Sweden

   
 

Executive Summary

Robust, adaptable democratic system
Democratic governance remains robust and deeply institutionalized in Sweden. Some of the societal underpinnings of governance are however changing: party membership continues to decline and electoral allegiance to parties is increasingly volatile. These changes may 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 sustaining a responsive political leadership. Equally important is accountability, as the agents of political power must be held responsible for the policy measures they advance.
Increased strategic capacity, with a cost
These reforms have increased the strategic capacity of the political system, though at some cost of inclusiveness of societal interests, discourse and debate. Using information increasingly as a strategic asset, the government, and not least the Government Office (GO), is more secluded and inaccessible to the media and interest associations than previously. Increasing coordination among government departments, where fragmentation had been a major hinderance, is enhancing the strategic capacity of the government while also weakening 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 financial and economic crises, global as well as European. The past four years have witnessed sustained economic growth.
Accommodating
refugees a challenge
Perhaps the biggest challenge facing the Swedish government in late 2018 involves accommodating and integrating the large number of asylum-seekers that have arrived in Sweden. This policy challenge has upended traditional dynamics between parties as new alliances have formed and conventional collaborative arrangements have been strained.
Market-based reforms
a break with past
This development has exacerbated ambiguities in an already fragile parliament. Until the change of government in September 2014, the center-right “Alliance” government had pursued a 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 appeared that bringing the market into public services was an end in itself. This previous government had extensively cut taxes, yielding cutbacks in many welfare programs. Some of the implemented measures did not, at first glance, undermine the logic of the Swedish welfare model. Considered separately, the family, labor market, tax and social insurance reforms seem moderate. However, in aggregate, these reforms represent a significant departure from the traditional Swedish model. The tax policy reforms, in particular, marked a genuine break with the past and were uncommonly ideologically driven.
Unique features of system fading with time
The unique features of Sweden’s political, economic and social systems appear to be fading. 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 increasingly becoming heterogeneous 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 placed less trust in the market than their predecessors. Though this red-green coalition government had no clear majority in parliament, it nonetheless performed reasonably well in terms of securing majorities for its most significant bills. The strong economy offered the government tailwind in terms of growing tax revenues to help fund government commitments.
Parliamentary split complicates policymaking
The 2014 to 2018 distribution of parliamentary seats and resulting difficulties in terms of providing stable majorities for the government foreshadowed the even greater complexities that would follow after the 2018 elections. The red-green coalition and center-right “Alliance” parties control roughly the same share of seats. The right-wing populist Sweden Democrats party, with its 62 parliamentary seats, holds a pivotal position between these two blocs, yet neither of the coalitions is willing to negotiate with them. In the 2014 to 2018 parliament, the parties struggled to find an arrangement whereby workable majorities could be secured without the support of the Sweden Democrats.
Post-election paralysis
Since the 2018 elections, the issue of which party or parties should form a government and whether there should be negotiations with the Sweden Democrats have paralyzed parliament. Two months after the elections, Sweden remained overseen by a caretaker government, with the prospect of another election – which is unlikely to break the gridlock – in 2019 looking increasingly likely.
Stresses undermining strategic capacity
The combination of a political system under duress and the challenge of ensuring a working majority in parliament has weakened the strategic capacity of government institutions. Long-term strategic policy planning, setting policy priorities and providing the market with political stability are all critical roles of government. These functions suffer in the present context. In the short term, responsibility lies with the political parties – who must move beyond narrow self-interest and recognize the need for compromise and accommodation in order to break the gridlock.
Citations:
Lindvall, Johannes et al. (2017), Samverkan och strid i den parlamentariska demokratin, SNS Demokratirapport 2017 (Stockholm: SNS).

Pierre, J. (ed) (2015), The Oxford Handbook of Swedish Politics (Oxford: Oxford University Press).
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