands other than to have “significant influence” (regardless of which block rules) reflecting its enhanced ‘balance of power’ role. So long as the parties in the two mainstream blocks continue to refuse to form a government across party block lines, for example, the Swedish Democrats can tip the balance in any prime ministerial vote of confidence or in the all-important budget vote without which a government cannot rule. Stefan Löfven pronounced the election as the “death of the party block system” as his Alliance opponents simultaneously demand his resignation but can only make this happen - and form a stable government - if they rely on a “third block” (the Swedish Democrats) which they are committed to isolate politically.

Who are the winners and losers? What’s remarkable, here, is that from the moment of the closing of polling stations at 8pm on Sunday until now, all parties can claim to have won (or at least not lost). All eight parliamentary parties cleared the four per cent parliamentary electoral threshold, for example. Take the Greens (MP), who, at 4.3 per cent, were the closest to parliamentary exit. There is a strong psychological effect of snatching ‘victory from the jaws of defeat’ and proportional representation systems that have a threshold for converting votes into parliamentary seats often deliver these. The Greens - after four years as a minority coalition party - were potentially heading out of parliament as the exit polls came out but somehow held on. An “onödigt spännande” (“unnecessarily exciting”) evening, exclaimed the party leader, Isabelle Lövin, at her end-of-night speech to Party workers. As the psychological relief subsided, however, this has been seen as it is - a very bad night for MP, in many respects recalling the experience of the Liberal Democrats in the UK election of 2015.

To continue the complex of electoral maths interplaying with psychology, the two heavyweights representing the left and right of the spectrum (the Moderates (M) and Social Democrats (S)) also had bad nights in vote terms but each had reasons for cheerfulness. Each party was down around 2-3 per cent from 2014. Nevertheless, each was projected to do far worse earlier in the election campaign and both have a reasonable expectation of providing the next Prime Minister. S, in particular, did better than expected (at just over 28 per cent of the vote) and remains by far the largest party. ‘Relief mixed with defiance’ is perhaps the best description of their night. M also had a mixed election night. Projected by exit polls to have fewer votes than the Swedish Democrats (which would have been a psychological disaster), M ended up retaining its position as the second largest party (at just under 20 per cent) and is still probably the most likely party to lead the next coalition government, albeit propped up by their Alliance party allies each of which added to their vote tally. Lucky for them, perhaps, that block politics isn’t dead (yet)? The Swedish Democrats (SD) surely won, though? SD added more votes than the Greens won in total to continue their dramatic rise in popular support. More votes surely means more influence? Yes, and no. SD have settled at 17.6 per cent of the vote (up almost 5 percent from 2014) giving them at last 63 parliamentary seats in total. Nevertheless, SD had clearly expected more - upwards of 20 per cent - or potentially even 25 per cent according to some bookmakers - which could have made them the largest party had the election gone differently. What SD have achieved is more than enough, on the other hand, to claim victory in terms of cementing its upwards trajectory, platform for future elections, and the capacity to create chaos in parliament absent a fundamental rethink of the block voting system.

Amongst the smaller parties, it was a good night for the left party (V), and undeniably a good night for the Centre Party (C) and Christian Democrats (KD). Both of the latter two parties are led by charismatic female party leaders and this should give pause for thought in what remains a male-dominated environment in terms at both the local and national levels. The Liberals added 0.1 per cent to their vote leading the, no doubt disappointed, leader, Jan Björklund, to claim enthusiastically that they had stopped-the-rot and were now on the way up. One of the interesting developments over the night of the election night itself was the festival like atmosphere at the Left Party (V) vigil. V’s share of the vote declined throughout the night but the celebrations continued regardless. It was a good night for V but it was oddly not mentioned by commentators that the gain to V was almost exactly matched by the loss to the vote of the smaller Feminist Initiative (FI) party. FI almost made it into parliament in 2014 with 3 per cent of the vote but had shrunk to just 0.4 per cent in this election. Correlation is not causation, of course, but initial indications are that the good performance of V owes a great deal to switches in votes from other left/centre left parties – including FI – and not a pronounced gain in support in the country of a socialist vision of politics. It was not a good night, then, for the left (or centre left) as a whole. There is little doubt that the median voter in Sweden has shifted to the right over the mandate period and this is, of course, the strongest base on which the Alliance has claimed electoral victory. Are there any other winners? Current projections estimate the turnout in the election will be a record, or near record, 85 per cent and the polls were calm aside from sporadic incidents centering on defacing of election posters and other minor infractions. The international media’s recent tendency to depict the looming breakdown of Swedish democracy seems at odds with this reality. There’s a general feeling, I think, that elections are less of a “folkfest” (“national party”) these days. Fewer voters turn up at polling stations in fancy dress, and the tone of debate has hardened, but 85 per cent or more turnout is quite humbling from a UK perspective.

What happens next? Here’s where it gets complicated. Parliament re-opens in two weeks on the 24 September. Up to this point, and after, any party can talk to any other party to probe various combinations of coalition government that might be acceptable to parliament. Those conversations have already started. Löfven, for example, is reported to have held out an olive branch to the most liberal of the Alliance parties with the objective of supporting an S-led government that is immune to SD influence. In response, Alliance parties continue to demand to be able to form a government in order to resist what they see as Socialdemocrat attempts to ‘divide and rule’ the centre right/right. If Lövfen continues to refuse to resign - as is very likely if the three left/centre left parties secure either more seats or more votes than the four right/centre right parties that make up the opposition Alliance - he will be subject to a vote of confidence on or around the 25th of September. It is likely, as things stand, that he will lose this vote. At this point, a staged process is triggered to deliver a new, stable, government that, in theory, should take two weeks to complete but in practice could well take much longer. The speaker of the parliament (“Talmanen”) is given two weeks to deliver a proposal for a new prime minister who could survive a subsequent vote of confidence and this “Talmanen” (who also must also be elected when parliament re-opens) has a maximum of four attempts to do this with failure leading to a new election (“extra val”). So long as votes against the Speaker’s proposal do not outnumber votes against, we have a new prime minister for this mandate period and the new PM has the authority to build a government and thereafter prepare a budget. This is a negative democratic procedure - if every member abstains, for example, the Speaker’s proposal is carried. There is no agreement in place to the effect that the largest block is permitted to form a government. And the members of the two established party groups do not know how the Swedish Democrats will vote. A second attempt by the Speaker to propose a Prime Minister has never been required hitherto in Swedish politics. There has not been an “extra val” since 1958. But there also has never been a situation where the two main party blocks are so evenly matched and where the opposition so vehemently demands the current PM’s departure but also can only make this happen by exploiting the support of a party with which it has promised never to co-operate. In the “new normal” that Sweden is waking up to this week, it is a risky policy to look at the past when weighing up what the future will hold.

* https://www.svt.se/special/pussla-ihop-politiska-styret/

**Results of the 2018 Swedish election after 6004 of 6004 districts have been counted (excludes delayed postal and overseas votes)

Social Democrats (S): 28.4 per cent (-2.8 from 2014)
Moderates (M): 19.8 per cent (-3.4)
Swedish Democrats (SD): 17.6 per cent (+4.7)
Centre (C): 8.6 per cent (+2.5)
Left Party (V): 7.9 per cent (+2.2)
Christian Democrats (KD): 6.4 per cent (+1.8)
Liberals (L): 5.5 per cent (+0.1)
Greens (MP): 4.3 per cent (-2.4)

Left/Centre Left Block: 40.6 per cent....144 seats
Right/Centre Right Block (”Alliansen”): 40.3 per cent...142 seats
Swedish Democats (SD): 17.7 per cent....63 seats

Dr Page has strong ties to research and teaching in Scandinavia and is a visiting researcher at the Department of Government (Uppsala University) and the Institute of Future Studies (Stockholm).