It was a turn of events that no political commentators in Sweden foresaw. A few days ago, Sweden’s two middle-of-the-road-liberal parties, the Center Party and the Liberal Party, struck a deal with the Social Democrats to allow the latter’s government with the Greens to continue. They would vote for the continued governance of the Social Democratic Prime Minister Stefan Löfven in exchange for (tentative) concessions on a fairly impressive list of economic issues.
This deal would leave the small Christian Democrats and the Moderate (Conservative) Party in a fairly isolated oppositional role on the right. The populist, anti-immigration Sweden Democrats, which holds around 17 percent of the seats in parliament, would be effectively isolated from political influence. That was the main point of the deal. The only other option for the Center and Liberal parties was to govern with the Moderate Party and Christian Democrats, and to this end, they would have needed tacit, parliamentary support from the Sweden Democrats, which at the very least would need to not vote against such a government. Under the deal that was eventually struck, even with a large range of ramifications that would leave Sweden’s political landscape permanently altered (some of which I expand on below), at least it seemed clear that Sweden would finally get a government, following the inconclusive elections of September last year.
Except, no one had asked the Socialist Party’s opinion. Early on January 14, party leader Jonas Sjöstedt declared, under immense internal pressure, that the party may well come to vote against the Social Democratic/Green government, putting them on the same side as the conservative opposition and the anti-immigration populist Sweden Democrats.
At the present time of writing, the speaker of the parliament declared that the prime ministerial vote, scheduled to be held January 16 Stockholm time, would be pushed back to give time for further negotiations and will now be held on January 18. Now, no one knows who will come to govern what has historically been one of the most politically stable democracies in the world. If the vote fails to render a new government, new elections will have to be called.
It’s a term used so often about political developments that it often seems worn out, but this situation truly is unprecedented in Swedish politics.
To understand why the current situation is unchartered territory, a bit of background is necessary. For decades, the Social Democrats held a virtually unthreatened hegemony in Swedish politics, and was largely seen as one with the state. The party’s longevity was unique in the Western world, and it governed first from 1932 to 1976, and then until 2006, with a break in the early 1990s for one term of liberal-conservative rule. In 2006, Moderate Party leader Fredrik Reinfeldt made political history when he won the general election with a center-right coalition known as “Allians för Sverige (Alliance for Sweden).” For a long time, the Social Democrats could claim that only it could govern Sweden as a unified force because no other party offered a clear and stabile alternative. By bonding together and uniting around a common policy platform, the center-right parties could, for the first time in decades, present a coherent alternative. They managed to do so largely by coopting classically social democratic issues, such as an efficient labor market, a robust and well-functioning welfare state, and decreasing the proportion of the population dependent on welfare handouts. The Alliance lost the election in 2014 largely due to the increasing stream of voters turning from the Moderate Party to the Sweden Democrats, fed up with the unabashed pro-immigration policies of the Reinfeldt government.
After four rocky years under Löfven, with an often unclear parliamentary situation and drastic twists and turns on key issues such as immigration, the September 2018 elections yielded no clear winner. Until only a few days ago, the two center-right parties, the Center Party and the Liberals, wavered over what side to support. And after it seemed clear that Sweden would get four more years with the Social Democratic Löfven as prime minister, we’re back to square one, or rather, at total and utter confusion.
Right now, the fate of the government lies in the hands of the Socialist Party. Long part of the Communist International (Comintern), the party formerly known as “The Communists” was loyal to the Soviet Union and expressed uncritical adulation and love for Stalin as the leader of the world revolution until that habit fell out of fashion among the global left after de-Stalinization in the 1950s Soviet Union. The party long supported various leftist dictatorships around the world, and several of its current officials and most prominent figures have expressed admiration and support for the socialist government of Venezuela and dictator Hugo Chavez. The current leader, Jonas Sjöstedt, comes from the party’s more moderate faction. Still, many are reluctant to trust the party on core issues such as national security and foreign policy, where it is often highly ideological and wavers on crucial issues such as Russian belligerence against Sweden and Sweden’s cooperation with NATO. In domestic politics, the party is a stern voice against publicly funded private alternatives in the welfare sector and advocates abolishing the school voucher system, among other things.
Therefore, it is hardly surprising that the Center Party and the Liberals demanded that the Socialists’ influence be curtailed as a condition for supporting a Social Democratic prime minister. The deal between the parties stated that neither the populist Sweden Democrats, nor the Socialist Party, would yield any influence on budgetary issues or the list of agreed upon reforms. The reform agreement centered on a number of core areas for the Center and Liberal parties, such as letting up on rent control for newly constructed housing, allowing for private and for-profit alternatives in the welfare sector, and providing a number of tax breaks that will primarily benefit the middle class. To be fair, the agreement is that these proposals will be prepared through dedicated committees, but this is the way that much practical policy is made in Sweden. By promising that the Socialist Party wouldn’t yield any influence, the Social Democrats hoped that the Center and Liberal parties would have faith that their policies would indeed go through and become implemented without meddling and obstruction from the Socialists.
Somehow, the Social Democrats must have simply assumed that the Socialist Party would take all this laying down. They didn’t. Even some prominent conservatives in my social media feeds have lauded Socialist Party leader Jonas Sjöstedt for at least standing up for his voters in making demands of his own on Stefan Löfven in return for not voting against his government. And now, Löfven has until Friday afternoon to convince the Center and Liberal parties, as well as Jonas Sjöstedt and the Socialist Party, that he can make them both reasonably happy.
In the short run, it’s likely that the Social Democrats and the Greens will continue to govern. Löfven showed remarkable incompetence by not foreseeing the possibility that the Socialists would vote against a government that promised not to give it any political influence. Still, even during this short timeframe, all parties involved should be able to strike an agreement that will make no one fully happy, but that will at least give Sweden a government on Friday. Sjöstedt has shown his voters and party base that he will stand up to the big brother in the Social Democrats and that is perhaps all he needed to do to make him and his party not look like political losers.
The long-term consequences are more dramatic. In classical Social Democrat fashion, Löfven has succeeded in driving a likely irreparable wedge between the former liberal-conservative coalition that made history by defeating the Social Democrats in 2006. The Moderate Party and Christian Democrats will find it very hard to forgive this betrayal by their former coalition partners, and they certainly won’t ever forget. An overwhelming proportion of their voters wanted to see a liberal-conservative government. Particularly in the Liberal Party, the current deal with the Social Democrats caused a severe split that will be difficult to repair. Minor parties that cooperate with the Social Democrats usually come out decimated on the other side. The party is skilled at negotiating, and those on the other end tend not to realize how badly they’ve been decimated until it’s too late.
It’s also likely that the deal with have long-term consequences for the Sweden Democrats, who have steadily been gaining support as social problems have mounted from large-scale immigration. The party has long gained from its outsider status. Many voters are upset at the lengths to which the other parties go to isolate the Sweden Democrats, and this deal across the political spectrum will likely re-enforce that sentiment. Moreover, the deal between the Social Democrats and the other parties does little to address the tide of crime and violence that has been on the rise in Sweden over the past few years, in significant part a result of the large-scale immigration. For example, according to Sweden’s public service channel Sveriges Television, 58 percent of those convicted of rape in Sweden between 2012 and 2017 were born abroad, and an investigation by Sweden’s largest daily newspaper, Dagens Nyheter, has shown that overall, individuals from other countries are over-represented in crime statistics. The badly needed funding increases for police and law enforcement will not be forthcoming, and some estimates hold that tens of thousands (or more) additional immigrants from the Middle East and Africa will come to Sweden as a result of some of the political proposals in the deal. The biggest winner, aside from the Social Democrats, may well be the Sweden Democrats. That is, as long as it passes. By the end of this week, we should know.