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Sweden’s next prime minister will juggle an awkward coalition

Passing budgets and laws won’t be easy, given the policy disagreements among the four parties

Moderate Party leader Ulf Kristersson arrives at the Swedish parliament, the Riksdagen, before his meeting with the speaker of the parliament, Andreas Norlen, on Sept. 19 in Stockholm. (Tim Aro/Tt/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

After the Sept. 11 general election results, Sweden will have a new government — thought it’s not quite clear who will be in it. There is particular uncertainty over the role of the far-right Sweden Democrats, which may undermine the new government’s long-term stability.

The Sweden Democrats now hold 20 percent of the seats in Parliament, making them the biggest party on the right or center right. That gives the party an important role in forming and running the new government. However, they may not be invited to join the government — or could even choose to stay out of government, while supporting it in Parliament. Either way, Sweden’s next prime minister will have to manage an awkward coalition of four parties ranging all the way from social liberals to the radical right. Passing budgets and laws is likely to be hard.

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The new government will probably come together quickly

Sweden’s constitution sets out the rules for forming a new government. After talking to representatives of the parties, the parliamentary speaker proposes a prospective prime minister and government coalition. Parliament then takes a vote. If not defeated by an absolute majority in parliament, the new leader enters office with their new government.

Governments usually form quickly in Sweden, but they have not always been stable. The last two legislative terms saw conflicts over the role of the Sweden Democrats and ideological differences among the government’s supporters. After the 2018 elections, it took a record 134 days for Social Democrat Stefan Löfvén to pull together a weak minority government including the Social Democrats and the Green Party. The Social Democrats still hold the largest share of seats, but Sweden’s left-wing parties now claim a combined 173 seats, fewer than the 176 seats held by right-wing parties.

This time, we can expect the process to be much quicker. Traditionally, the leader of the largest party on the winning side would be invited to form a government. Instead, Jimmie Åkesson of the Sweden Democrats appears to have passed the baton to Ulf Kristersson, the leader of the Moderate Party, which lost seats in the election and is now only the third-largest party in parliament after the Social Democrats and the Sweden Democrats.

But the government faces complications

The new government will rest on the support of the four parties on Sweden’s “new” center right. They are the traditionally internationalist and socially liberal Liberal Party; the Christian Democrats, a party inspired by U.S. conservatives and with conservative social values; the Moderate Party, which is pro-market and focused on law and order; and the Sweden Democrats, who promote nationalistic populism and campaigned on an anti-immigrant, policing and criminal justice platform.

The immediate question is whether the Sweden Democrats will join the government, provide support in parliament for a three-party coalition of Moderates, Christian Democrats and Liberals, or block the Liberals from entering government and force a two-party coalition of Moderates and Christian Democrats.

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Like their radical right counterparts in Finland and Norway, the Sweden Democrats might enter government as part of a coalition. The Finnish and Norwegian coalitions eventually broke down, however, over disagreements on immigration policies and the integration of non-natives.

Alternatively, the Sweden Democrats might stay out of government, while supporting it. That’s what the Danish People’s Party did in 2015, to avoid disputes over the European Union, even though they were the largest party in the winning bloc. That decision left the Danish People’s Party looking weak and indecisive, especially when their leader made advances to the Danish Social Democrats over social and employment policy in the run-up to Denmark’s 2019 election.

In Sweden, conflict between the Sweden Democrats and the Liberal Party will complicate the process. Both parties made it their priority to exclude the other from the government coalition. A two-party Moderates-Christian Democratic coalition, supported by Sweden Democrats and Liberals, might offer a viable alternative, but this would mark a major symbolic defeat for the Liberal Party.

Sweden’s next government has only a narrow majority

As the last two electoral terms show, even when winning parties have enough support to form a government, the coalition may not be able to govern very effectively. Löfvén, who was prime minister in 2014, lost the vote over the 2015 government budget, soon after being voted in as prime minister.

Kristersson will want to avoid a similar embarrassment. However, his coalition’s narrow majority in Parliament — 176 seats to 173 seats on the left — means the new government will be vulnerable if members of parliament defect or are expelled. And the likelihood of policy misalignments suggests that neither the Sweden Democrats or the Liberals are likely to be stable partners.

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In the near term, the Sweden Democrats and the other three parties are likely to disagree over the level of unemployment benefits, for instance. The Sweden Democrats might even side with the opposition Social Democrats to protect benefits that their supporters like. Despite these types of challenges, the government might still survive.

Over the longer run, the Sweden Democrats are untested on economic and energy policy issues. Both of these issues are increasingly urgent for Sweden, which faces high inflation and energy shortages like other European countries. Should the Sweden Democrats withdraw their support for government policies on these issues, Kristersson might not necessarily resign. Instead, he might have to rely on the support of the Social Democrats — as his predecessor Carl Bildt did, when he was unable to work with the populist New Democracy party during the economic crisis of the early 1990s.

Sweden’s new government will probably be more stable than its two immediate predecessors, for now. But it still faces a number of difficult political challenges and will be working with a slim majority.

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Jacob Christensen (@jacobchr) is a senior lecturer in social science in the social work department at UCL University College at Odense, Denmark.