Swedish Politics for Foreigners

Yesterday Sweden held general elections, the outcome of which will have a huge impact on the security situation in Northern Europe and the Baltic Sea region in particular. I will here briefly present the outcome from the viewpoint of how the change in government (and in the opposition) likely will affect the foreign and security politics of Sweden. I will write this from a Finnish point of view, and as such I apologize to my other international readers if the comparisons with Finnish politics add little to the value of the text. But enough of an introduction, and to the point:

For the better part of the 20th century the Social Democratic Party (S) has reigned supreme, with the wartime coalition governments during WWII and a Centrist-led government after the election of 1976 as the most memorable exceptions. However, the party has in fact not had an own majority since the election of 1968 (when it got 50.1 % of the vote). This has led to the fact that almost all Swedish governments have been de factio minority governments.

Support for the Social Democratic Party over the years. Source: Wikpedia.

Compared to Finnish politics, the Swedish political spectrum stretches further left. The Swedish Green Party (MP) e.g. lacks a chairperson, and instead has two spokespersons (one man and one woman), and while the debate in Finland goes on about how to increase the total amount of work hours, the Swedish Leftist Party (V) is instead pushing for a 6 hour workday (with wages staying the same).

To shake up the political field, four centrist-right parties, the Moderate Party (M, centrist-right conservative, corresponding to Kokoomus in Finland), the Liberal People’s Party (FP, a liberal party), the Centre Party (C, the party has agrarian roots, but currently describes itself with terms such as “eco-humanism” and “green social-liberal”), and the Christian Democrats (KD, centrist-right conservative), formed the Alliance, and effectively formed a government before the election of 2006 was held. By presenting a clear alternative, they managed to get into power, and also in winning the following election held in 2010.

The original leaders of the Alliance in 2006. From left: Fredrik Reinfeldt (M), Maud Olofsson (C), Göran Hägglund (KD), Lars Leijonborg (FP). Source: Wikimedia Commons/Henrik Sendelbach

This naturally created a green-leftist block, with the opposition made up of S, V and MP being forced to collaborate if they wanted to get back into power. However, a third force appaered when in the elections of 2010 the Sweden Democrats (SD) got into the parliament with 5.7 % of the votes.

SD is easily brushed away as yet another of the populist parties that rides on the wave of widespread discontent that has followed in the footsteps of the current economic crises. However, it is noteworthy that while e.g. the Finns Party also has an anti-immigration policy and a far-right/nationalistic wing, its roots in the agrarian populist movement is remarkably different from those of SD, where key people during the 80’s and early 90’s had their roots in racist and even neo-nazi parties and organizations. Since the mid 90’s, the party has consciously tried to become more respectable through banning the more radical members and moderating its message. Still, the response from the other parties has been an absolute ‘No’ to any talk about cooperating with the “rasist” Sweden Democrats, even as they in 2010 became the balancing party that by choosing side could swing the parliament in favor of either the right or the left block.

From a point of security politics, all parties have taken part in a monumental series of budget cuts that has seen the Swedish Defence Forces decline in strength, with conscription being abandoned in 2010. In the meantime, politicians have publicly maintained that the current force is able to perform its mission, by being better equipped and trained than the earlier mass army. In practice, a large number of deficits in material as well as a low level of exercises and a constant lack of personnel made the Swedish Chief of Defence famously state in an interview made in late 2012 that the current force was able to fight an attacker with a limited goal “for about a week”, before it would be in such a state it was no longer an effective fighting force.

Of the current parties, S and the Alliance maintains that the defence forces are getting more money and is/will be able to meet set goals (this is disputed by a number of other voices in the debate, including both current and ex-active service personnel, as well as civilians). V, MP and ultra-feministic Feminist Initiative (FI) are on the other hand decidedly against NATO, arms export and defence forces in general. SD is the only party that as a whole has demanded large increases in defence funding, but is also anti-NATO and questions has been raised about the connections between the party and the Kremlin.

Before this last election, a number of questions were raised:

  • Would the Alliance be able to bounce back from years of low approval ratings?
  • Would FI be able to get into the parliament?
  • Would MP or SD be third largest party (around 10 % was the number mentioned for both parties), after S and M?
  • Would MP and S be able to form a government, or would V be needed?
  • If a green-leftist three-party government was formed, how stable would it be?
  • Would the Alliance hold if they lost the elections, and S invited one or two of the minor parties to join in a coalition?

As is well-known by now, the Alliance lost, FI missed out on a spot in the parliament, and SD beat MP by a mile (13 % vs 7 %), and so far the Alliance seems to be holding. Noteworthy is the fact that the left block actually did not increase by any considerable number, S gained one seat, MP lost one, and V gained two, but their victory came from the fact that M crashed, losing 23 seats. In the meantime, SD gained 29. However, contrary to expectations, S has already stated that V will not be included in the government, leaving the government with 137 seats out of 349, well short of the 175 needed to gain majority.

Before our Finnish readers shout “Early elections!”, bear in mind what was stated earlier about the fact that almost all Swedish governments (including the last one) has been minority ones. However, this time the advent of the Alliance and the refusal to cooperate with SD leaves little room to maneuver for S, and only time will tell if a red-green government will last the full four years or not (bearing in mind that it is not even formed yet).

What does this mean for Northern Europe then? Firstly, any drastic change in Swedish security politics is unlikely. I find it hard to believe that any major surge in defence spending will take place, let alone that Sweden would apply for a NATO-membership. This means that the security hole that President Niinistö spoke about last year is not about to be filled anytime soon, at least not by Sweden. Secondly, as a more general remark, Sweden now apparently lacks the kind of solid leadership that is needed to react to a fast changing world. This is not a good thing from the viewpoint of Finland, the Baltic countries, or Poland.