Category Archives: Sweden’s December Agreement

A running commmentary and analysis on the recently signed agreement between the established Swedish parties.

Side-lining the Swedish Democrats

I left off my last post with the argument that one perspective on the December Agreement was that it was a cartel-like effort by Sweden’s established parties to marginalize the right-wing, populist Swedish Democrats.  The established parties’ motives are not merely electoral or parliamentary, that is, the December Agreement was not struck merely because the right bloc parties are worried about losing votes or the left bloc parties worried about losing office. Rather, the motive springs from the broad and long-run strategic threat that the Swedish Democrats represents to the established party system.

As I showed previously, the Swedish Democrats anchor a second dimension in Swedish politics, one that run along a nationalism-vs-globalism continuum and that cross-cuts the main economic left-right dimension.  What this means in practical terms is that debates on immigration policy and multiculturalism internally divide almost all the established parties, and certainly the two main parties, the Social Democrats and the Moderates. Engaging in debates on these issues is therefore a losing proposition for the established parties, and this provides a strong incentive to collude in marginalizing the Swedish Democrats and suppressing this second issue dimension. Consistent with this longer-run objective is the fact that December Agreement extends beyond the next election and runs until 2022.  That’s something I found quite unusual; most coalition or outside support agreements tend to run just one parliamentary term (if that) simply because no party can see beyond the next election.

What are the prospects for success of the long-run effort to side-line the Swedish Democrats.  Well, if success is cast not merely in organizational terms, but in terms of returning the party system to a unidimensional structure, then I’d say that the odds of success are low.  In the main this is because I see the Swedish Democrats as the consequence not the cause of a national-global issue dimension.  Further, I am not sure that Sweden’s established parties appreciate the populist & anti-elite impetus of Swedish Democrats. The effort by the established parties to sideline the Swedish Democrats thus bolsters the narrative under-pinning the Swedish Democrats:  the elites don’t want to hear about regular people’s views, the elites are disdainful of and out of touch with the common man, Sweden’s politics is run by  the elites for the elites, etc. In effect (and other commentators have pointed this out), the December Agreement recognizes the Swedish Democrats as the “real” political opposition — and they now have the parliamentary presence to play that role.

There’s a Canadian parallel here.  One of my colleagues, Richard Johnston, wrote a very good book (Letting the People Decide*) that predicted the collapse of the federal Conservatives at the 1993 election and the breakdown of the old party system.  Dick’s central insight was to point out a disjunction  between elite and mass opinion over the role of Quebec (and by extension biculturalism) in Canada.  The elites were largely of the view that Quebec was a distinct and equal society, but the electorate was quite divided on this issue (on fairly predictable French-English lines).  Given that a majority government in Canada requires building a French-English electoral coalition (Diefenbaker & Harper excepted), none of the main parties had an incentive to discuss Quebec’s constitutional status:  any votes they gained on one side of the issue, they’d lose on the other.  The established party’s silence on the matter did not mean that the issue went away, however; it was there to be exploited by political entrepreneurs, specifically the Reform and the Bloc Quebecois.  And we know how that ended up for Progressive Conservatives and subsequently the Liberals.

Sweden’s established parties may get lucky.  Populist parties like the Swedish Democrats invariably carry a lot of awkward political baggage; they attract and are vehicles for those on the fringe.  Their articulate chief spokesperson,  Jimmie Åkesson, is on sick leave, and his deputies are not as political slick / talented / astute.

* Richard Johnston, Henry Brady et. al. 1992. Letting the People Decide: Dynamics of a Canadian Election.  McGill-Queen’s.



Ends and Means

What does the December Agreement achieve?  In the short-run, the agreement provides governmental stability.  This is how the PM, Stefan Lofven saw it: “Sweden can be governed.” In this respect, the deal is unremarkable.  Minority governments strike outside-support deals (i.e., deals that fall short of formal coalition) all the time.  Also, in the short-run, the agreement avoids a snap election.  This is probably explains the right bloc’s willingness to enter into the agreement: the right parties, and the largest of them, the Moderate Party, got walloped at the last election.  For the right parties, a snap election carried with it a high risk of i) the governing left parties increasing their level of support, and/or ii) the populist Swedish Democrats establishing an even stronger parliamentary presence.  That’s in line with recent polling.

I’d also posit a third longer-run objective, and that is to establish a cordon sanitaire around the Swedish Democrats to keep them at the parliamentary and political fringe.  One can make a normative argument that it’s desirable to limit the power of extremists.  That said, the agreement also helps the established parties to preserve their oligopolistic position in Swedish politics.  In this sense, the December Agreement is a classic example of established political parties behaving as a cartel* and trying to freeze out an upstart competitor.

There are two dimensions to this cartel-like behaviour.  One dimension concerns the division of votes, seats, and bargaining power.  Ostensibly, the December Agreement undercuts the pivotal position of the Swedish Democrats in the legislature, and in doing so the hope is presumably to make voters see votes cast for the Swedish Democrats as wasted votes.  A second dimension relates to the “ideological topography” of Swedish politics.  A noted in my previous post, Swedish politics has traditionally run along a left-right class/economic dimension.  The Swedish Democrats threaten this unidimensional model of politics; they want to talk about issues of  nationalism and immigration that cross-cut the left-right divide.  A Masters thesis that uses the Swedish party manifestos to estimate the parties’ positions captures this idea nicely.**

Swedish Party System

Notice how the established parties fall almost perfectly along the diagonal of this two-dimensional space, with only the SDs falling away from that pattern.  Thus, without the Swedish Democrats, political competition in Sweden would continue to be unidimensional in nature, the established parties distinguished mainly in economic left-right terms, with minor policy differences defining unique electoral segments within each bloc (e.g., the Greens using environmentalism to distinguish themselves from the Social Democrats.)

The electoral strength and legislative presence of the Swedish Democrats entirely upsets this unidimensional pattern of political competition: it forces the established parties either 1) to take up positions on immigration, nationalism, internal security etc. that divide both parties and blocs internally, or 2) to ignore such issues and potentially lose votes to the Swedish Democrats.

One can see the December Agreement as an effort to collapse this second dimension of political competition.


*Katz, R. S., & Mair, P. (1995). Changing models of party organization and party democracy the emergence of the cartel party. Party politics, 1(1), 5-28.

**Backlund, Anders. 2011. “The Sweden Democrats in Political Space– Estimating policy positions using election manifesto content analysis.” MA Thesis. Department of Social Sciences, Södertörn University .




The December Agreement

You can find the text of the agreement struck between Sweden’s Social Democratic-Green minority government and the four established bourgeois opposition parties here.  I’ve posted a google-translated version below.

  • I am not sure whether the phrase “knockouts from the budget will not be possible” means that i) amendments to the budget (e.g., striking out particular line items) are prohibited, or ii) that a government cannot be defeated on the budget.
  • What I find immediately striking about this agreement is that it extends through 2022, i.e., through the next parliamentary term too.  I’ll ask some colleagues how un/usual this is — but it strikes me as out of the ordinary; most coalition / outside-support agreements only run for a single parliamentary term for the very reason that nobody can see beyond the next election.
The Social Democrats, Conservatives, the Green Party, the Centre Party, Liberal Party and the Christian Democrats 26 December 2014 reached the following agreement.
Since enkammarriksdagens introduction, Sweden, with few exceptions, been ruled by minority governments. The Constitution Act also assume that Sweden can be controlled by a minority government. It takes the form of a Prime Minister does not need the support of a majority of MPs.A number of decisions have also been taken to minority governments should be able to get through their budgets in parliament and thus be able to implement its economic policies. Meanwhile, Sweden also had a political tradition of working across the block boundary in matters where it is important to have continuity.The political conditions in Sweden means that it is likely that Sweden will be governed by minority governments over the next few years, but it has become harder than before. Against this background, we make an agreement to make Sweden possible to ruleThe agreement means the following:
The Prime Minister candidate who collects support from the party constellation that is larger than all other possible government constellations will be released ahead.
A minority government should be able to get through its budget.
knockouts from the budget will not be possible.
The agreement identifies three policy areas for collaboration and conversation.The conclusion of the agreement parties value the tradition we had in Sweden when it comes to partisan agreements on defense and security and pension systems. A changed and complicated the security situation underlines the importance of cooperation on defense and security.

Regarding the pension agreement, we want as soon as possible to ensure that the work of the working group on pensions can continue. It is natural that the Green Party,
when it is part of the government, has the opportunity to contribute and participate in the pension group important work.

Long-term thinking in the energy sector is desirable. Starting in February, all the parties that signed the agreement to participate in an Energy Commission.
With the party constellation below referred to parties that interact in government or the budget.

As regards the forms of parliamentary work, we agree to:
The candidate for prime minister who represents the largest portion of the constellation released until the vote on the President’s proposal. This is done by other parties behind this agreement abstains. The same applies when voting on incumbent Prime Minister following an election.

The proposed Framework Decision and guidelines of the economic policies of the party constellation is greater released until the budget vote in Parliament. If there is a risk that the proposal would otherwise fall refrains other parties behind this agreement from participating in the vote. The same also applies to the decision amending budget and spring budget (including guidelines for economic policy).

• After the draft Framework Decision is adopted, the following applies.

– Proposal for distribution of resources within areas of expenditure from the party constellation won the vote on the framework decision released until the vote in Parliament. This is done by other parties behind this agreement does not add reservations without special opinions at the committee stage of the allocation of funds, and then refrain from participating in the vote in the House.

The legislation required that the expenditure and income will fall out in the way that seen from the above-adopted state budget released until the vote in
chamber. This is done by other parties behind this Agree ment to refrain from participating in the voting.

– The Government monitors and implements the Riksdag budget decisions. Committee Initiative on bill or draft amending budgets which, if adopted, would mean
changes in income or need for increased or decreased appropriations in respect to the approved budget one, is not presented by the other parties behind this agreement.

Initiate a review of current regulations with the task of reviewing the budget process, based on the work conducted in the budget process Committee and the last term of office RO overhaul. This work is done in the context of an investigation.

This Agreement shall apply for the first time in conjunction with the Government in April 2015 to present Spring Fiscal Policy Bill. The agreement is valid until Election Day 2022nd

Background to Sweden’s December Agreement

About two weeks ago, Sweden’s minority Green-Social Democratic government was on the verge of collapse, with the prime minister expected to call a snap election to resolve the parliamentary deadlock.  Instead, the government signed a deal with the main opposition parties that secured the government’s survival.

In this post, I provide a bit of background on the situation.  The results of the general election in September 2014 were as follows:

Party* Vote % Vote± Seats Seats±
Swedish Social Democratic Party (S) 31.01 +0.35 113 +1
Moderate Party (M) 23.33 −6.74 84 −23
Sweden Democrats (SD) 12.86 +7.16 49 +29
Green Party (MP) 6.89 −0.45 25 ±0
Centre Party (C) 6.11 −0.44 22 −1
Left Party (V) 5.72 +0.11 21 +2
Liberal People’s Party (FP) 5.42 −1.63 19 −5
Christian Democrats (KD) 4.57 −1.03 16 −3


The results were notable for the electoral success of the Swedish Democrats, a right-wing, anti-immigration, populist party.   Whilst one can’t make definitive diagnoses on the basis of aggregate statistics, the results are consistent with thesis that the SDs siphoned off support from the centre-right Moderate Party, and to a lesser extent from the 3 other “bourgeois” parties (the Centre, Christian Democrat and Liberal parties).

The election left the SDs in a strong parliamentary position, but what made them pivotal was the coalitional rigidity of Swedish politics.  Post-war Swedish politics has run mainly along left-right lines, with a left bloc, comprised of the Social Democrats (S), the Left (V), and (more recently) the Greens, facing off against a right or “bourgeois” bloc, comprised of the Moderates (M), Christian Democrats (CD), Liberal (FP) and Centre (C) parties.  Not since the 1950s has a coalition been formed across these blocs.  Instead, Sweden has been governed by either Social Democratic minority governments (supported by the Left & Greens) or bourgeois coalitions (M+C+FP+KD).  Neither bloc emerged from the 2014 election with enough seats to form a majority and neither bloc wanted to coalition or cooperate with the SDs, who were cast as unacceptably far-right extremists. All this left the SDs in a pivotal position.

A minority coalition with the Greens, and outside support from the Left, was sufficient to carry the Social Democrats into government and secure the premiership but nonetheless left them 16 seats shy of a majority.  The Swedish constitution does not require governments to win a vote of investiture.  Instead, the government demonstrates that enjoys the confidence of the Riksdag by passing a budget.  By custom, the opposition submits an alternative budget.  This is akin to the Westminster tradition of the government’s throne speech and the opposition’s address-in-reply.  On Dec 3, 2014, the SDs voted against the SD-MP government’s budget and in support of the opposition’s alternative budget. This forced to Prime Minister Löfven to call a snap election… until the December Agreement was reached.

I’ll outline and discuss the agreement in my next post.