Strategy debates of Swedish political parties

The location of political parties along the political spectrum in Sweden

Pro-redistribution vs. free market

The political map of Sweden has changed over the last few years. Up through and into the 2000s, the Social Democratic Workers' Party (SAP), the Centre Party (C) and the Liberal People's Party were situated on a long section in the middle of the political spectrum. This was not infrequently reflected by cooperation between these parties along a broad front at the national level. Upon the forging of the centre-right "Alliance for Sweden" in 2004, consisting of the liberal-conservative Moderate Party, the Liberal People's Party, the Centre Party and Christian Democrats, the party landscape began to polarise, as was also manifested in the formation of a left bloc consisting of Social Democrats, the Left Party and the Greens in the run-up to the 2010 election. Since then the centre-right parties have converged especially in terms of their economic policies. On the traditional conflict axis between "pro-redistribution" and "free market", they can be situated at the latter pole. Viewed historically, especially the Centre Party could be located more in the middle of the political spectrum than is the case in 2016: with Annie Lööf as party chairwoman, the Centre Party has carved out a realm for itself in the political spectrum as an outspoken neo-liberal force. The Moderates, Sweden's second biggest party, have the clearest neo-liberal, pro-market profile, with the Liberals following closely upon their heels. The Christian Democrats supported a neo-liberal focus in economic policy during the 2006-2014 government, but still today have a profile focusing on welfare state benefits for particular social groups (retirees) and families, thereby setting themselves off from their colleagues in the centre-right alliance.

The Social Democrats have moved considerably closer to the centre of the spectrum since the 1990s, reflecting the general trend in other European countries. At the same time, the Swedish political map stands apart from that of other countries in that the Social Democracy occupied a hegemonic position for decades, not only politically, but also discursively, thereby nudging the "centre" in a Social Democratic direction then and now more than has been the case in Germany. Before the 2014 elections, the SAP set itself apart by a somewhat more pointed focus on distribution issues and traditional social democratic social and labour market policy. It can therefore be located left of the centre even if, for example, a relatively strict budget policy constrains possibilities for government intervention and, as a result, the party has departed considerably from its own positioning well into the 1990s. The Swedish Left Party (Vänsterpartiet) can be placed to the left of the Social Democrats, with a platform calling for greater public investment, for instance, and a 30-hour working week. It is also the Left Party that objects most vociferously to profits being allowed in the private welfare sector (nursing care, education), while the Social Democrats and Greens are merely in favour of a cap on profits (in Sweden, for-profit companies also manage nursing care institutions and schools). The Greens have positioned themselves left of centre since the 1990s in the areas of economic, labour and social policy. Nevertheless, the Greens occupy an area ranging from left of the Social Democrats with their call for a 30-hour-working week and a ban on profits in the welfare sector (in Sweden, profit-oriented enterprises can operate publically funded social and educational facilities) all the way to the right of the Social Democrats with their advocacy of a "green service society" featuring subsidised employment and tax breaks on employers' taxes and private services.

In the 2010 election, the right-wing populist party "Sweden Democrats" succeeded in pulling into the Swedish Parliament, the Riksdag, for the first time. In addition to focusing on a tightening of migration policy and nationalistic domestic and foreign policy revolving around the "problem" of immigration, the Sweden Democrats posed for a long time as the true social democrats, advocating a strong welfare state for Sweden. After the Sweden Democrats emerged as the third-largest force in the Riksdag in the 2014 elections, the party aligned with the Social Democrats, Greens and the Left in calling for a capping of profits in the social sector and introduction of mandatory collective agreements for public tenders. The party performed a volte face on both issues within the period of one year, thereby moving it closer to the economic, labour and social policies of the centre-right parties. The Sweden Democrats have thus positioned themselves much further in the direction of "free market" in 2016.

Libertarian vs. authoritarian

As a result of the emphasis placed on positions critical of immigration and the effort to influence the focus of the political debate in the direction of identity and values, the axis of conflict between libertarian (emancipation, feminism, liberal values, multiculturalism, etc.) and authoritarian (nationalism, tradition) has become increasingly crucial to an understanding of Swedish party politics. The Feminist Initiative, which has also gained sentiment, is placed on this axis as well. With a pronounced inter-sectional approach to issues relating to feminism and identity policy, this party was a serious contender to the Greens and Left Party in the 2014 elections. Although the party is headed by the former chairman of the Left Party, Gudrun Schyman, and exhibits more of a pro-redistribution/leftist profile, the crucial factor is the staking out of its own position as a feminist, anti-racist alternative, essentially based on an inter-sectional analysis of social structures. A clear view of society being based on class cleavages, as epitomises the approach of the Left Party, is lacking with the feminist initiative.

As has already been mentioned, the Feminist Initiative and the Sweden Democrats can be positioned at the extreme end of the libertarian-authoritarian-conflict axis: the Feminist Initiative by virtue of its emphasis on a value- and identity-based policy with regard to feminism, anti-racism and liberalism when issues involve sexuality and immigration, the Sweden Democrats through a clear dissociation from liberalism and the party's focus on traditional family and gender images, nationalism and anti-immigration attitudes. The Left Party has moved further along this conflict line in the direction of libertarian over the last few years, attempting to set itself apart in a targeted manner with decidedly feminist ideals and anti-racist positions, while attempting to make this part and parcel of its own political development. Here the Left Party and the Greens are roughly at the same level and see eye to eye on most issues. Nonetheless, the Left Party spans a somewhat broader spectrum internally, constrained at the bottom above all by its EU-critical wing. The Social Democrats have also moved in a libertarian direction, but still constitute the "most traditional party" left of centre, especially regarding the issues of regulated immigration and national self-determination on labour market issues.

To the right of centre, the party spectrum is delimited on the one hand at the bottom by the Sweden Democrats and on the top by the Centre Party. The Centre Party has not only liberalised in terms of economic policy - it has increasingly sharpened its profile as a liberal centre-right alternative as far as values and identity policy. This was still less salient into the early 2000s. When asylum legislation was tightened in 2016, for example, the Centre Party set itself apart from its centre-right partners - and also from the governing Social Democrats and Greens - by rejecting it. The Liberals are traditionally more libertarian when it comes to values and identity. In connection with an increasingly critical debate over immigration, the Liberals are also more and more seeking to boost their profile by demanding language tests and beefing up police presence, however, in this respect drawing a line between themselves and the Centre Party. The most interesting development with regard to the "new" conflict axis is to be witnessed among the Moderates and Christian Democrats, as both parties made a clear-cut move towards the authoritarian pole with a leadership change in 2014. The conservative wing took over the leadership of the Christian Democrats in the person of Ebba Busch Thor, above all reflecting a new focus on tightening of asylum legislation and domestic security policy. The youth organisation of the Christian Democrats furthermore called for indirect or direct cooperation with the Sweden Democrats following the next elections in 2018 as well. While the Moderate Party under the chairmanship of Fredrik Reinfeldt still advocated a liberal asylum and migration policy and in the summer of 2014 called upon Swedes to "open their hearts" to refugees and people fleeing their homes, the tone and political focus under the new party chairwoman, Anna Kinberg Batra, has become more vitriolic: together with the Christian Democrats they were the first to call among other things for a reversal of the norm of unlimited residency permits - which was then carried out in the new 2016 asylum laws. An increasing number of voices in this party are also advocating cooperation - directly or indirectly - with the Sweden Democrats as the only way to gain government power once again. At the same time, the Moderates cover a broader range of spectrum in the libertarian direction than is the case with the Christian Democrats.

Thus, the political map of Sweden has changed significantly over the last few years, not least as a result of the Sweden Democrats gaining seats in the Riksdag in 2010 and the growing importance of migration and asylum policy in the political debate.

Individual Overview

The strategic situation of the Social Democrat

The Social Democratic Party of Sweden (SAP) has moved considerably towards the political centre within the party spectrum since the 1980s. Years of political hegemony in the decades before the financial crisis in the early 1990s were followed by a reorientation along the lines of the "third way", which also played a prominent role in other parts of Europe among sister parties that also changed their platforms. In the specific case of Sweden, this culminated in a new direction for financial policy, in which a balanced budget and an inflation target of 2% have formed the scaffold for Social Democratic economic and labour market policy down to the present. In 2006 government power was lost to the centre-right Alliance, made up of four parties, which ruled until 2014. Several attempts at a renewal of the Social Democratic Party, at first with its new party chairwoman, Mona Sahlin, who lost the 2010 election, and until 2012 with the candidate of the left wing, Håkan Juholt, were for the most part unsuccessful. A former trade union head, Stefan Löfven, was elected as new chairman in 2012 - constituting a compromise between the wings of the party. The Social Democrats won the 2014 election, emerging as the strongest party, even if they did not win an outright majority. Together with the Greens, the Social Democrats have formed a minority government since then, which has been seen as relatively unstable, not least because the parliamentary situation is impeding reform. There are clear currents within party clamouring for a more progressive, left-leaning direction, and not least of all to discard the policy of a balanced budget. Even if equality and social justice are assuming an ever larger domain in the political orientation of the party, the left wing appears to be somewhat weakened at present and departure from a relatively strict financial policy improbable. There are enough unpleasant questions the party will be grappling with in the run-up to the 2018 elections: How should a majority to the left of centre be attained? Can Liberals and the Centre Party be persuaded to cooperate, and how would this affect relations with the Left Party, which is at present acting as junior coalition partner? Could voters be won back from the Sweden Democrats without driving voters into the arms of the Left Party and liberal forces on the issues of asylum and migration policy?

The strategic situation of the Conservatives (New Moderates)

Conservative-neoliberal Moderates have been caught up in a process of self-searching in terms of strategy and issues since they lost the election and government power in September 2014. The second strongest party in the Riksdag, the Moderate Party still provide the foundations for a centre-right governing coalition, but has been wrangling with its partners, the Centre Party and the Liberals, especially over migration and asylum policy, revealing a much more muddled coalition situation than prior to the 2014 elections, when the centre-right "Alliance", consisting of Moderates, Christian Democrats, the Centre Party and Liberals, was not questioned. Since Anna Kinberg Batra took over at the helm as party chairwoman at the beginning of 2015, the party has moved a good distance in the direction of the "authoritarian" pole with regard to migration and asylum policy. Under Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt (2006-2014), the party together with its coalition partners and the Greens pursued an openly liberal line in migration policy. The sea change in rhetoric and the positioning of the party vis-à-vis the centre-left camp on issues involving internal security (among others things, a call for more police, extended border controls, tighter deportation arrangements) has split the centre-right alliance into two camps: on the one side the Moderates and Christian Democrats, for whom tougher asylum legislation under the auspices of the Social Democratic Party-Green Party minority government in 2015/2016 did not go far enough. On the other side the Liberals, who are deliberately remaining on the sidelines on this issue (and abstaining in the Riksdag), and the Centre Party, which voted against stricter asylum legislation, openly calling for a liberal immigration policy and sticking to its guns in demanding a reaffirmation and strengthening of multicultural society.

Along with the Moderates, the most interesting developments can be witnessed with the Christian Democrats, as both parties have resolutely moved in a new direction towards the authoritarian pole following changes in leadership in 2014. Under Ebba Busch Thor, the conservative wing has taken over leadership of the party, thereby reflecting more than anything else a new focus on tighter asylum laws and domestic security policy. The youth organisation of the Christian Democrats is furthermore also clamouring for indirect or direct cooperation with the Sweden Democrats following the next elections in 2018.  This is taking place in interaction between the parties and in the context of internal power shifts within parties, including the Moderates, as touched upon in the foregoing. Here as well, some elements of the party are become increasingly vocal in their view that cooperation with the Sweden Democrats - direct or indirect - is the only way to seize the reins of power again. This is a risky enterprise, as the Centre Party and Liberals spurn any cooperation with the populist right-wing Sweden Democrats, which would once again reduce possibilities to form a coalition. To understand the Moderates' change in course, one needs to also examine the positioning of the Sweden Democrats. While right-wing populists viewed themselves as a sort of nationalist social democracy and successfully sought to project that image over the years - more at the rhetorical level than in actual voting behaviour on bills - these elements have also been leaning hard on the rudder since the 2014 election, steering the party in the direction of a more concrete neoliberal economic and labour market profile. To illustrate this with a few examples: as recently as early 2015 the Sweden Democrats were in favour of capping profits from the provision of publically funded welfare services (in nursing care, education and health), which corresponded to the line of parties to the left of centre. In the course of 2016, however, the party leadership turned its back on restricting profits and has instead since then been backing the positions of the centre-right Alliance. At the same time, it came to light that the Swedish employers' associations had invested in specific lobbying with the Sweden Democrats. The same goes for the new arrangements that apply to conditions underlying public tenders by the state. On this issue the government and Left Party want to establish collective agreements as a fundamental precondition and exclusionary criterion in public tenders, which the Sweden Democrats had still been welcoming as recently as in 2015. When it came up for a vote before the Riksdag at the end of 2016, the Sweden Democrats once again opposed the government bill, managing together with the centre-right opposition to vote it down. These changes must be seen as concrete attempts by the Sweden Democrats to woo the Moderates and Christian Democrats, putting the volte face of the two centre-right parties in a whole new light.

Strategiedebatten Schweden

International Policy Analysis


Dr. Michael Bröning


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The International Policy Analysis Department is working on key issues of European and international politics, economy and society. The aim is to develop policy recommendations and scenarios from a perspective of social democracy.

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