Sweden: less special than it was

 The recent elections showed the political centre of gravity in Sweden has shifted to the conservative pole.

Sweden is often referred to as ‘the land of the compromise’. In the 1930s the country chose a middle way between Communism and capitalism. The social-democratic ‘people’s home’ secured democracy and launched what was by international standards an ambitious and successful welfare state. This laid the foundation for prolonged social-democratic dominance in Swedish politics.

The image of Sweden throughout the world was thus established. But how accurate is it today—particularly in light of the recent election results, which have entailed the Social Democrats and their leader, Magdalena Andersson, relinquishing power to the Moderates and Ulf Kristersson, who leads a new right-wing constellation?

Moreover, in recent decades Sweden has swung from left to right and back again. It is no longer the country of moderation. After 1968, the left set the political agenda. The Social Democrats held power without interruption from 1932 to 1976, with around 45 per cent electoral support. Then came a switch to neoliberalism in the 1990s. Since then, the public sector has undergone significant ‘marketisation’. Healthcare and education have been to a substantial degree outsourced to private enterprise. 

Today Sweden is the only country in the world which has embraced the proposal by the conservative economist Milton Friedman for vouchers in schools and has a large number of schools run by privately-owned companies, many quoted on the stock exchange. The gap between rich and poor has widened. Sweden adopted a very liberal refugee and immigration policy in 2011 but switched to a more restrictive stance after the influx of refugees in 2015.

Sweden was also for a long time almost unique as a country which had no right-wing-populist party represented in parliament. But, after this year’s election, the Sweden Democrats, whose origins are more extreme than counterparts in many other European countries—in particular, other Scandinavian countries—comprise the second largest party. It has contested nine elections and increased its share of the vote each time.

The entry of the party into parliament in 2010 marked a change in the balance of power in Swedish politics. Since the 1930s the Social Democrats or the socialist bloc were most often victorious in the battle between left and right. Over time the social democrats and later the red-green bloc had a structural advantage. But since the Sweden Democrats made their entrance Sweden has had a predominantly right-wing majority in parliament, in the form of liberal and conservative parties and a strong right-wing-populist party.

Before this year’s election the political landscape was restructured. Some political scientists cast this more widely in Europe as the emergence of a new, identity-based political cleavage on top of the conventional, class-based cleavage between left and right. In Sweden, this so-called ‘green-alternative-left’ versus ‘traditional-authoritarian-nationalist’ (GAL-TAN) cleavage has changed the blocs on both sides of the classical left-right axis.

On the right, three right-of-centre parties (one of them the Liberals) fought the election undertaking to form a government with the support of, and based on negotiations with, the Sweden Democrats. Just four years ago all parties refused to countenance co-operation with the right-wing populists. On the other side, the red-green parties gathered with the Centre Party, which in recent times has become virtually neoliberal—but joined the left side because the party refused to admit the Sweden Democrats into the corridors of power.

Centre of gravity shifting
Although the right won by the smallest of margins, the political centre of gravity has shifted towards the conservative pole in Swedish politics. Through its welfare state Sweden formed a sort of ‘state individualism’, whereby the state liberated the individual from economic dependence on the family and civil society. In Scandinavia, and particularly in Sweden, cultural radicalism was strongly entrenched. Perhaps we are now witnessing a shift towards conservatism and a reaction against both cultural radicalism and ‘state individualism’. But it is also a rejection of globalisation in general and migration in particular, as has occurred in many countries.Neither did the issues which dominated the electoral debate favour the left. These were organised crime (a large number of murders coincided with the campaign) and the demand for more severe punishment, immigration and integration, and the soaring petrol and energy prices (for which the opposition tried to hold the government and the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, responsible).

The Social Democrats had three overall priorities: first, to regain control over welfare and to forbid the taking of profit in private schools; secondly, to prioritise the environment; and, finally, to ‘fight the gangs’. The public focus was however on organised crime, and on electricity and petrol prices, which in the course of the year had become one of the voters’ priorities. In short, the Social Democrats failed to foreground the classical issues of social justice in the electoral debate. Neither was the Green Party able to focus attention on the environment.

In other words, the political climate in 2022 favoured a conservative agenda. And from Sweden having been a country which welcomed immigration, immigration has, in the public perception, become a problem. The right-wing parties fought the election on a policy of further tightening restrictions.

Increase remarkable
It is thus remarkable that the Social Democrats increased their support by two percentage points, thereby breaking a downward trend and finishing up with over 30 per cent. The Green Party also increased its share. This though both parties had been in power for two terms and had had difficulties pushing their policies through, due to the right-wing-oriented majority in the parliament.

Why, then, was there a change of government? The Left and the Centre Party both lost votes and as a result the numbers did not add up for another administration led by the Social Democrats. All three of the traditional right-wing parties saw their support decline, while the Sweden Democrats increased their share by three percentage points—which to all intents and purposes determined the outcome of the election.

Although the Social Democrats succeeded in reversing the negative trend, they are still a long way from their historical high. The party is still the largest among trade union members but if workers who are not union members are included the picture is far less rosy. It lost voters in suburbs of big cities with high concentrations of immigrants, where the Social Democrats had previously been particularly strong. But it generally increased support in the large cities themselves and, for example, regained control of Stockholm.

Reliable and stable
How has all this come about? The new party leader, Magdalena Andersson, was considered a reliable and stable politician (compare the German social-democratic leader, Olaf Scholtz) with a high degree of credibility among voters. The change of party leader in 2021 gave the Social Democrats new political energy. The fact that large towns are becoming more progressive is a well-known political phenomenon in a number of countries. In Sweden many voters in large cities voted social-democrat in 2022 to prevent the Sweden Democrats from gaining political influence. The considerable criticism of privatisation in the public sector, even among middle-class voters, may also have played a part.

In rural areas the Sweden Democrats increased their support substantially. It was here that the Centre Party (historically the party of the farmers and the countryside) lost voters. The Social Democrats have also seen a decline in support in many smaller industrial towns, in the Swedish ‘rust belt’. In the countryside concern about the increase in petrol and energy prices most probably played a major part in the election result.

The leader of the Moderates, Kristersson, has been tasked with forming a government, but with a majority of only three seats over the red-green block. The Moderates have now lost their role as the second-largest party in the parliament (held since 1979) to the Sweden Democrats. Negotiations within the government are likely to be complicated, while the tensions between the Liberals and the Sweden Democrats are expected to be considerable—on values as well as policies. The Sweden Democrats have however a strong bargaining position as the biggest party in the new right-wing coalition.

Necessary reflection
What lies ahead for the Social Democrats is a necessary reflection and a parliamentary term in opposition. Was the election of 2022 the beginning of a social-democratic revival, despite the party losing its governmental role? We have witnessed modest social-democratic successes, but successes nonetheless, in several European countries in recent years.

The increase of two percentage points in support for the Social Democrats in Sweden is undeniably a tilt forward. In the next election we shall find out if it is an enduring success or an aberration. Further gains will require alliances within the electorate and with other parties—and a political platform capable of building bridges between town and country, the working class and the middle class, young and old. That is essential for a progressive mandate for a red-green political programme. 

Firstly published by Social Europe)

Håkan Bengtsson

Chief executive of Arenagruppen, the leading progressive platform for public debates in Sweden.