One winner and seven losers: The Swedish parliamentary election of September 2014

On September 14th Swedish voters went to the polls. After two consecutive terms of centre-right rule, the centre-left, led by the Social Democrats, looks set to regain office. Although the government-formation process continues, at the time of writing it seems likely that the Social Democrats and the Greens will form a minority coalition.

However, their win is anything but unequivocal. Not only were the electoral results of the centre-left parties rather modest; the post-election parliamentary situation provides the likely new prime minister, Stefan Löfven, with serious challenges. First, the seats of the centre-left combined do not add up to a majority. Second, the huge success of the anti-immigration Sweden Democrats means that customary patterns of co-operation between the established parties are not enough to produce an effective and stable government.

The results in a historical context

The results of the election were largely expected (see Table 1). Numerous opinion polls during the campaign had rather accurately predicted what could best be described as an election with one winner and seven losers. All four parties of the incumbent government lost ground. The prime minister’s party, the Moderates, lost about 7% of their voters. Still, while this is, of course, a major setback for the party, a share of 23% is a decent result for the party in a historical perspective. In fact, the situation might now be more acute for the Moderates’ junior coalition partners. The Christian Democrats lost vote share for a fourth consecutive election. For the third election in a row, the Liberals failed to increase their support. Finally, the Centre Party also endured its second straight election loss.

Table 1: Results of the 2014 Parliamentary election in Sweden

Party Vote share Seats
Social Democrats 31.0 (+0.4) 111 (+1)
Moderate Party 23.3 (-6.7) 84 (-23)
Sweden democrats 12.9 (+7.2) 49 (+29)
Green Party 6.9 (-0.5) 25 (0)
Centre Party 6.1 (-0.4) 22 (-1)
Left Party 5.7 (+0.1) 21 (+2)
Liberal Party 5.4 (-1.6) 19 (-5)
Christian Democrats 4.6 (-1.0) 16 (-3)
Feminist Initiative 3.1 (+2.7) 0 (0)

Source: Election Authority

 

However, the centre-left did not do well either. Although the Social Democrats gained 0.4%, the result was far below their publicly declared goal of 35%. With 31%, the party actually suffered its second-worst result ever, surpassing only its score in of 2010. Neither could the Left Party profit from the general decline amongst the parties of government; it only marginally increased its score. Most surprisingly, the Greens also lost ground. The party had consistently scored around 10% in opinion polls during the previous couple of years and, moreover, they had done sensationally well in the EU elections earlier in 2014, when their 15.4% made them the second-largest party, behind the Social Democrats. All told, then, the election was more a defeat for the centre-right than a win for the centre-left. The fact is that the centre-left parties combined did not improve on their 2010 result.

While all the established parties have reasons to be disappointed, there was one big winner. With almost 13%, the anti-immigration Sweden Democrats more than doubled their share and are now comfortably the third biggest party in Sweden. In terms of radical right party success, Sweden was long considered a deviant case (Dahlström & Esaiasson 2013). However, after the Sweden Democrats’ breakthrough into parliament in 2010, and now this massive electoral upswing, Sweden now conforms well to established West European patterns.

So why did it turn out the way it did?

To some extent, the campaign for the 2014 election had already started by the spring. With the EU election in May, all parties were given the chance to rehearse before the “real” election. (Never before have Swedish voters elected their representatives to both the European and the national parliament in the same year.)

While voting patterns in European elections usually deviate substantially from those in national ones, the question was whether their close proximity this time would change that. It might be argued that, if electoral trends and issues of European integration should ever matter in a national election, this was the moment. However, with hindsight, the effect seems to have been marginal. Firstly, the issues most important to Swedish voters differed significantly in the two elections (see Table 2). According to exit polls, voters in the EU election were primarily swayed in their choice of party by issues not traditionally positioned on the economic left-right scale, such as peace, the environment, democracy and gender equality. In the Riksdag election, however, material issues dominated, as usually is the case. The most important issues were education, health care, the economy and social welfare.

Table2. Top five most important issues in European parliament election and Riksdag election 2014

European election Riksdag election
1. Peace in Europe Education
2. Environment Healthcare
3. Democracy in the EU Economy
4. Social welfare Social welfare
5. Gender equality Employment

Sources: SVT Valu EP election, SVT Valu Riksdag election

 

Secondly, the respective results do little to suggest that the European election was of much significance for the outcome of the Riksdag election. Although the electoral results were similar in some cases, the overall patterns differ quite a lot. Most obviously, the Greens were far less successful in the national election. The small Feminist Initiative also failed to profit from its successful European election, in which it managed to win its first seat. Finally, although the Sweden Democrats made gains in both elections, there is much to suggest that both its successes were a result of a longer-term electoral change. Indeed, the Sweden Democrats have strengthened their electoral support consistently since the party’s formation.

In 2004 the four centre-right parties entered a pre-electoral coalition, which they called the Alliance for Sweden. The main objective of this co-operative strategy was to overcome division within the “bourgeois” bloc, which hitherto had repeatedly undermined its parties’ collective credibility as a potential government (Aylott & Bolin 2007). With the win in 2006 and a second successful election victory in 2010, the Alliance changed the playing field. After eight years of office, seemingly without serious internal disputes, the Alliance’s record in office was perhaps its strongest card going in to the campaign.

Many commentators argue that the Alliance accomplished a lot in its first term in office, but lost momentum during its second. The Moderates especially were accused of lacking vision and instead being more of an administrative body, doing little more than keeping an eye on the economy. Opinion polls also show that “ownership” of several issues, including most of those that the electorate prioritised, was lost by the Alliance to the centre-left during this second term. However, its main rival, the Social Democrats, also seem to be having problems. Although they were very critical of some of the Alliance’s most important reforms, particularly some of its tax cuts, they made it clear that most of them would not be reversed.

Overall, then, we see a race to the middle ground. And while there are, of course, still differences between the two biggest parties, the general view seems to be these differences have decreased. One might legitimately raise the question of whether a change of government actually will lead to substantially different policies.

Besides discussions of government formation, the most debated post-election issue was about the electoral surge of the Sweden Democrats. The party was founded in 1988 by people affiliated to openly racist movements. This background was previously thought to have contributed to the fact that the Sweden Democrats, unlike parties with similar agendas in other parts of Europe, had failed to win many votes. This millstone now seems to be less of a burden to the party. Since its inaugural election in 1988, the Sweden Democrats have virtually doubled their share of the vote in every election. In 2010 they finally managed to pass the threshold for representation in the Riksdag. However, due to their isolation by all the established parties, the Sweden Democrats were denied any influence, despite having acquired the balance of power position.

Many theories as to why the Sweden Democrats did so well in this election have been suggested by political scientists, journalists and politicians. A few things seem to be undisputed, though. First, there is a large minority of Swedes who are sceptical towards their country’s generous immigration policies. By and large, these voters, if they prioritise this issue, have no other party to turn to. Exit polls also show that while immigration was a rather unimportant issue to voters in general, it was the most important one to those who voted for the Sweden Democrats.

Second, the party has, over the years, grown not only electorally but also organizationally. Party membership and the number of its local organizations throughout the country have both risen markedly. The party does not only now present candidates for office in its strongholds in Southern Sweden, but also in the Northern parts that used to be blind spots. Such organizational proliferation is an important explanation for the electoral surge of radical right parties (Erlingsson et al. 2012).

The aftermath 

As early as election night, the prime minister, Fredrik Reinfeldt, acknowledged defeat and announced his resignation. During the campaign, the Alliance had pledged to leave the prerogative of government formation to the centre-left parties if they won more seats. However, with neither block holding a majority, and with a pariah party holding the balance of power, Löfven found himself needing to find allies from both political blocs.

At the time of writing, Löfven looks neither willing nor able to produce a majority government. Quickly after the election, Löfven ruled out the Left Party as a coalition partner. Soon after that, however, his likeliest partners from the Alliance, the Liberals and the Centre Party, publicly declared they would not enter a Social-Democratic-led government. Left with only the Greens, the most likely outcome is a minority coalition government that holds less than 40% of the seats in parliament.

Yet given the rules of the game that may not be Löfven’s biggest problem. The real test of his ability to govern the country may instead be when parliament decides on the state budget later this autumn. Although the centre-left trio is bigger than the Alliance, votes from the Sweden Democrats can tip the vote in favour of the centre-right. Since all the established parties agree to continue to uphold the parliamentary isolation of the Sweden Democrats, no negotiations with them will take place. Moreover, the Sweden Democrats’ leader, Jimmie Åkesson, has not revealed how they will vote, pledging only to vote for the bill that is “least damaging to Sweden”. While both sides repeatedly declare they will not let the Sweden Democrats influence policies, the debate about the budget certainly indicates that they have an impact on politics.

Arguably, the political situation in Sweden is more complicated than it has been for some time. While the Alliance was able to govern from a minority position during the previous electoral term, this was partly due to the fact that the Sweden Democrats supported the government moe often than the opposition. If these voting patterns persist during the upcoming electoral term, the incoming government will hardly survive. In that case, a new government will have to take over. There has been speculation that an early election could be called, something that has not occurred in Sweden since 1958. Still, minority governments are nothing unusual in Sweden. Typically, the Social Democrats have led the country for much of the post-war period without holding a majority of seats. Maybe the only real new circumstance this time is that they will share that burden with another party.

Niklas Bolin and Nicholas Aylott

Niklas Bolin (niklas.bolin@miun.se, @NiklasBolin) is Senior lecturer in Political Science at the department of Social Sciences, Mid Sweden University.

Nicholas Aylott (nicholas.aylott@sh.se, @nicholasaylott) is Senior lecturer (docent) in Political Science and research leader in the Centre for Baltic and East European Studies, Södertörn University.

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