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Sweden Democrats lose the elections but mould the debate

Alliance politics is the continuation of political confrontation by other means. In Sweden, elections have not been the end of the political debate but rather the beginning. What the far-right achieved is to become “a pole” in the conversation, forcing “mainstream” political parties to elevate them as the “main contender.” No political conversation can take place in Sweden without engaging the Sweden Democrats.

Sweden’s nationalist anti-immigration party Sweden Democrats have emerged as the third biggest party in parliament on Sunday’s elections, but are claiming to lead the opposition.

The centre-left and centre-right political alliances find themselves in a virtual tie and will struggle to form a government in what is effectively a hung parliament. These were volatile elections. 40% of Swedish voters voted in these elections for a different party than they had done in 2014. This so-called electoral availability shows not only volatility and polarisation but also the traits of a broader political transformation.

Like elsewhere in Europe, the new political cleavage cutting across Swedish politics is the stance towards Europe and immigration. Sweden too is divided among “moderate” and anti-systemic parties. The Swedish Democrats did in fact worse than they expected because migration was less significant than originally thought. “Moderates” were able to unpack the loaded issue of immigration, talking directly about issues often linked to immigration: the labour market, housing inequality, and health services.

The Sweden Democrats’ stated ambition is to influence the political agenda, retaining a focus on immigration. That they will do, one way or another. However, a government needs to be formed first, in which the far-right will not participate. Not being the far-right will be the underlying legitimating narrative of the next moderate government. It remains to be seen whether the next coalition will be anything else apart from “not far-right.”

The ball is now in the court of the Social Democrats, but the real pressure is on two smaller parties: the Liberal Party and the Center Party.

Sweden Democrats win, but Social Democrats don’t lose

When exit polls came out on Sunday evening, September 9, Sweden Democrats (SD) held just under 18% (17,9%), compared to just under 13 (12,9%) in 2014. By the end of the evening and 84% of the votes counted, the numbers confirmed they would lead the opposition (17,6%) as the third biggest party in parliament.

For much of the evening, Sweden Democrats hovered in the region of 20% and hoped for second place. However, the political effect of third place cannot be underestimated.

Exit polls also made clear early enough that the incumbent Social Democrats were heading for their worst electoral outcome for more than a century. Exit polls placed them at 28%, a mark which late at night they outperformed by merely 0,4%.

Dropping below 30% is not only worse than 2014 (31%) but their worst performance since 1911. Still, the Social Democrats did better than polls projected and are the single most significant political party.

Hung Parliament

Until late in the evening it was unclear which alliance – centre-left or centre-right – would secure a mandate to form a government. The key was the performance of the Green Party, who struggled to pass the 4% threshold to enter the parliament. By the end of the evening, they had seized 4,4%, handing the centre-left the political initiative in a hung parliament.

The centre-left alliance between the Social Democrats, the Green Party, and the Left Party secured 40.7%, leaving behind the centre-right Alliance by 40,3% (Moderates, Center Party, Christian Democrats, and Liberals). Counting expatriates on Wednesday did not change the balance of power.

On the night of the elections, the leader of the Moderate party, Ulf Kristersson, called for the resignation of prime minister Stefan Löfven. The moderates secured 19,8%, down from 23,3% in 2014. Their defeat, even if marginal, was pronounced because they lost ground while in opposition. The only member of the centre-right Alliance to do better than 2014 were the Christian Democrats (from 4,6% in 2014 to 6,4% in 2018).

In sum, Kristersson’s demands did not carry any particular weight.

Lofven spoke of the “moral responsibility” of mainstream parties to form a government. Sweden’s Social Democratic Prime Minister is not stepping down, but he is likely to lose a confidence vote in parliament unless he breaks the ranks of the opposition. However, he is expected to secure the support he needs.

Parliamentary balance of power

The political deadlock is clear.

A majority in Sweden requires 175 seats in a 349-seat parliament.

The centre-left controls 144 seats versus 143 sears for the centre-right Alliance.  The nationalist, Eurosceptic and anti-migrant Sweden Democrats have 62 seats.

Neither the centre-left nor the centre-right are willing to consider an alliance with the Sweden Democrats, whose neo-Nazi background makes them a “toxic” coalition partner.

For the Social Democrats, there was never any question of negotiating. The Moderates were forced to forget about it.

The former leader of the Moderate party, Anna Kinberg Batraproposed a Danish or Norwegian strategy in 2017, contemplating a tactical alliance with the Swedish Democrats. However, unlike the Danish People’s Party and the Norwegian Progress Party, the Swedish Democrats were founded as a platform for neo-Nazi organisations in the 1980s, many of its historical leaders belonged to the SS, and many of his current candidates “own up” to a background of white supremacy.  That is why the choice made by the Moderates in 2017 cost them dearly: they saw their polling freefall and Batra was forced to resign.

Now, Akesson challenges the new leader of the Moderates and aspirant prime minister, Ulf Kristersson, to choose between support from the Sweden Democrats and four more years of Lofven as prime minister. The problem with this rationale is that Akesson has not mastered under an 18% share of the vote and his support would not suffice to make Kristersson a prime minister.

“The numbers aren’t actually the most important thing, but rather our relationship to the other parties,” Jimmie Akesson told Swedish Radio.

Unless the Moderates do decide to engage with the Sweden Democrats, the only two scenarios are forming an unstable minority government or breaking the ranks of one of the two coalitions. The centre-right alliance is the weakest.

Points of friction

The Moderates are not interested in a government they do not lead but can rely on the Christian Democrats, whose leader, Ebba Busch, has publicly turned down an invitation to talk to the Social Democrats.

But, there are two members of the Alliance are quite open to joining a coalition led by the Social Democrats. The Liberals will not enter a coalition government with the Left Party but do not object to sharing power with the Greens. The Centre Party has also talked about the need for cross-bloc cooperation.

The Social Democrats are not only the biggest party but also only party that can look for allies at the right and the left of the political spectrum. In this context, the prospects of a centre-right government in Sweden are dim. The prospects of a red-red-green alliance are also dim. It’s “moderates” versus the radical rights. And, in this sense, the Swedish Democrats have won.