Key Challenges

Social agenda muddied
by new alliances
Sweden’s long-term strategic priorities include global competitiveness, a lean but effective and productive public sector, and carefully managed international influence. Many indicators suggest that Sweden is well on its way to achieving these goals. The key sustainability challenges facing the government relate to aiding those constituencies that are not part of the new, future-oriented economy. Sweden’s government now faces the challenge of clearly defining its social agenda. Choosing the specific strategy is, however, not feasible until the government delineates its policy objectives; a process that, in late 2019, appears uncertain due to the extraordinarily complex representation of political parties in the parliament and shifting allegiances among those parties.
Refugee policy tops
list of challenges
The current government faces several challenges, including accommodating, integrating and ensuring employment for asylum-seekers. Visible and invisible obstacles prevent immigrants from finding meaningful jobs and societal acceptance in Sweden. Unlike many other countries, Sweden has devoted huge financial resources to solving these problems. Yet its formula has not produced obvious improvements, likely because the government has been unable to overcome societal obstacles. The government has strengthened the internal strategic capacity of the state, but now, in a second step, it needs to address the issue of making governance more integrative and effective.
Unemployment high even when growth strong
Over the past several years, Sweden has enjoyed strong economic development. Sweden stands out internationally as an economically strong, socially engaged and innovative country. Even during high-growth periods, however, the government has recorded relatively high levels of unemployment. Unemployment in general and youth unemployment in particular remain problematic. The share of young Swedes (15 – 24 years old) not in education, employment or training is slowly increasing, albeit from a low level. The center-right governments (2006 – 2014) put their trust overwhelmingly in the market and in incentives, while the red-green governments (2014 onwards) have adopted a more “dirigiste” approach. However, the red-green governments have been unable to implement far-reaching reforms, because of the need to compromise with the center-right “Alliance” parties in order to isolate the Sweden Democrats.
High cost to current political strategy
In the period under review, we have seen the red-green government align itself with the Liberals and the Center Party. This move has ensured a working majority in parliament for the government and has split the center-right opposition, ensuring that the Swedish Democrats remain isolated on the far right. The political costs for this strategy have been high and its success can also be called into question as the Swedish Democrats are increasingly seen as a legitimate partner by other center-right parties, especially the Conservatives and Christian Democrats.
Core values being tested; rising inequality an unaccustomed threat
Core values of Swedish governance, such as equality and equal treatment, are being tested by the challenge of integrating asylum-seekers from Syria and other war-torn countries. In the past, equality was one of the major features of the Swedish model. However, inequality has increased in Sweden because of wage bargaining deregulation, the decline in collective wage determination and increasing income from capital for high-income earners. Tax reforms under the previous government (2006 – 2014) have accelerated the rise in inequality. So far, this trend has not been halted or reversed by the red-green governments (2014 onwards). Historically and comparatively, Sweden is a very egalitarian society although the rise in inequality has been strikingly fast and threatens to further undermine societal trust and integration. Addressing rising inequality will therefore remain a political challenge for the current red-green government.
Choice between collective goals, partisan action
The government has the rare opportunity to capitalize on high institutional trust, a strong economy, a vibrant civil society and competent professional staff at all levels of government. The key political decision facing the government will be whether to employ these resources to pursue collective goals or to promote partisan initiatives. It appears unlikely that Sweden’s strong economic growth can be sustained with a “race to the bottom” strategy that undermines integration, equality and trust. Economic prosperity will more likely be achieved through the concerted action of an effective public sector and a globally competitive business ecosystem.
Jochem, S. (2020), Das Politische System Schwedens (Wiesbaden: Springer VS).

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).

Party Polarization

Left-right cooperation
rare and short-lived
For a long time now, Swedish politics has been polarized. With few exceptions, cooperation across the left-right divide has been rare and short lived. More recently, the so-called GAL-TAN divide (GAL: green, alternative, libertarian and TAN: traditional, authoritarian, nationalist), which refers to the political cleavages associated with values and lifestyles, has emerged as a new feature of the party system. Traditionally opposed parties within the left-right spectrum may adopt similar positions within the GAL-TAN scale. For example, on issues such as migration, the Social Democrats and Conservatives share a similar policy position, while left-wing, green and center parties tend to share a different policy position.
New cleavages increasing polarization
Thus, the party system remains polarized, both along the traditional left-right continuum and in terms of the emergent GAL-TAN divide. Herein lies a major reason for why it proved so challenging to form a government following the 2018 elections. (Score: 6)
Jochem, Sven (2020), Das politische System Schwedens (Wiesbaden: Springer VS).

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).
Back to Top