The tricky question is whether or not to negotiate with the Swedish Democrats

On one level, Sweden’s general election in September 2018 turned out as expected. It is no surprise that the Swedish Democrats (SD), a nationalist, anti-immigration party with racist roots that identifies with Le Pen in France and Orbán in Hungary, holds the swing vote between the Redgreen bloc and the Conservative-Liberal Alliance.

It is something of a surprise that the Redgreen bloc emerged slightly larger than the Alliance in the 349-seat parliament: the governing coalition of the Social Democrats (SAP) and the Green Party supported by the Left (former Communist) Party won 144 seats, while the Alliance, consisting of Conservatives, Christian Democrats, Liberals and the Centre Party (formerly the Farmers Party) took 143. The rest went to SD, which became the third largest party.

The result was a stalemate. Yet the previous elections in 2010 and 2014 had also left SD with the swing vote. Why, then, is it so much harder to form a government now?

First and foremost, SD has grown. In 2010 it broke through, winning 20 seats; in 2014, it won 49 seats; now, in 2018, 62 seats, with 17.5 per cent of the vote. In 2010 the Conservative-Liberal Alliance lost its majority but still had substantially more seats than the SAP, the Green Party and the Left Party combined. The Green Party negotiated a liberal immigration policy with the Conservative Prime Minister in return for which the Alliance was allowed to remain in power for another four years.

In 2014 the Alliance won fewer seats than the Redgreen bloc, and the leader of the Social Democrats, Stefan Löfven, was able to form a new SAP-Green government with the parliamentary support of the Left Party. The process was very complicated. To keep SD from holding the balance of power, between 2010 and 2014 an informal agreement between the two blocs was established to the effect that the largest bloc should form the government and get its budget adopted. However, in 2013, the opposition SAP, Green Party and the Left Party, supported by SD, had voted an amendment on the budget bill increasing taxes, which the governing coalition saw as violating the agreement. With Redgreen in power in 2014, the Alliance opposition returned the favour, with the support of SD, imposing on the newly formed government a budget which was not its own.

This frustrating situation caused the two blocs to meet, and a new agreement was struck, again based on the principle that the ruling coalition would have the final say on the budget. Though this agreement formally lasted only one year, it remained in effect in practice until the election of 2018, during which time there were cross-bloc agreements in defence, immigration, climate and several other areas. These were ad-hoc efforts to avoid depending on SD that also reflected the perceived need to reach stable agreements on long-term issues.

When parliament was recalled following the September election, the SAP-led coalition was ousted by a majority vote. Löfven then rejected the offer by Conservative leader Ulf Kristersson – tasked by the Speaker with exploring the possibilities of forming a government – to work together. Forming the government now boils down to one tricky question: with or without the support of SD? There are many different views on how to deal with the problem. Our guess, in late October, is that a new government will not be formed in the very near future. At present three main alternative solutions are being debated publicly:

  • An Alliance minority government (four nonsocialist parties), with the more or less tacit support of SD, has been the main proposal of the Conservatives, the leading party in the Alliance. Forming an Alliance minority government that would depend on SD has been proposed by several influential journalists (and two big Conservative-leaning newspapers, Svenska Dagbladet and Göteborgs-Posten) as well as some political scientists. The idea has strong support among Conservatives and Christian Democrats. But the Centre Party and the Liberals have rejected any form of agreement with SD, both during and after the election campaign. Their position is supported by many newspapers (including the biggest morning paper, Dagens Nyheter) and many opinion leaders. So this option has gone nowhere.
  • The second possibility is a minority Conservative government (possibly including the Christian Democrats). This idea is supported by quite a few leading Conservatives, unconcerned that such a government would have to lean heavily on SD. This possibility has been excluded by the Centre Party and the Liberals, without whose support the Conservatives cannot form a majority.
  • A cross-bloc agreement is the third option. The Social Democrats have offered to form a coalition with the Centre Party and the Liberals (perhaps including the Greens). However, the Centre Party and the Liberals have not been willing to turn their backs on the Alliance, proposing instead a majority coalition of the four Alliance parties and the SAP, possibly including the Greens. No one takes this very seriously given the existing divisions. Moreover, such a grand coalition would leave SD and the Left as the only opposition parties. A smaller cross-bloc coalition would also encounter major obstacles. The SAP interprets this option as a mandate to lead the government as the biggest party in parliament. The Centre Party and the Liberals would seek a more balanced government, including the Greens, one not necessarily led by a Social Democrat prime minister. The parties do however face pressure from opinion leaders to come to an agreement on a multiparty government, crossing the blocs to keep out SD. But the SAP on the one hand and the Centre Party and Liberals on the other have very different positions on the economy and labour market that have to be reconciled. On national security the SAP supports neutrality while the others support NATO membership. And such a centrist coalition would have to rely on the support of the Left.

There is, in fact, another option: a Social Democrat–Conservative government, a “grand coalition.” It is a dream solution for many leading figures in business – but politically very unrealistic. These two parties have been rivals for more than a hundred years, though over the past four years they proved to have many policies in common. But there would be important disagreements, including on who would be prime minister, and by themselves they would not even command a majority in the parliament.

In essence, the formation of a government hinges on the question of whether or not to negotiate with SD. This is not just a matter of partisan strategy, but a profound public debate. On one side we hear mainly pragmatic arguments based on short-run considerations: since the nonsocialist parties and SD have so much in common in relation to the economy, labour market, social care, defence etc., they can work together. The centre-right parties would simply ignore the the SD’s xenophobia and evocation of Viktor Orbán’s “illiberal” democracy. But it is dubious that SD will be content with such cherry-picking. Its representatives have promised to make it hell for any government that does not deliver on SD priorities.

The other group bases its position on parts of the SD program and pronouncements by its leaders on its attitude toward immigrants and also on the party’s long-term goals, which emphasize the national culture and play down public service, media freedom and respect for minorities. They point out the danger of a gradual accommodation to such policies, drawing on the example of Denmark since 2001.

In favour of the first position, some people argue that the election result, for a conservative government based on the Alliance and SD, should be respected. Yet, if we scrutinize how SD has voted, we find in fact that it has more frequently been with Redgreen, though less so in recent years. On the other hand, when asked in surveys whether they identify with the left or right, there has been a consistent preponderance among SD voters for the right, a position reflected in statements by SD leaders that they prefer a government led by the Conservatives.

This raises the fundamental democratic question of what respect should be paid to SD voters. On one side, it is argued that you cannot ignore the wishes of 1.1 million voters and thus have to be prepared to include their chosen representatives in the government. A contrary view is that SD voters are sufficiently represented since the proportion of their support is precisely reflected not only in parliament but also on all committees, standing and temporary – even on matters concerning national security. Moreover, given that SD takes such a different stand on long-term, fundamental issues from all other parties, we can also say that 82,5 per cent of voters reject SD’s policies, and their views should be respected too.

A related question is: to what extent do SD voters align with SD’s illiberal ideas? Or are they just casting protest votes against having to compete with cheap labour abroad or from abroad, and against not having been listened to by politicians for many years? Voter surveys testify that the SD voters are indeed dissatisfied. Only 23 per cent of SD voters have trust in Swedish politicians, compared to between 56 and79 per cent of the other parties´ voters. But two thirds of SD voters also prefer to have native-born Swedes as neighbours; 50 per cent don’t want an immigrant in the family; and one third claim that people of certain ethnic groups are more intelligent than others.

In this context, some claim, we need not worry about SD pushing the other parties toward a more nationalistic and xenophobic agenda. Indeed, some point to Norwegian and Finnish experience, arguing that if SD is given a role in the government, the party line will soften as it makes and defends compromises. However, experience elsewhere casts doubt on that assumption.1 And what we have seen recently in Sweden should make us worry. Before the general election, the Social Democrats, Conservatives and Christian Democrats adopted immigration policies closer to those of SD, with a group of Conservatives and Christian Democrats wanting to go even further.

The outcome of this debate will determine what government will be formed in Sweden before the end of the year and, perhaps, the longer-term direction of Sweden as a nation.


1As Tjitske Akkerman and Matthijs Rooduijn have written,“After the turn of the millennium, non-ostracised radical right parties have become just as radical as their ostracised cousins.” (“Pariahs or Partners? Inclusion and Exclusion of Radical Right Parties and the Effects on Their Policy Positions,” Political Studies, Vol. 63, No. 5 ).

Olof Kleberg is former editor-in-chief of the regional daily newspaper Västerbottens-Kuriren in Umeå, a university city in northern Sweden. Richard Murray was chief economist for the Swedish Agency for Public Management and founder of the Stockholm Party, a local, green party.