United we fall
A long time coming
After a new Swedish record of 131 days with only a temporary government, Sweden now finally has a coalition in place. The election took place on the 9th of September last year and on the 21st of January the new ministers were sworn in. The end result is a government of the social democrats (SAP) and the Green party. They amassed the necessary support by entering into a so called “January agreement” with the Centre party and the Liberals. This contract stipulated 73 concrete policies on which the incoming government could reach agreement with the Centre party and the liberals. One of the contentious points on this list was that it explicitly stated that the Left party was to be kept out of all political influence in the coming four years.
This turned out to be problematic statements since the coalition still depended on the Left party letting it pass by abstaining to vote against it. After some initial posturing, where Left party leader Jonas Sjöstedt said that he will not accept this, talks with SAP ensued and Sjöstedt now says that he has been given sufficient guarantees of future influence to be able to let the government pass. Albeit this support comes with the impendent threat of V calling for a censure if some of the 73 points on the list are made in to actual policy.
The Left party’s decision was motivated in large part by their analysis that the alternative to this government was a government made up of the conservative block; the Moderates, the Christian Democrats and some version of support from the extreme right Sweden Democrats. This was however not very likely, since it would have required the support of the two liberal parties that have promised not to give the Sweden democrats any influence over a future government.
A government with someone else’s politics
After endless negotiations and a lot of grandstanding in the media as to which party is most intransigent, there is a general sense of relief that a government has been formed. Still in the end, no one is really pleased or even sure what politics will actually result from this government. There is now a social democratic prime minister and a red-green government, but the list of 73 policy points are more neoliberal than anything the previous centre-right government was able to pass. The two liberal parties used their 14 percent to great effect and explicitly stated that a social democratic prime minister could only be allowed if he signed up to running a neoliberal agenda.
It seems that this is what will happen. Taxes will be lowered for high incomes, there will be no limits on profits by private enterprises in the public sector, the labour market will be deregulated further and rents in public housing will be allowed to rise according to market value. There are some progressive proposals on environmental issues and migration but the general gist of the January agreement is one of a strong neoliberal offensive on all levels of Swedish society. Most of the policies will first have to be prepared and it remains to be seen what will actually happen when they are to be made in to concrete politics. The state apparatus is still run by civil servants under a social democratic government, but the outlook for progressive policy is bleak.
The SAP succeeded in breaking up the alliance of centre-right parties into a liberal and a conservative bloc, and won the support of the liberal bloc by accepting their economic policies. In that sense this is the first government in Sweden that is based on alliances on the so-called Gal-Tan dimension, Green-Alternative-Libertarian vs. Traditional-Authoritarian-Nationalist. The common ground is primarily the wish to keep the xenophobic Sweden democrats outside of political influence.
On the face of it there is a lot of appeal to this strategy. The growing influence of far right parties all over Europe is a frightening echo of darker times. Sweden was one of the countries that held out the longest against a far right party entering parliament. It is of course some comfort to be had in that they are still considered beyond the pale. But in the longer perspective this defensive strategy might prove fertile ground for the further growth of the far right. With an economic policy that will keep increasing class divides and degrading the welfare sector a lot of people will be worse off. With no strong alternative to the left, these people will look for explanations as to why they are worse off. The Sweden democrats will be able to point to a migration policy that is not balanced by budgetary efforts towards those social services that will be strained by immigration.
Where will Sweden be in four years?
A centrist strategy that demobilizes conflict around questions of economic equality tends to instead accentuate political conflicts around identity, something that usually strengthens the conservative block. There is nothing in the new governments policies that seem to point to the situation for progressive forces in general being better off in four years’ time. What hope there is for improvement has to be found outside of parliament. Nevertheless, the fact that the SAP is part of this government will make mobilizing harder.
They still have a strong grip on the institutional apparatus of many popular movements in Sweden, including the trade unions and the tenants association. There might be an opening for discontents within the unions and tenants to move closer to the Left party and mobilize a radical critique of the last 30 years of slow decay of the SAP, but this remains to be seen. The first obstacle for the Left party to become the leading political force against austerity is to credibly demonstrate that it is in opposition, even against a government that rules thanks to their votes.