Strategy debates of Swedish parties

How are political movements positioned? How do they react to changes in the society and with which topics do they position themselves where in the political debate?
In this overview of political strategy debates of political parties in selected European and non-European countries, the authors strive to present political analyses not in text form, but graphically and pointedly. We hope this product contributes to a constructive discussion.

Bild: Strategy debates Sweden  von FES 

General election in Sweden 2018 - a new political landscape

On September 9, 2018, Swedish citizens will cast their vote in the parliamentary election. The 349 seats in the Riksdag are distributed proportionally. During the last election in 2014, eight parties surpassed the four-percent parliamentary threshold. The biggest party, Socialdemokraterna, formed a red-green minority government with the Green Party, Miljöpartiet, that relies on the support of the Left Party, Vänsterpartiet. To enable the government passing its budget plans, and to prevent a crisis after the 2014 election, the ruling parties had to also reach an agreement with the right-wing “Alliance” parties due to the position of Sverigedemokraterna.

“Hard issues” dominating the debate 

Opinion polls indicate that the issues considered most important by Swedish citizens in the 2018 electoral debate are healthcare, immigration and law and order. Issues that have received little media attention are EU cooperation, economic policy and gender equality. Analysts seem to agree that “softer” issues have now given way to “hard issues” such as law  and order dominating the current discourse.

Swedish politics are characterized by four elements. Firstly, it is defined by a strong voter turnout (85.8 per cent in the last 2014 election) and a relatively stable political culture (for example, there has not been any snap election in Sweden since 1958). Secondly, the social democratic movement and social democratic party has traditionally been strong, governing  without interruption for four decades between the 1930s and the 1970s. Thirdly, the political structure is marked by “bloc politics”: parties in parliament have created two relatively stable alliances, with three red-red-green parties on the left pitted against four centre-right parties on the right (M, L, C, KD). In 2004, the right “bloc” formed an official strategic cooperation, “the Alliance”, which later formed a coalition government. Fourthly, in 2010, the right-wing populist party Sverigedemokraterna (SD) entered parliament thereby reshaping the political landscape. Their presence added a new dimension to the political landscape and loosened  ties in the left and right blocs.

The end of Swedish stability?

According to recent surveys, the two blocs are engaged in a neck-to-neck race. However, poll ratings are fluctuating strongly. Whilst the Sweden Democrats (SD) continue to grow (to around 21% in recent polls), the Green Party, the Christian Democrats and the Liberals are losing support and might eventually fall out of parliament. This development would trigger a unique political situation by fragmenting traditional blocs . Parties are re-negotiating their positions and suggesting new coalition partners, with the common aim of stopping the growth of the Sweden Democrats and keeping them from crucial political influence. While SD has disrupted  bloc politics,  the party is yet unable to find partners willing to cooperate among the remaining seven political parties. This year’s government formation is expected to  be more complex.

Individual Overview

The Strategic situation of the Swedish Social Democratic Party (SAP)

  • Bild: Party position of SAP von FES 

Swedish Democratic Party (Socialdemokraterna)

For the Social Democrats (Sveriges socialdemokratiska arbetareparti), a regulated, strong labour market and universal access to healthcare and education continue to be important political issues. Due to globalisation and gradual individualisation in society since the 1990’s, social democracy in Sweden has suffered from an “identity crisis” and a loss of its traditionally stable working-class voter base. Nevertheless,  Swedish Social Democrats (S) are far from being on their knees. Social democracy is in many ways  part of the Swedish political infrastructure, as the party ruled without interruption for four decades between the 1930s and the 1970s, which greatly shaped Swedish political culture in the 20th century. 

Strong as usual?

Over the last two decades, Social Democrats faced increasing polarization of the political landscape and a strong right-wing bloc pushing for further tax cuts and increasing privatisation of welfare services. The growth of the right-wing populist party Sweden Democrats (SD) has further shifted the political debate away from classical social democratic issues and reinforced the feeling of a social democracy in “crisis”. This situation has caused a decrease in support for the party in parliamentary elections and a loss of many of its core members and voters. With 31,0 percent of the votes in the last election (2014), S remaines the biggest party; however, its lead over the influential conservative party (M) and the Sweden Democrats is getting smaller. 

Political analysts appear to agree that the shift in the public debate towards a greater focus on migration issues and law and order is the Social Democrats’ detriment. The party  attempts to achieve a difficult balance by  continuing to  focus on welfare and labour issues, in which S traditionally enjoys a strong support from voters, while also trying to create a strong profile on immigration issues as well as law and order, which are of major  importance for their electorate and the public debate in general. The Social Democrats’ immigration policy was reversed in 2015, following the European “refugee crisis”. They established tougher rules, highlighted the need for domestic order and stability and reintroduced border controls. This policy shift is striking, especially since party leader Stefan Löfven only a few years ago, pushed for a liberal migration policy and for “not accepting” SD’s attempt to dominate the political agenda with nationalist sentiments. Although this new policy has not made the party grow, it has taken root and can be seen as a reaction to the increasing popularity of SD. 

New alliances?

Until September 2018, prime minister Stefan Löfven is co-governing with the Green Party (MP), and for the next term of office, it is also possible that S would be willing to form a government with Centerpartiet (C) or Liberalerna (L). Similarly to the opposition parties, S refuses to cooperate with the right-wing populists in any form. Therefore, S is not in favour of continuing  “bloc politics”, as it limits their chances to build cross-border coalitions with  liberal or centre parties such as L or C.

The strategic situation of the Center Party (C)

  • Bild: Party position of C von FES 

The Centre Party (Centerpartiet)

The Centre Party, Centerpartiet (C), focuses on decentralising political power, local environmental issues, and support for small and middle-sized companies. Originally an agrarian party, the party still prioritises rural areas and supports a prosperous countryside. Currently, however, it widely portrays itself as a liberal party. 

Due to increasing support for the Centre Party in the 2018 polls, it will easily surpass the four-per cent parliamentary threshold. The party leader, Annie Lööf,  enjoys a good strategic position for the upcoming election. Lööf has long intended to create a governmental alliance with the liberal right party bloc, but if the bloc does not reach a majority,  cooperation with the Social Democrats is a possible scenario as well. Centre Party voters have even indicated that they would prefer a cross-ideological government with the Social Democrats to a liberal-conservative alliance. 

Breaking ties? 

Recently, the Centre Party has taken part in the migration debates, supporting a liberal and generous asylum and migration policy. The clearest example is the decision to support the red-green government's proposal of granting asylum to a group of young unaccompanied Afghan migrants. Since this issue is of great importance for both voters and politicians, this indicates a step away from their traditional cooperation partner and biggest opposition party Moderaterna, which favours a more restrictive migration policy. This step has the potential to reshape the current bloc politics, resulting in a blow for the strategic alliance with other liberal/conservative parties. 

The strategic situation of the Christian Democrats (KD)

  • Bild: Party position of KD von FES 

The Christian Democrats (Kristdemokraterna)

Kristdemokraterna (KD) is a social conservative, Christian democratic party, which is led by Ebba Busch Thor since 2015. KD is  guided by traditional norms and values, pushes for improved senior welfare, safety and integration, and considers  family  a crucial unit of society. As part of the centre-right wing party bloc, the Alliance, they share the belief that higher employment rates are to be achieved through cutting taxes and lowering entry wages for young adults.

Historical low

National surveys ahead of the election in September 2018 show that the Christian Democrats are trusted least in terms of immigration and integration - two issues that appear high on the list of issues Swedish voters consider most important. Accordingly, recent polls indicate that KD is at its lowest level of electoral support in the party’s history, reaching between 2 and 3 percent. Hence, the party hopes for a stronger performance in the last months leading up to the election. Alternatively,  they will have to rely on support votes from the Moderate Party (to secure the right-wing bloc) for surpassing the four-percent parliamentary threshold.

Strategically, KD is attempting a high-wire act between conservatism and liberalism. Factors that contribute to KD’s malaise are, first of all, the emerging nationalist and populist party, Sverigedemokraterna (SD) continuing to attract conservative voters. Secondly, the cooperation within the centre-right Alliance is increasingly fragmented as opinions differ on important issues. KD has not positioned itself clearly against a cooperation with the nationalist right-wing after the election, as the other small Alliance parties (C and L) have. Yet, KD is liberalising its r opinion on abortion and same-sex marriages, which has led to internal concerns that the party has abandoned some of its core principles. 

The strategic situation of the Liberals (L)

  • Bild: Party position of L von FES 

The Liberals (Liberalerna)

The most important issues for the Liberals (L) are schools and education, integration, gender equality and a liberal economy. They aim for stricter discipline in schools, with improved results and higher teacher status. In terms of integration policy, they push for language and culture knowledge to be mandatory for acquiring a Swedish citizenship.

Liberalerna has traditionally framed itself as a “middle-ground party” together with the Centre Party and positioned itself between the Social democrats and the conservative Moderaterna. In a speech prior to the 2018 election,  party leader, Jan Björklund, warned of a threatening “crisis rhetorics” focusing exclusively on national safety and migration and called for a nuanced and value-based societal debate. Together with the other smaller parties, they struggle to deliver their liberal message in a migration-centred political debate that is fuelled by the growing right-wing populist party Sverigedemokraterna. 

Struggling to gain notice

L has been struggling with decreasing support for three elections in a row, and is currently not far above the four-percent parliamentary threshold. This can be explained by the relatively low public attention to the party‘s “strong issues”: school, economy and international cooperation. Another explanation is the increasing polarisation of the political map and a pull towards authoritarian policies. Regarding the more mediatised issues of law, order and migration, the Liberals keep a lower profile and a more ambiguous position. On the one hand, they argue for an open and liberal migration policy. On the other hand, they call for a tougher integration policy and stronger efforts against criminals. 

The party aims to create a government alliance with M, KD and C, but  keeps the door open to a potential cooperation with the social democrats. They have precluded joining forces with the right-wing populist party Sverigedemokraterna (SD) after the election. They argue that different government constellations are only possible if they keep SD and the left party Vänsterpartiet away from power, which is an outspoken aim of the party. This marks a tendency to shift away from the traditional Swedish ‘bloc’ politics between left and right. 

The strategic situation of the Green Party (MP)

  • Bild: Party position of MP von FES 

The Green Party (Miljöpartiet De Gröna)

Emerging from the anti-nuclear movement  in 1981, Miljöpartiet (MP)  promotes environmentally friendly local communities and advocates keeping political power as close to the citizens as possible. Due to this goal, MP has, over a longer period of time, been sceptical about the European Union, even though it has increasingly approached the EU to cooperate on global climate change. 

Environmental issues are at the top of the political agenda. Education and integration are other prioritised issues for the party. TTaking a very permissive position towards migration over the past, the Green Party’s position has become much stricter since entering government in 2014. However, its vision of a world without borders remains intact as abolishing the restrictive migration policy is still considered the long-term goal.

Fearing for 4 per cent

The results the Greens received in 2014 (6,9 per cent) did not meet the party leaders’ expectations but still allowed the party to join a first-ever coalition government with the Social Democrats. As the smaller partner in the “red-green” government, MP had to compromise on core issues and at times agreed on decisions detrimental to its vision (e. g. concerning migration). The inconsistency between its actions in government and its political ideals has resulted in a loss of credibility, a substantial member drop-out and disappointment within the party’s grassroots. Recent polls (around 4%) show that the Greens might even score below the four-percent threshold thus failing to make it into parliament. 

For the upcoming election, MP aims to avoid repeating the mistake of focusing on migration and highlighting the far-right party SD as its counter pole, a strategy that did not prove successful. Instead, it plans to  focus almost entirely on environmental issues. MP wishes to continue to co-govern with S, but may also be open for  cross-ideological cooperation with the Liberals and the Centre Party.

The strategic situation of the Moderate Party (M)

  • Bild: Party position of M von FES 

The Moderate Party (Moderaterna)

The liberal-conservative Moderaterna (M), pushes for deregulation of the labour market. Cuting back on taxes and social welfare benefits at the same time, the leading opposition party wants to increase incentives to work thereby hoping to increase employment rates. 

In 2006, the party took a new political course. To the Social Democrats’ disfavour, the former M party leader Fredrik Reinfeldt changed their slogan to "the Swedish Workers' Party” and moved towards a more centre-right position on the political spectrum. Later that year, Fredrik Reinfeldt took over the prime minister post on that slogan. After Reinfeldt stepped down as party leader, the party‘s political course has moved in an authoritarian direction. Law and order, increased police budget and tougher integration policies are prioritised issues on their political agenda. 

Disarming right-wing populists?

In the 2018 election debates, the new M leader - Ulf Kristersson identified integration and migration as “Sweden’s biggest challenges”. Hence, the strategy of proposing a tougher migration and integration policy can be seen as an attempt to “disarm” the right-wing populists (SD) by robbing them of their core issue (research has shown that around a third of SD’s supporters are former voters of Moderaterna). However, recent polls predicting  weak results raise questions about the strategy’s success. 

As the leader of the biggest party in the right-wing party bloc “Alliansen” (a structural cooperation between C, L, KD and M), Ulf Kristersson hopes to form a liberal-conservative government together with C, L, KD after the parliamentary election. Yet, this plan might be challenged by internal tensions and constant changes in the political landscape, especially after the centre-liberal parties declaring that they would be pushing for a more liberal migration policy. Officially, M is not prepared to cooperate with SD, which Kristersson emphasized in his speech in Almedalen in July 2018. However, a majority of their voters would prefer that to a cooperation with the Social Democrats. Due to the relative strength of SD and considering that M positioned itself ever closer to SD on the migration issue, this might impede government formation. 

The strategic situation of the Sweden Democrats (SD)

  • Bild: Party position of SD von FES 

The Sweden Democrats (Sverigedemokraterna)

As Sverigedemokraterna (SD) entered the Swedish parliament in 2010, the Party added a new dimension to the Swedish political debate: migration policy. The Sweden Democrats are regarded a right-wing populist and nationalist party, first and foremost aiming to reduce immigration to Sweden and  counteract multiculturalism. Sweden Democrats argue that they stand against the political establishment and act “without ideological blinkers”. In the earliest years in parliament, they were  more or less regarded a one-issue party. However, as the party is growing, it aims to broaden its view and position itself on other issues such as elderly care, tougher efforts against criminality and more discipline in schools.

Populists on the fast track

Ever since the election debate in 2010, the party has received much attention by media and political commentators. In the latest general election (2014), SD more than doubled their support (from 5,7 percent in 2010 to 12,9 in 2014 - in recent polls they lie around 21 percent). Research has shown that SD’s votes come from three main sources: the conservative Moderaterna, the Social Democrats, and from the “couch” - citizens who earlier abstained from voting. 

Like other European countries, Swedish policy debates are increasingly characterised by a more sceptical view of immigration, globalisation and the political establishment. Similarly, SD’s party leader Jimmie Åkesson pessimistically describes Swedish society as a country “in crisis”. Furthermore, SD’s presence has destabilized the traditional left vs. right dimension in Swedish politics, as the remaining seven political parties aim to minimize SD’s political influence. 

Despite many efforts by the other political parties to stop SD’s success, polls indicate that the party is set to gain further support in the upcoming election of 2018. After the election, SD has voiced interest in exploring different potential governing coalitions, yet so far, the party is unable to find any willing partners among the remaining parties.

The strategic situation of the Left Party (V)

  • Bild: Party position of V von FES 

The Left Party (Vänsterpartiet)

The issues of economic equality, social justice and feminism stand high on the political agenda for the socialist party Vänsterpartiet (V). It positions itself as the socialist alternative to the social democrats, highlighting the need for  affordable housing and  lobbying against private profit in the welfare sector. In the party’s political manifesto,  party leader Jonas Sjöstedt also aims at raising the party profile on climate issues (pushing to establish a new national climate fund) and  introducing a six-hour workday, which is regarded key in promoting gender equality. 

Concerning taxes, welfare and labour policy, V takes the left-most position on the horizontal scale among the parties represented in parliament. Usually, traditional “left vs. right” economic issues are central in the Swedish election debates, however, recently other issues such as law, order and migration have gained increased attention. Here, on the vertical axis (spanning from libertarian to authoritarian ideas), V takes a less coherent position showing both progressive (equality and emancipation) and authoritarian (more police officers) traits. 

Growing Membership

The Left Party enjoys a growing membership, a relatively stable electorate and a larger budget in comparison to the last election. Sjöstedt seems to be steering the party towards a slightly better result in 2018 than in 2014, yet the party will remain relatively small (recently reaching around 9 percent in polls). During the last parliamentary term, V supported the red-green government as well as their budget proposal but was unable to obtain a seat in  government. While the Left Party  aims at changing this after the next election, nothing indicates a shift in the Social Democrats’ strategy  of keeping the Left Party out of government.

Methodology & Authors

How were the graphs created?

The graph above displays the positions the main political parties in Sweden on a two-dimensional spatial map, constructed on the basis of 30 salient issue statements related to strongly relevant policy issues in the current political debate. The most salient issues were selected by a team of academics and experts, based on a close examination of the parties' platforms and political (media) discourse. Each of the statements pertains to a policy proposal that can be framed as either “left-“ or “right-wing”, “libertarian” or “authoritarian”. The statement answers are 5-point scales with answer categories ranging from “completely disagree”, to “disagree” to “neutral” to “agree” to “completely agree”. The positions of parties on these statements are coded in accordance with their official stances on the issues, as expressed by their published policies, campaign documents and media appearances. All major parties were also asked to position themselves and provide excerpts from their party manifesto or other formal documentation. These self-placements of parties were subsequently compared with the expert coding. Discrepancies were communicated to parties over several rounds until there was full clarity and authorisation of their final issue positions.

The spatial map is constructed on the basis of the aggregate positions of the parties on the two dimensions (the left-right dimension and the libertarian-authoritarian dimension). The precise party position is located in the centres of the ellipses. The ellipses represent the standard deviations of the party answers to all statements used to construct each axis. Thus, parties in favour of both left- and right-wing policy proposals have a wider ellipse on the left-right axis; parties in favour of both libertarian and authoritarian policy proposals have a lengthier ellipse on the libertarian-libertarian axis.

Who realised the Strategy debates Sweden 2018?

In cooperation with:

André Krouwel - VU University Amsterdam / Founder of Kieskompas BV

Yordan Kutiyski - Analyst - Kieskompas BV

Oscar Moreda Laguna - General operations manager - Kieskompas BV

Project coordination:

Christian Krell - Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (Sweden)

Oliver Philipp - Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (Berlin)

Arne Schildberg - Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (Berlin)

Bild: Strategiedebatten Schweden von FES 
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