Sweden in Crisis

STOCKHOLM – After decades of adherence to more or less stable rules and predictable patterns, Swedish politics has entered uncharted territory in recent weeks. Many are shocked that the government collapsed and had to call a new election only two months after taking office. After all, Sweden had been a rare beacon of success in Europe in the years since the 2008 global financial crisis. So what happened?

The immediate cause of the government’s demise was Parliament’s rejection of the center-left coalition’s proposed budget, in favor of the budget presented by the center-right Alliance parties, which formed the previous government. Having failed to pass its first budget – owing to the abrupt decision by the far-right Swedish Democrats (SD) to support the Alliance alternative – the government could not simply continue as if nothing had happened.

The background to this episode was the September election, which the four-party Alliance lost after eight years in power (during which I served as Foreign Minister). The Alliance government was widely considered to have been successful; but eight years is a long time in politics.

Fair enough. But, though the Alliance certainly lost, the main opposition Swedish Social Democratic Party and its allies on the left did not win. In fact, the three leftist parties in Parliament gained a slightly smaller share of the popular vote than they did in the 2010 election. The big winner was the populist SD, which doubled its share of the vote, to more than 13%. And, because no other party was prepared to cooperate with the SD, the only viable alternative was a minority government.