Pictured: Sweden's House of Parliament (Riksdagshuset) in Stockholm. (Image source: Holger.Ellgaard/Wikimedia Commons)
On January 18, more than four months after Sweden's September elections, Social Democrat leader Stefan Löfven became prime minister for a second term, when he won the backing of the Swedish parliament: 115 parliamentarians from his own party and its coalition partner (the environmentalist Green Party) voted for his proposed government coalition, while 77 parliamentarians abstained and 153 voted against. There are 349 seats in the parliament.
Under Swedish parliamentary rules, a prospective prime minister can form a government even if he has not secured a majority of votes, as long as there is not a majority against him in parliament. Löfven was far from winning a majority of votes, prompting the question whether, despite becoming prime minister for a second term, he actually won the election.
The question is actually debatable: Löfven's Social Democratic party experienced its worst election result ever, gaining only 28.3 % of the vote. It is the first time the party has ever received less than 30% of the vote; its government coalition partner, the Green Party, barely made it above the electoral threshhold, with only 4.4 % of the vote. (The electoral threshhold is 4%).
The prolonged coalition wrangling began after the results of the September 9 elections made it clear that Sweden's traditional center-left and center-right blocs had each gained around 40% of the vote, yet were unable to find ways to build a government coalition without either involving the opposing bloc or the Sweden Democrats (SD). Keeping the Sweden Democrats away from any kind of political influence, seemingly became the main reason the government crisis lasted so long. Throughout the government's negotiations, the Sweden Democrats, with 17.5 % of the vote, and now the third-largest party in parliament, representing the more than one million people who voted for them (out of 6.5 million votes in total) remained an isolated outsider, shunned by all political leaders.
"It is ... about decency, a decent democracy. A government led by the Social Democrats guarantees that the Sweden Democrats -- an extremist and racist party -- do not get influence", Löfven said on September 9, as he was casting his vote.
"My values are not SD's", said the leader of the center-right bloc, Ulf Kristersson, a year ago, about whether he would be willing to talk to the Sweden Democrats. "I will not cooperate, converse, collaborate, [or] co-ordinate with SD". He repeated the same message in November, two months after the September 9 elections: "I do not speak to, or negotiate with, the Sweden Democrats", he told Swedish television. "That is not because I do not respect their voters but I want to talk to those with whom I would like to cooperate."
Swedish political leaders are especially opposed to the policies of the Sweden Democrats concerning immigration. According to the Sweden Democrats election platform:
"For decades Sweden's migration policy has been handled in an irresponsible and ignorant way, with serious consequences for Swedish society A very high number of asylum seekers and their relatives has divided society, cultivated exclusion and eroded welfare state. At the same time, safety has been compromised... Today tens of thousands of people are staying illegally within the country's borders and Sweden is internationally known for unrest and citizens who are active in terrorist networks... Sweden needs to build a migration policy from scratch, with fixed rules, and respect for the country's borders, citizens and laws".
As part of such a policy, the Sweden Democrats say they want "to stop receiving asylum seekers in Sweden", as well as "sharpen the requirements to become Swedish citizens" and "enable revocation of citizenship that has been granted in error". They also say they want to give the police "tools and resources to search for people who are staying in the country illegally... and allow for longer stays in detention if expulsion cannot be enforced immediately". In addition, they say they would "Strive for agreements with other countries to be able to expel more people..."
The Sweden Democrats also note that they want a tougher approach to law and order:
"Current and former governments have seriously harmed confidence in the judicial system. Police quit [their jobs] as a result of poor working conditions and growing threats. Fire brigades and ambulances cannot move into immigrant-dominated areas without armed escort. Those who live and work in our suburbs get their stores robbed, broken or taken over by criminals. The few perpetrators who are actually sentenced for serious crimes escape with mild punishment, while their victims do not receive support or redress. As a result of the uncontrolled immigration, terrorists... walk freely on the streets and squares and utilize our welfare and asylum systems. Jews flee Swedish cities while anti-Semitism grows stronger. The social contract is about to be broken on the part of public Sweden".
To counter this, the Sweden Democrats want to introduce, among other things, "wide-ranging penalties and, in particular, raise the minimum penalty for repeated and serious crimes". They also want to introduce "compulsory expulsion of grossly criminal foreigners and the possibility to recall citizenship in case of terrorist offenses". The Sweden Democrats would also like Sweden to leave the EU, and to have a referendum on the issue, something to which almost all the other political parties are strongly opposed.
None of the other parties wants even to consider a dialogue about these issues with the Sweden Democrats. Prime Minister Löfven, in fact, on January 18, spoke as if Sweden's political leaders, in keeping the Sweden Democrats politically isolated, had just pulled back from the edge of an abyss, the extreme irony of his words clearly lost on himself:
"More and more governments around the world are becoming dependent on parties with an anti-democratic agenda. In the 2018 election, Sweden stood before a similar threat: getting a small right-wing government in the hands of the Swedish Democrats. But in Sweden we stand up for democracy and the equality of people. Sweden chooses a different path and it is historic.
"It has not been easy, but Sweden's centrist parties have gathered and done what is required. Through the January agreement, Sweden gets a new government based on collaboration in the center of Swedish politics. Sweden gets a powerful government that is not dependent on the Sweden Democrats... The biggest winner is Sweden".
The January agreement to which Löfven is referring formed the basis of a new political alliance between Löfven's party and his environmental coalition partner on one hand, and two small parties from the center-right bloc, which decided to break with traditional bloc politics and support the Social Democratic government. It will also form the basis for the new government's policies. Annie Lööf, the leader of the Center Party (one of the two breakout center-right parties), explained why she had chosen to support Löfven's government, which, during the elections, she had campaigned to replace:
"The 2018 election was a choice of values. The Center Party chose to stand up for humanity, equality and tolerance. We fought against xenophobia... With this agreement we stand up for our values, while at the same time putting a government in place. It is a solution where neither the Sweden Democrats nor the [far-left] Left Party is given influence over politics."
Swedish voters appear unimpressed with the way the collective of Swedish political leaders have handled this period of coalition squabbling. A January opinion poll revealed that if elections were to take place now, the Sweden Democrats would go from 17.5% to 19.9% of the vote, becoming the second-largest party in Sweden. The Green Party, the Social Democratic Party's government coalition partner, would not even make the electoral threshold; neither would one of the two breakout center-right parties that supported Löfven's government. The other center-right party would lose 30% of its voters.
A different January poll showed that 70% of the Swedes have lost confidence in politicians. "The low level of confidence is startling but not completely unexpected", said Torbjörn Sjöström, from Novus, the company behind the poll.
"There has been a crisis of confidence for quite some time. The high voter mobility that we have had during the last mandate periods and that SD [Sweden Democrats] has increased so strongly is a sign of a reduced confidence in the political system.
"During the four months that have passed, politics has shown that power seems to be most important, and that political solutions are subordinate. [Politicians] talked about a fateful election but then the country managed and kept on managing for four months without a government, so [politicians] have also shown that politics is not as important as they claimed".
The loss of confidence in politicians was particularly high -- 93% -- among people who had voted for the Sweden Democrats. "They think they have seen evidence that democracy does not work. They are the third-largest party, but have been completely outmaneuvered," said Sjöström, referring to the fact that every single political leader in Swedish politics refused even to talk to the Sweden Democrats.
So, what does the new government promise to do on the most pressing issues, such as immigration and law and order? According to the January agreement between the Social Democratic government and its center-right supporters:
"Sweden is a fantastic country but we are facing great challenges together: climate change, lack of integration, segregation and dependency, globalization, which continues to test our competitiveness... increased polarization and racism, gang crime... housing shortages ... The proposals in this agreement can vigorously meet these challenges by untying old knots and bringing about systemic changes... Our parties have different ideological starting points but are united in the defense of the liberal foundations of democracy; a strong rule of law, an unwavering protection of the individual's freedom and rights, resistance to xenophobia, independent free media, equality and equal conditions regardless of background".
The agreement mentions the issue of migration on page 15 of its 16 pages. It does not, however, mention any of the problematic issues that migration has brought upon Sweden -- although it does talk about ideas to get more immigrants into the job market and learning Swedish, as well as proposals to deal with honor killings. Ironically, it actually creates a basis for even more immigration. According to the agreement, Sweden will reintroduce the right to family reunion for those people granted asylum in Sweden who do not have refugee status. This means that they will be able to bring their spouses and children to Sweden, while unaccompanied children will be able to bring their parents. This repatriation is estimated to bring at least 8,000 more people to Sweden in the coming three years. According to Henrik Emilsson, Ph.D of international migration at Malmö University, the change will affect asylum immigration:
"Family reunification is something that is very important for people seeking asylum. The information about which countries have which rules spreads quickly and affects where people apply".
The issues of "safety, security and democracy" are mentioned only on the last page of the agreement, perhaps indicative of the assigned priority. (By comparison, there are two pages about climate change and the environment).
Here is what the new government plans, but without a word as to how it intends to do it:
"Security throughout Sweden will increase... We take action against organized crime, strengthen the police and combat both crimes and causes of crimes. Democracy must be safeguarded, both here and in the world. The work against violent extremism, anti-gypsyism, antisemitism, Islamophobia, and any other forms of racism must be strengthened".
The agreement also promises "ten thousand more police officers" and pledges, "Sweden's [foreign] aid will be raised to 1% of the gross national income".
There is not a word in the agreement about the threat from Islamic terrorism, even though the Swedish Security Service's (Säpo) January 15 press release stated, "Violence-promoting Islamist extremism currently constitutes the biggest threat to Sweden" and, "The level of the terror threat remains elevated, a three on a five-point scale. This means that a terrorist act is likely to occur".
Judith Bergman, a columnist, lawyer and political analyst, is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at Gatestone Institute.