September 19, 2018

The 2018 Swedish Elections: Consequences for Defence and Security Policy

The Alliansen party leaders Annie Loof, Ulf Kristersson, Ebba Busch Thor and Jan Bjorklund attend a news conference in the Swedish Parliament in Stockholm, Sweden September 12, 2018.
The Alliansen party leaders Annie Loof, Ulf Kristersson, Ebba Busch Thor and Jan Bjorklund attend a news conference in the Swedish Parliament in Stockholm, Sweden September 12, 2018.

In some ways, the 2018 Swedish general parliamentary elections defied expectations. Despite intensive polling, few pollsters made even roughly correct predictions about the outcome. At the time of writing, though, the actual results are not quite all in.

The overall picture, however, is a messy one. The so-called “red-green” bloc, composed of three parties—the Social Democrats, the Green Party and the Left (former Communist) Party—won 144 seats (175 is required for a majority). The first two of these parties are the only ones in the outgoing government coalition, and they were big losers in terms of votes—in contrast to the Left Party, which gained a few percentage points. The Social Democrats—the dominant party in Swedish politics since the early years of this century, and which regularly received at least 45% of the vote for decades—had its worst performance since 1911, attracting only some 28% of the electorate. The Green Party, hit for “taking responsibility” by being an active part of the not entirely popular government coalition of the last four years, lost substantially and only got some 4.2% of the vote—dangerously close to the 4% threshold for parliamentary representation.

On the centre-right “Alliance” side, the major loser was the dominant Moderate Party, which nevertheless attracted more votes than expected in recent polls and got a total tally of some 19.8%. Likewise, the small Christian Democratic Party managed to beat expectations and gained many more votes than expected. The Centre Party performed well, while the Liberal Party maintained about the same of support as during the previous elections. The Alliance parties gained 143 seats in parliament, only one away from beating the Social Democrats and their red-green voting bloc.

The clear winners in the elections, though, were the Sweden Democrats, with some 17.6% of the vote (up from 12.9% in 2014) and probably 62 seats in parliament. This was actually a disappointment for many in the party, as the polls had regularly portrayed them as possibly getting as much as 22–25% of the total vote. The size of the party now means that it will most likely form a bloc of its own, as no other party wants to deal with it directly in terms of negotiations to form a government. So far, that is. The sheer size of the electorate choosing the Sweden Democrats indicates, however, that this might not be a sustainable tactic in the long run. Even if the party certainly has racist roots, its most openly racist members have been purged, and the party leadership is now essentially trying to present itself as a mainstream alternative catering to the numerous Swedes who have issues with official Swedish policy on immigration and integration. In this pursuit, they have been quite successful, as the last few years of very substantial migration to Sweden have generated considerable tensions in Swedish society. It is probably therefore safe to say that the electoral success of the Sweden Democrats is not due to a fifth of the voters suddenly turning into bloodthirsty neo-Nazis. Rather, parts of the Swedish electorate have followed an international right-wing populist trend in which an effort to curb immigration is a major driver.

For the future defence and security policy of the Kingdom of Sweden, however, the consequences of the elections are profoundly unclear, at least until a new government has been formed. And that could take a considerable time, as it will have to consist of either an entirely new coalition straddling the left/right divide—which is unlikely—or a centre-right minority government based on at least passive support from the Sweden Democrats. The latter is a more likely outcome, or at least more likely than a red-green minority government of the kind that has ruled Sweden since 2014.

If, however, some kind of red-green-centre government is formed, Swedish defence and security policy will probably continue in its current form: ever closer bi- and trilateral cooperation with the US and Finland, and multilateral links with NATO and the EU, but without any overtures towards full NATO membership. However, despite the current serious need for defence investment, such a government would probably not even get close to spending 2% of Sweden’s GDP on defence—not even in the long term.

Should a centre-right government be formed, however, other steps could be taken quite soon. All the four “Alliance” parties—and the Sweden Democrats—have essentially agreed on reaching the 2% target (up from the current 1.1%) within about 10 years. This indicates that such a government could initiate a defence investment programme aiming at this target quite soon after taking power.

All the “Alliance” parties (but not the Sweden Democrats) are also in favour of full Swedish membership of NATO. However, neither this issue nor national defence in general was a major topic in the election campaign. Furthermore, until 2014 or so it was seen as electoral suicide to campaign in favour of NATO membership: the polls were consistently against this. Since 2014, this has changed fundamentally: not only is the general public much more in favour of the idea than before, but the leadership of the Sweden Democrats knows that a plurality of their own voters is also in favour of membership. So far, however, the SD leadership has argued against it—not least because of concerns about Russian reactions.

Like many right-wing parties in Europe, the Sweden Democrats have expressed sympathy towards Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin, in various ways. This could change, though, if the NATO membership issue is used as a bargaining chip in the negotiations over forming a government; SD could accept an initiative from the centre-right parties to create a “roadmap” to NATO membership—perhaps with a referendum as an interim step—if the latter accept stricter immigration policies. The idea of such a roadmap, similar to the conventional NATO membership action plan, has been floated by representatives of the “Alliance” parties, and could consist of government committees looking into how to proceed with a membership application and the detailed consequences of membership for Sweden. Outreach efforts to inform the public about the nature of NATO and NATO membership could be included in this. Such an undertaking would probably require the help of close NATO ally neighbours such as Denmark, Norway and Estonia.

Thus, even if a Swedish application for NATO membership is still a couple of years down the road, a new government could be instrumental in terms of getting that process going. Within the next few weeks, or perhaps months, we will see if it materialises.