Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Loewen resigned on Monday, a week after losing a vote of confidence in parliament. Now Andreas Norlen, the speaker of the Riksdag or the Swedish parliament, must find a workable governing coalition among eight political parties. The thriving and traditionally egalitarian country, which caught international attention last year with its unusually liberal but dubiously successful policy of isolation from COVID-19, faces an uncertain political future.
A year later, when the Riksdag was reduced to the core of the 55-member pandemic, the appearance of all but eight of the 349 MPs in the House on Monday was almost festive. But they were there on a serious matter: to remove the Social Democrat Stefan Leuven from power.
The crisis came after the former communist Left Party declared that it could no longer support Leuven’s center-left coalition government. The party leader, Nushi Dadgostar, said she could not agree with plans to relinquish control over rent in new buildings. What surprised many was that she was willing to transform this political division in support of a vote of no confidence put forward by the anti-immigration Swedish Democrats, a party generally considered out of the limelight on the left.
Löfven’s difficulties are compounded by the position of his other coalition partners, in particular the Center Party, a small agrarian party that has reinvented itself as a champion of the market economy. The coalition, formed in 2019 after four months of bargaining among the eight parties of the Riksdag, was a difficult cohabitation from the outset. To get the Center Party and the smaller Liberal Party to sign what became known as the January Agreement, Löfven proposed a government program with lower taxes and loosened labor and housing market regulations.
By reaching an agreement, he achieved his long-term goal of separating the Center Party from the center-right moderates. But his program was a curse on the leftist party, whose fundamental goal is to destroy capitalism. Moreover, the Center Party insisted that their deal with Leuven and his Green Party allies include a clause stating that the Left Party would not be able to influence government policy. This clause understandably became known as the “humiliation clause”.
The leftist party has so far been willing to accept its humiliation and passively support the government in votes of confidence for only one reason: refusal to support will open the way for right-wing parties, including the Swedish democrats, to form a government. … But a combination of a new leader, unpleasant government policies, and a growing need to show some resilience forced the party to do the unthinkable: get the Social Democratic prime minister to resign.
The reasons for the problems behind the formation of the government in Sweden can mainly be traced to two long-term structural changes: the relative decline of the Social Democrats and the meteoric rise of the ultra-right Swedish democrats.
When Leuven first joined the Social Democrats in 1970, at the age of 13, the party had been in government for over three decades without interruption. By far the largest party in Sweden, its share of the vote never fell below 40 percent in a single election between 1932 and 1988, and had only a few short periods of absence from power. The party played an important role in shaping the modern Swedish high-tax welfare state, along with the liberal approach to immigration that laid the foundation for Sweden’s multicultural society.
However, in the last election, the Social Democrats scored just 28 percent – their worst result since the introduction of universal suffrage after years of sustained decline. Meanwhile, the far-right Swedish Democrats, who entered parliament in 2010 with 6 percent of the vote, now have 19 percent of the vote. This is slightly more than 17.5% of the vote in the 2018 elections, making them the third largest party after the Social Democrats and moderates.
The origins of the Swedish Democrats in neo-Nazi movements and the recent history of anti-immigrant rhetoric have made cooperation with the party controversial, and more recently, in the last elections, all parties ruled out formal cooperation with them.
Now, however, moderate and Christian Democrats have opened the door to accepting aid from the Swedish Democrats, seeing it as the only way to return to power (the last time the center-right formed a government in 2006–2014). The Liberal Party, which has always found it most convenient to work with the center-right, has now lagged behind them, leaving Leuven. The Center Party is now the only party in the broader center-right movement opposing the Swedish Democrats, and has been rewarded with decent poll ratings.
All this leads to a dead end. Sweden’s parties are tough. Speaker Norlen, who took four months to appoint a government in 2019, has no clear path to finding a more stable administration.
The end result could be that Löfven will be recalled with a coalition similar to the one that just broke up, although the last few weeks have cleared up the obstacles to doing so. There is also a clear possibility that the moderate leader, Ulf Christersson, may be asked to form a government with the support of the Swedish Democrats. This would be a new controversy that would place the far-right party in a position of unprecedented power, but such a government could face even greater obstacles in parliament.
If Norlen fails to find a government that can garner parliamentary support, snap elections could follow, just a year before the country’s regular elections in September 2022 (which will take place anyway). But if polls are to be believed, such elections will do little to facilitate the search for a majority. If some of the Swedish parties are reluctant to work constructively with old rivals, Sweden could find itself in a long political impasse.
[See also: What we can learn from Guiseppe Garibaldi]