Sheri Berman is a researcher in political science at Barnard College, Columbia University. Her work The Primacy of Politics (2006) is still one of the best available reviews of the development of many European Social Democratic parties during the 20th century. Her next book, Democracy and Dictatorship in Europe (February 2019), deals with the development of democracy in Europe. We asked her to comment the recent political development in Sweden, where the Social Democrats formed a coalition government together with the Green Party, with support from the Center Party and the Liberals on a platform with somewhat heavy policy recessions to the right.
While it is uncommon for Tidskriften Libertas to publish texts in English, we will make an exception for this piece, to better represent the message and to make the discussion available for a broader audience. The text might be translated into Swedish at a later stage on request from the readers.
Q1. What are your overall thoughts regarding the development in Sweden? Was it right of the Social Democrats to form this coalition government, also given the policies in the agreement?
Sheri Berman: What has happened in Sweden is historically and comparatively very unusual. Historically, Sweden has had a particularly strong tradition of “left-right” block politics — there has been less movement or switching by the middle parties than in most other European countries. So whereas the agreement of the Center Party (C) and the Liberals (L) to support the Social Democrats (S) is a first in Sweden (at least since the interwar years when of course the alliance of the agrarian and social democratic parties ushered in a new era in Sweden), in most proportional representation systems it makes perfect sense for parties of the middle to swing between left and right to keep their options open and the bidding for their support high.
Comparatively, the extent to which parties across the political spectrum in Sweden have worked to keep the right-wing populists (the Sweden Democrats (SD)) out of power is also unusual. Of course the Moderates (M) and Christian Democrats (KD) were willing to accept the support of the Sweden Democrats for their own minority coalition, but they refused to ally directly with the Sweden Democrats and the Center Party and the Liberals absolutely refused to join a government that relied on even the implicit support of the Sweden Democrats. So this new government in Sweden reflects the unusual lengths Swedish parties have gone to limit the legitimacy and political power of right-wing populists, which is quite different from how things have played out in most of the rest of Europe, including neighboring Nordic countries.
As for whether the Social Democrats made the right choice, it was faced with two equally important imperatives. First, to secure a government after an election that the SD threatened to control since its vote share made the formation of a traditional left or right government impossible. If the Social Democrats had not succeeded in forming a government, Sweden almost certainly would have been heading for new elections, which probably would not have changed the outcome significantly but diminished the faith of voters in the traditional parties and perhaps even the system overall. So to form a government that did not allow the Sweden Democrats influence (as it would have had if M + KD had come to power) was a worthwhile goal.
On the other hand, the party had to give up a significant amount to form this coalition, and these sacrifices could anger its voters, not to mention the Left party and unions, limiting the Social Democrats’ maneuverability and attractiveness down the road. Particularly problematic in my view was backtracking on limiting the role of profit and private actors in the welfare state. This gets not only to the core of what Social Democracy means, but has significantly and dangerously reshaped the dynamics of the welfare state and created economically and politically problematic cleavages in Swedish society. This issue has the potential to really undermine the Social Democrats’ basis of support and (continue to) change the nature and dynamics of Swedish society in profound ways.
Q2. What will be the long-term consequences for the Social Democrats after forming this government?
Sheri Berman: Prediction is difficult. Again, the Social Democrats made a totally justifiable choice to give precedence to forming a government that limited the influence of the Sweden Democrats over ensuring that it could implement more of its program. Whether this turns out to benefit the party and the country depends on:
a) how long this new government lasts
b) how much the compromises the Social Democrats made will anger its voters, the unions and the party of the Left (which could theoretically topple the government and/or become a major critic of the SAP from the left), and
c) whether the “defection” of the Liberals and the Center Party pushes the Christian Democrats and the Moderats into the arms of the Sweden Democrats.
Q3. What road should the party take in the future to regain its dominant position within Swedish politics?
Sheri Berman: Since the Social Democrats had to make painful concessions to secure the support of the Center Party and the Liberals, for as long as this government lasts, the Social Democrats will need to make the case for it on grounds other than many of the promises regarding the welfare state that it campaigned on. So things to stress would be the Social Democats’ role as champion of democracy and its competence in steering the country through difficult times. Sweden is doing well economically, and while there are significant problems with growing inequality and the welfare state it will not be able to tackle those while it depends on the support of the Center and Liberals. So it will have to make progress on other issues.
Where the Social Democrats do agree with the Center Party and the Liberals is on the need to fight the Sweden Democrats and xenophobia in the country. Indeed, that is the rationale of the agreement between the Social Democrats and the middle parties. So making progress over the next years on better assimilating migrants into the labor market, ending residential segregation, championing Swedish “values” without demonizing immigrants, figuring out how to deal with crime in some urban areas, and making progress on other “integrationist” goals would be where the Social Democrat-led government with Center Party and Liberal support is best positioned to make progress. If it does, support for the Sweden Democrats would diminish and the next election might once again return to a more “typical” left right dynamic with the Social Democrats better positioned to lead a majority government of the left.
Interview and introduction: Håkan Bernhardsson