All change in Sweden

Nation's first ever successful vote of no confidence opens the door for new center-right led government

On the morning of June 21st, a Swedish all-time first occurred when parliament passed a formal vote of no confidence in the government. The Left Party, that had passively supported the government up until this moment, declared that it would no longer do so, instead joining Conservative parties and the extreme-right to reach the necessary parliamentary majority to declare the lack of confidence. 

Yesterday, Monday, June 28th, the prime minister formally resigned and asked the Speaker to begin the process of forming a new government. This is the first time a Swedish government has formally resigned following a vote of no confidence, and the second time it’s done so due to a conflict with parliament between elections in the post-WWII period. Swedish parliamentary politics are moving into rather unfamiliar terrain. 

In Sweden, analyses concern the party leaders' next moves and the costs and benefits of different actions. Party representatives point fingers and blame each other for what happened. Commentators reason around how different parties may gain or lose from various alternatives, and who may be able to strike a deal with whom about what and for how long. 

In the media, citizens express frustration with a government crisis in the middle of a pandemic. However, there is one subject that arguably merits more attention. That subject is the issue that made it possible for the Left to trigger a vote of no confidence, namely the introduction of market rents into newly produced rental housing. Its role in causing a government crisis suggests that the left-right conflict, often proclaimed dead, or at least fading, is alive and kicking in Swedish politics.

A confused state of mutual dissatisfaction

The immediate background to last Monday's events can be found in the outcome of the 2018 elections. The Social Democrats and the Greens remained in power, this time with active support from the center-right Center and Liberal parties based on a formal agreement, as well as the tacit support of the Left party. The Moderates, the Christian Democrats, and the far-right Sweden Democrats were kept in opposition, where they are now approaching each other to form a new Conservative bloc.

Few of the parties have been happy with the situation. The Left party lost much of its influence when the government struck a deal with the Center and Liberal parties on a policy program that would see these two parties abandon their former bloc partners – the Moderates and Christian Democrats –who, in turn, lost most of their influence and saw their prospects of regaining office worsen.

Moreover, the Liberal party started to score so badly in polls that they joined the Conservative bloc in preparation for the next elections (although they kept honouring the agreement with the government). Arguably only the Center party and the Sweden Democrats have been somewhat happy. The Center can smile because they have gained policy influence and maintained support in polls, while the Sweden Democrats have cause for celebration as they make their way back in from the cold, losing their status as a pariah party, the view some of their rivals had taken of them.

However, when the Left Party promised to tolerate the government and its agreement with the Center and Liberal parties, it did so stating that without deregulation of the Swedish housing tenant system, this support would vanish. Such deregulation is a key issue for the Center Party and was part of the agreement with the government. So when the prime minister presented a public investigation on the issue, the threat from the Left Party became real. 

The Conservative bloc, which had promised to take any chance to oust the government, hopped on the bandwagon. The result was an opposition group that had no more in common with each other than a shared hostility toward the government. 

Now, the censured government is upset with the Left Party, especially because no real proposal was presented (just an investigative report). The Left has denounced the Center for forcing the government's hand on the issue, the importance of which the Center Party denies. All of these parties seem frustrated with the Liberals, who say that the former agreement is off the table, now that the government has fallen. The Conservative bloc parties accuse the rest of throwing Sweden into disorder and enacting bad policies in a situation where they themselves cannot present a strong alternative government. With an eye on the polls and possible bye-elections, everyone is calling everyone else irresponsible. 

What about the rental housing issue?

Anyone, including some members of the parties, could easily get lost in all the moves and countermoves. In Swedish media, discussions take place in a room filled with analysts who focus on seat shares in parliament and ponder tactics, strategies, and possible next steps in the political game. This is one room that is in need of some ventilation. Fresh air is needed and that fresh air must take the form of issue politics based on ideological differences. 

The current political crisis in Sweden cannot be fully understood without reference to the issue, which broadly concerns housing. To counter the lack of housing in Sweden, the Center party champions deregulation of the Swedish system, in which rents are negotiated between landlords and the Swedish Tenants' Association. The idea behind deregulation is that if prices reflect demand, the current long queues in popular areas will disappear and more houses will be built to everyone's benefit. 

To say the proposed solution is hotly contested would be an understatement. The Center Party's argument that their proposal would exclusively concern newly produced housing has encountered scepticism. The Left party has responded by arguing that, in the long run, it would eliminate the Tenants' Association and that it would channel money from the working class (who tends to live in rental apartments) to landlords and property owners without necessarily resulting in more apartments, at least not at affordable prices without large increases in housing benefits or the creation of a parallel social housing program. The latter would be a change so alien to the Swedish system that no party dares to declare itself in favour of such a move. 

What we have is a classical left-right question. It is hard to say if the parties' different moves were wise or not and whether they will manage to convince voters of their motives. But it is easy to argue that, whether we call it “market rents” or “deregulated rent-setting in newly produced housing”, the issue is one with clear redistributive consequences between different social groups. These redistributive consequences are what the Left Party invokes to justify keeping its promise. 

In a country once readily understood by class differences, the left-right conflict and the fights for or against different welfare state policies, this point should not be neglected. The lack of attention to the issue would add to claims and complaints about how all parties resemble each other and observations of how parties struggle to explain the importance of their possible differences to the electorate. 

This frustration is best illustrated by the Sweden Democrats successfully posing as the only true opposition party, and accompanying its rise, political discourse has been very much focused on that party's main issues of law, order, and migration, with no clear reference to any left-right conflict. 

One may think that the changes in the Swedish housing system championed by the Center party are good or bad. But in itself, it is healthy that the importance of the left-right conflict is revived, even if the price seems unnecessarily high. 

Still, without putting the issues in this context, one adds to the idea that all parties are very similar and that voter choice is of little consequence. In essence, there are many reasons an issue like this about housing should never get lost or underplayed. Ideology is an important strategy. After all, at times, differences in left-right ideology even bring about government crises in Sweden.