Swedish Leaders Will Try Anything to Shut Out the Far-Right

No one wants to enter a coalition with the Sweden Democrats, so the country is resorting to desperate and untested measures to form a new government.

Swedish Speaker of Parliament Andreas Norlen (L) meets with Moderate party leader Ulf Kristersson (R) at the Parliament in Stockholm on September 27, 2018.
Swedish Speaker of Parliament Andreas Norlen (L) meets with Moderate party leader Ulf Kristersson (R) at the Parliament in Stockholm on September 27, 2018. (HENRIK MONTGOMERY/AFP/Getty Images)

On Wednesday, Sweden’s parliament will vote on a prime ministerial candidate who lacks a clear mandate. It is a gamble that has never been tried before.

In fact, Ulf Kristersson—the center-right Moderate Party’s leader—represents a not-yet-formed alliance that only won a minority of the parliamentary seats in Sweden’s national elections two months ago. The center-left parties only won one seat more than those representing the center-right. The far-right Sweden Democrats, the parliament’s third-largest group, could help one of the sides form an alliance, but neither bloc wants to govern with them. Sweden is becoming a prime example of how radical parties are, simply by winning parliamentary seats, transforming stable democracies.

“The situation is quite dramatic,” Anna Dahlberg, the editorial page editor of the Swedish newspaper Expressen, told Foreign Policy. “In Sweden we always manage to form governments quickly, and until now there have never been such profound doubts about who won the election.” Who won the Sept. 9 parliamentary elections is indeed completely unclear. The Social Democratic Party, which governed Sweden for much of the 20th century, remains the country’s largest party. But with 28.3 percent of the vote, down 2.8 percentage points from the 2014 election, it doesn’t look like a winner. On the contrary, it suffered its worst-ever election result.

Its longtime archrivals, Kristersson’s Moderates, remained the largest center-right party. But with just 19.8 percent, down 3.5 percentage points from 2014, it didn’t perform well either. Some of the other, smaller parties, meanwhile, increased their share of the vote. But Sweden’s unenviable situation is this: The Social Democrats and their allies, the Left and the Greens, have 144 seats in parliament, the center-right Alliance group has 143, and the far-right Sweden Democrats have 62, having gained 4.7 percentage points to win 17.5 percent of the national vote. Since the other parties oppose a coalition containing the Sweden Democrats, the party is clearly not the winner of this peculiar election either.

“We essentially have three blocs, and nobody wants to work with one of the other blocs,” noted Sven Otto Littorin, a Moderate politician who served as employment minister until 2010. “Now it’s down to who blinks first.” Getting somebody to blink is the task of the parliamentary speaker, Andreas Norlen, who has already spent more than two months in talks with the party leaders. First, he asked Kristersson to form a government. After a valiant effort, Kristersson failed to achieve the modest goal of proposing a government that would not be opposed by a parliamentary majority.

Norlen then gave incumbent Prime Minister Stefan Lofven of the Social Democrats a chance. He, too, failed. Last week Norlen—who may or may not be familiar with the last-minute American football strategy of throwing the ball in the air and hoping for the best—resorted to a political Hail Mary: He decided that parliament will vote on Kristersson as prime minister tomorrow.

The choice between accepting Kristersson and holding another parliamentary election will clarify the minds of members of parliament, Norlen’s thinking goes. Indeed, the mainstream parties are reluctant to call a snap election, which they fear would further strengthen the Sweden Democrats. Between the 2014 and 2018 elections, 11 percent of the Social Democrats’ supporters defected to the Sweden Democrats.

A snap election faces another, more practical, hurdle: “With the exception of the Sweden Democrats and the Center Party, none of the parties have any money left for another election campaign, and they don’t have the energy for one either,” the former Moderate Party minister Littorin pointed out.

Yet not even the most skilled speaker of the parliament can change the fact that Swedes are deeply divided about the direction their country should take at a moment when the far-right is on the rise. “We have arrived at the point that other European countries have already reached,” Dahlberg said. “The question is, should we do like the Danes and govern with their support, or like the Germans and isolate them? Either way, we have to swallow a bitter pill.”

For decades, the center-right parties formed a tight front against the seemingly unassailable Social Democrats. But in this atmosphere of instability and uncertainty, the small, aptly named Center Party’s 35-year-old leader, Annie Loof, recently hinted that the only workable outcome would be a cross-aisle coalition with Loof herself as prime minister.

Despite leading a party that is merely the country’s fourth largest, Loof is in a strong position. Not surprisingly, the Social Democrats say they will only entertain the idea if the prime minister is a Social Democrat. Norlen entertains no illusions about the task at hand. “I’m the speaker, not a magician,” he recently said.

Sweden could also go for the unstable minority government option—or try its first-ever grand coalition, a model used in Germany. Dahlberg has been advancing that option in Expressen. “In recent years the Social Democrats and the Moderates have become more and more similar, for example adopting stricter immigration policies,” she pointed out. “But for historical reasons, a grand coalition is considered unthinkable. Since the two parties are archrivals, opposition to the other party is how they mobilize voters.”

The Social Democrats and Moderates are cool toward a grand coalition for another reason: It would risk further strengthening the Sweden Democrats, who could then argue that the legacy parties are all the same.

In the meantime, parliamentary business continues. Such is the uncertainty about who is in charge that when it came time to assign committee chairmanships, the Social Democrats’ and Moderates’ respective parliamentary leaders tossed a coin to determine who would get to choose first. As in the previous legislature, the Sweden Democrats were given no chairmanships.

Even if Kristersson does manage to get majority support for his candidacy this week, he faces the dilemma of how to assemble a governing coalition. On Monday, Kristersson said that he would try to form a minority coalition with the Christian Democrats—but the Liberals and the Center Party promptly declared that they would oppose it.

Sweden is facing the same fundamental question plaguing country after country in Europe: how to deal with surging far-right parties. After the last election and the one before that, Sweden’s other parties tried to ignore the Sweden Democrats—but that plan failed, resulting only in more electoral gains for the Sweden Democrats. Making Loof prime minister, or any other parliamentary magic tricks, won’t change that reality. Given those odds, it’s no surprise that parliament’s speaker has resorted to a Hail Mary.

Elisabeth Braw is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Twitter: @elisabethbraw

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