Sweden

   
 

Executive Summary

Robust, adaptable democratic system
Democratic governance remains robust and deeply institutionalized in Sweden. Some of the societal underpinnings of governance are changing: party membership continues to decline and electoral allegiance to parties is increasingly volatile. Yet these changes may simply demonstrate that Sweden’s system is capable of adaptation and reinvention.
Slow shift of power
to the center
The Swedish political and administrative system is fragmented by design. Agencies are autonomous in relationship to the political center. Local and regional governments likewise enjoy substantive, constitutionally guaranteed autonomy. Reforms over the past several years have focused on strengthening the political center’s oversight powers. Advocates of these reforms argue that such powers are essential to sustain a responsive political leadership. Equally important is the need for accountability, as the agents and structures of political power must be held responsible for the policy measures they advance.
Increased strategic capacity, with a cost
These reforms have also increased the strategic capacity of the political system; though this appears to have come at the price of some inclusiveness of societal interests, discourse and debate. Using information increasingly as a strategic asset, the government, and not least the Government Office (GO), is today more secluded and inaccessible to the media and interest associations. Increasing coordination among government departments, where fragmentation had been a major hinderance, is enhancing the strategic capacity of the government at the same time as it weakens the points of contact with society.
Skillful economic management
In terms of economic policy, the government has skillfully navigated the Swedish economy past crisis and instability. Not being a member of the euro zone has certainly helped, but the government deserves praise for its management of the economy through the recent series of financial and economic crises, global as well as European.
Accommodating
refugees a challenge
Perhaps the biggest challenge facing the Swedish government in late 2017 involves accommodating and integrating the large number of asylum-seekers that have arrived in Sweden. This policy challenge has upended the dynamics between parties as new alliances have formed while conventional collaborative arrangements are showing signs of strain. This development has exacerbated ambiguities in an already fragile parliament.
Market-based reforms
a break with past
Until the change of government in September 2014, the non-socialist “Alliance” government had continued its goal-oriented policy of transforming the welfare state. It had implemented market-based reforms in a wide variety of sectors, so much so that it appears as if bringing the market into public services and the welfare state was an end in itself. The previous government had extensively cut taxes, yielding cutbacks in many welfare programs, which put pressure on those on medical leave to return to work. Some of the implemented measures did not, at first glance, undermine the logic of the Swedish welfare model. Considered individually, the family, labor market, tax and social insurance reforms seem moderate. However, in sum, these reforms represent a significant departure from the traditional Swedish model. The tax policy reforms, in particular, mark a genuine break with the past and are ideologically driven to a greater extent than in many previous governments.
Unique features of system fading with time
The unique features of Sweden’s political, economic and social systems appear to be fading with time. Stability, broad consensus, and the absence of right-wing populist parties have traditionally been defining features of Sweden’s political environment just as corporatism, centralized wage bargaining, high taxes and a generous welfare state have attracted considerable praise. Noted for its societal homogeneity and high levels of equality, employment and affluence, Sweden is becoming increasingly diverse and faces sustained unemployment, dualities in the labor market, growing inequality, and diminished quality of life and health. In short, Sweden is losing its “unique” status as a role model in the European context.
Trust in market mechanisms declining
The Social Democratic and Green coalition government that was formed after the 2014 general elections appears to place less trust in the market than their predecessors. As the red-green coalition government has no clear majority in parliament, it remains to be seen if it is capable of organizing stable majorities and to what extent their more state-centric policy style will help address urgent issues in education, welfare and unemployment. As of late 2017, the government has been rather successful in securing sufficient support for its most significant bills.
Parliamentary split complicates budgeting
The capacity of the parliament to set long-term goals and pass budgets has been severely constrained by the post-2014 distribution of seats. The red-green coalition and non-socialist “Alliance” parties control roughly the same percentage of seats. The right-wing populist Sweden Democrats party holds a pivotal position between these two blocs, yet neither of the two is willing to negotiate with them. This resulted in a major parliamentary stalemate until a December 2014 agreement helped ensure passage of the minority governments’ budget proposals. That agreement, however, collapsed in October 2015. As of 2017, the argument about whether the other political parties should cooperate in some form with the Sweden Democrats appears to have been put on hold pending the 2018 general elections, which may or may not produce a more manageable parliament. Until then, it is easy to see that the combined factors of a political system under duress and the challenge of ensuring a working majority in parliament has not strengthened the strategic capacity of government institutions.
Citations:
Pierre, J. (ed) (2015), The Oxford Handbook of Swedish Politics (Oxford: Oxford University Press).
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