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. For example, party membership continues to decline and electoral allegiance to parties is increasingly volatile. These changes 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. The Government Offices (GO), as an integrated public authority that includes government ministries and the Prime Minister’s Office, have tightened their control over government agencies, and regional and local authorities. Advocates of these reforms argue that such powers are essential to sustaining 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 to the inclusiveness of societal interests, discourse and debate. By using information as a strategic asset, the government, especially the GO, has become more 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 while also weakening points of contact with society.
Skillful economic management
In terms of economic policy, the government has skillfully navigated the Swedish economy through a period of 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, although there are now clear signs that a recession is looming – as there are in most other European countries.
Accommodating
refugees a challenge
Perhaps the biggest challenge facing the Swedish government in late 2019 involves integrating the large number of asylum-seekers that have arrived in Sweden, both socially and in terms of employment. 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 across 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 cut tax rates substantially and reduced 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 becoming increasingly heterogeneous, and faces sustained unemployment, dualities in the labor market, growing inequality, and diminished quality of life and health outcomes. 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, which formed after the 2014 general elections, placed less trust in the market than its predecessor. 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 a tailwind in terms of growing tax revenues to help fund government commitments.
Coalition formed, but at serious policy cost
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 followed 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 62 parliamentary seats, holds a pivotal position between these two blocs. Though neither of the two major party blocs is willing to negotiate with them. In the 2014 to 2018 parliament, the main parties struggled to find arrangements to secure workable parliamentary majorities without the support of the Sweden Democrats. Cabinet formation in the wake of the 2018 election proved to be an exceedingly complex process. Eventually, the Social Democratic-Green coalition secured enough support to remain in office, albeit significantly weakened. In January 2019, a major agreement was negotiated between the red-green coalition, and the Liberals and Center Party who, in return for supporting the coalition, secured government commitments to implement many of their pet reform ideas. These ideas include far-reaching neoliberal reforms in the areas of tax and labor market policies. The shift in government policy direction, and the apparent divorce of policy influence and accountability appears to have confounded party activists, voters and commentators.
Alliance is undermining strategic capacity
The current state of parliamentary politics in Sweden is complex, with two parties (the Social Democrats and Greens) in government, two parties (the Liberals and Center Party) supporting government and redirecting government policy in a neoliberal direction, three parties (the Moderates, the Christian Democrats and Swedish Democrats) opposing the government from the right and one party (the Left Party) opposing the government from the left. The combination of a political system under duress and the challenge of maintaining a workable majority in parliament has weakened the strategic capacity of government institutions. Long-term strategic agenda setting and policy-planning, and providing the economy with political stability are crucial roles of government, which at present are suffering.
Citations:
Jochem, S. (2020), Das politische System Schwedens (Wiesbaden: VS Verlag).

Lindvall, J. 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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