Robust, resilient democracy
Undoubtedly, democracy in Sweden remains robust; the country continues to score highly across the gamut of sustainable governance indicators, with little change since the previous report. This mundane observation becomes quite salient if contextualized in the second year of a pandemic, which as of January 2022, was poised to usher in a third year of societal disruption. In a nutshell, the policymaking system and democratic institutions proved to be adequately resilient for the country to continue providing public goods and services to the citizens while at the same time avoiding curtailments of civil rights and political freedoms.
Well-timed economic measures
The economic measures that comprised the pandemic response is 2021 were well timed, appropriate, temporary and transparent, and went a long way toward navigating the consequences of the pandemic crisis and avoiding a deep recession. Having said that, existing societal cleavages have been exacerbated, including the relative lackluster performance of integration policies, resulting in disproportionately higher rates of unemployment among foreign-born people.
Trend toward centralization
The Swedish administrative system remains decentralized and fragmented, featuring highly autonomous local authorities and public agencies. There are signs, however, that there is a trend toward centralization under way. Recent developments exemplify this trend that has neoliberal features, in the sense that they are based on the premise that municipalities must be able to financially weather the repeated and nested crises that seem to be the norm. For this reason, they must explore the possibilities of close collaboration with other municipalities or of merging operations with them. This is currently the case for municipal fire services, partly as a response to the major forest fires of 2014 and 2018. Additionally, a recent commission of inquiry left the door open to municipal reforms including mergers. This is a politically sensitive issue that will feature in the debates ahead of the elections in September 2022.
Political crisis deposes prime minster; no precedent in Swedish politics
The precarity of the state of affairs in the parliament was exposed in the summer of 2021 with a political crisis that resulted in a new prime minister (Magdalena Andersson, Social Democratic Party) after a vote of confidence against Stefan Löfvén. This precarity rests on the composition of the parliament: the Social Democratic Party and the Green Party were in government until summer 2021, supported by the Liberals and the Center Party, which pulled policies significantly to the right. At the same time, the government is opposed from the right by the Moderate Party, the Christian Democrats and the Sweden Democrats, the latter a far-right party holding 62 of the parliament’s 349 seats, and from the left by the Left Party. Such need for compromise has watered down the long-term policymaking ambitions of the Social Democrats and the Greens. One such compromise was the January Accord of 2019 that secured the support of the Liberals and the Center Party and included a host of neoliberal reforms. The agreement broke down in the summer of 2021 and resulted in the vote of no-confidence against the prime minister. Though such occurrences, including snap elections, are common in other European countries, they have no precedent in Swedish politics. Finally, party polarization has increased, with the gap in the right-left divide pulled to the right.
No longer an
In summary, the high performance of Sweden and the country’s robust stability and broad popular support for the democratic rules of the game notwithstanding, the trend observed in previous reports persists. The political stability, broad consensus, corporatism, high taxes, large public sector and generous welfare state that have traditionally elevated Sweden to a role model in the European context are fading, so that Sweden today increasingly resembles comparable European countries.