Our weekly “Ideas on Europe” editorial by UACES, the University Association for European Studies, with Malin Stegmann McCallion, from the University of Karlstad, in Sweden.
Malin, we will of course talk about the elections that took place in your country last Sunday. So, where do things stand?
As I am speaking to you, Ulf Kristersson, the leader of the Moderate Party, has been asked by the Speaker of the Riksdag (the Swedish parliament) to explore if he can form the next government.
One thing I can conclusively say is that it will be a coalition, consisting of the Moderates and the Christian Democrats – but exactly who else will join is not yet clear. Whether the two other right-wing parties, the Liberal Party and the far-right Sweden Democrats will hold ministerial posts and be part of the government, I leave for the moment, as we will get that answer only after some tough negotiations.
The Sweden Democrats are now the second-largest party, and until recently their populist/far right policies have kept them in purdah as other parties refused to let them hold power; this now appears questionable because any centre-right government cannot function numerically without them.
And when will we know?
The earliest a new government can formally be in place is the 30th of September.
Together the right and centre-right parties received 49.59% of the vote, with the Sweden Democrats at 20.54%, the Moderate Party at 19.10%, the Christian Democrats at 5.34%, and the Liberal Party at 4.61%. This earned them 176 seats of the 349 in the Riksdag, a slim majority if a workable joint programme can be agreed.
What is of interest now is whether and how the four political parties will reach agreement on key policy issues, such as the level of unemployment benefit. Another issue is which taxes will be reduced, and by how much, and yet with no reduction in welfare state policies; which raises the question where these funds will come from? The Sweden Democrats argue that the funding can come from cutting Swedish foreign aid, but this is not on the agenda for the Christian Democratic Party and the Liberal Party, who want to keep it at the current level.
The formation of the new government however is only one aspect of the discussion that is ongoing regarding the election outcome. Other aspects which I think need to be further explored are the decrease in voter turnout, which decreased from 87.18% in 2018 to 84.21%, breaking a two-decade trend of increasing voter turnout.
Can you tell us more about what part of the population voted for whom?
Yes, social cleavages have become more visible. For instance, men are more likely to vote for the far right, and there are also important differences between rural and urban areas in Sweden, and between age groups. I don't want to say that Sweden is a polarised country yet; however, the journey in that direction starts somewhere, and there are now clear challenges awaiting our elected representatives to bridge political cleavages in Swedish society that might already have a negative effect on democracy.
And what was the place of the European Union in the election campaign?
It was very much absent! And that’s problematic given the critique that the EU has or causes a democratic deficit.
In addition, many key issues of the present day will largely be decided at EU level, with Sweden’s Presidency of the EU Council beginning in January 2023. Domestic debates in Sweden could thus shape EU decisions, and they will certainly influence EU-level negotiations. What does the Moderate Party think the EU should do in order to lead in the global political climate adaptation? What is the Sweden Democrats’ view on how the EU should cut its dependency on Russian fossil fuels? What is the Christian Democratic Party’s view on Ukrainian EU membership now that Ukraine has been granted candidate status? What is the Liberal Party’s view on the measures to adopt to support EU citizens in the light of a possible energy crisis?
When these matters are not openly discussed, how can the electorate know potential differences between the political parties on how to reach policy solutions to common problems in society?
Moreover, one of the aspects that the Swedish Presidency will work for is to ‘safeguard the EU’s fundamental values’, of which representative democracy is one. But will a Swedish government including Sweden Democrats find common cause with Poland and Hungary, backsliders in democratic politics, or with the mainstream? Battle lines on this issue must surely now be drawn, and a rocky road may lie ahead.
Speaking to you from Sweden, I am going to conclude with some lines from an old ABBA song:
We gotta have patience
Love isn't just a sensation
Some of the time it gets rough
Love isn't easy but it sure is hard enough.
Now just replace “love” with “democracy”, and you have a perfect summary of the situation!
Wonderful, Malin, and in France, we know very well what you’re talking about!
Interview conducted by Laurence Aubron