Sweden election: Your quick and easy guide to this month’s vote

The political race to form the next Swedish government couldn’t be any tighter.

With a general election coming up next Sunday 11 September the left-wing Social Democrats, who have been the dominant party at every election for the last hundred years, are facing a strong challenge from right-wing parties.

Incumbent Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson could well be in a position to try and form the next government: if her party wins the most seats and looks capable of forming a stable coalition bloc with other left and centrist parties. But a right-wing coalition government lead by either the traditionally biggest conservative party the Moderates, or by the surging far-right party the Sweden Democrats could also be called to form the next coalition.

With Andersson enjoying much more popularity than her party, and much of the election discussion focused on mainstay right-wing issues, there’s still everything to play for as campaigning enters the final stretch before polling day.

So what’s at stake, who are the main parties, what do they stand for, what are the main issues and possible outcomes, and why is this election important?

We’ve got all those answers – and more – in our quick and easy guide to the Swedish general election:

Why should I care about the Swedish general election?

It’s true that a routine general election in a stable Western European democracy wouldn’t normally make many headlines. But Sweden matters. Why? Because it’s seen as liberal and progressive, and many policies which end up becoming more mainstream across the rest of Europe – like gender equality or LGBT-inclusive rights – started off in Sweden.

And this year the rise of the far-right Sweden Democrats, with their roots in white nationalism and fascism, are really challenging the established order in Sweden, setting the agenda for discussion around immigration and law and order, just 12 years after their first MPs were returned to parliament.

So how do the elections work and what’s the voting system?

General elections take place at least every four years to choose 349 members of the Swedish parliament, called the Riksdag. Regional and municipal elections are also taking place at the same time, on Sunday 11 September, but we’re going to focus here on the general election.

Early voting started on 24 August, and it is possible to vote in Swedish embassies overseas as well. After the first four days of voting, turnout was lower than it has been in previous years. However overall voter turnout tends to be very high in Sweden, at the last election almost 90% of eligible voters cast their ballots.

But here’s a fun fact! If you vote early, then change your mind and choose a different party or different candidate on election day itself, the new vote cancels out your previous vote.

Sweden uses a type of proportional representation where each party presents a list of candidates, with 29 constituencies getting a set number of MPs to make sure there is regional representation from all across the country – and then the other MPs are elected through ‘proportional balancing’ which helps ensure that the number of MPs elected for each party accurately reflects the votes of the people.

At the polling stations there’s not just one piece of paper with different parties or candidates on it: instead, the main parties have their own individual coloured ballot papers, and voters take the paper of the party they want into the booth to choose their preferred candidate.

This system was criticised by the OSCE in their report into the 2018 elections, saying it could compromise voter secrecy. But voters can take multiple different papers from several parties into the booth with them, so it’s not always clear who they’ll ultimately be voting for.

Any party that gets at least 4% of the national vote – or 12% in any single electoral constituency – will win seats in the Riksdag.

At the last general election in 2018 there were more than two dozen other parties which campaigned either nationally, or in specific areas on niche platforms, but none got more than half a percent of the total votes cast and so didn’t get any MPs.

Composite image of main Swedish political party logos Etienne Barthomeuf / Euronews

What are the main political parties?

The current government is lead by the left-wing Social Democrats, and Magdalena Andersson is Sweden’s first female prime minister. It’s a minority government, meaning she has neither a majority in parliament nor any formal coalition partners.

The Left Party and Centre Parties are the other likely participants in a left-bloc coalition.

Parties on the centre-right or far-right make up the rest: Liberals; Moderates; Christian Democrats and Sweden Democrats.

“Immigration is the reason why the Sweden Democrats exist in the first place, they’re the anti-immigration ticket,” explained Pontus Odmalm, a Swede who lectures in politics at the University of Edinburgh.

“Then underneath that, they come from the neo-Nazi movement of the 1980s, then they tried to mainstream themselves and talk less about blood and heritage, and talk more about the incompatibility of other races in the same space.”

Sweden’s Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson signs autographs after giving a speech, at Hagelby park in Botkyrka, southern Stockholm, Sweden, Sunday Sept. 4, 2022. Jessica Gow/AP

Who are some of the main party leaders to know about?

Magdalena Andersson is undoubtedly the rock star the Social Democrats have been needing, and she’s being positioned in campaign ads in a quasi-presidential light. Voters say they trust her more than other party leaders, particularly after shepherding the country towards NATO membership, an historical change in the DNA of her party’s stance on the military alliance. However her own personal popularity hasn’t had a noticeable positive impact on her party’s performance in opinion polls.

Jimmie Åkesson is the leader of the far-right Sweden Democrats and has been a member of the Riksdag for more than a decade. During his time as party leader he has worked to modernise the party, trying to shake off its old image of being rooted in fascism and ethno-nationalism, and made the Sweden Democrats electable. Åkesson has lead his party to unprecedented popularity since breaking through the election threshold in 2010 for the first time with 20 MPs. The Sweden Democrats have shifted their opinions on the European Union under his leadership and there’s no more real talk of a Swedish EU exit – Swexit – but instead he wants to see it as a union of nation states with an emphasis on trade.

“The Sweden Democrats had difficulties taking a stand against the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and Jimmie Åkesson refused to choose between Putin and Biden in an interview,” said Edinburgh University’s Pontus Odmalm.

“He said he was opposed to the invasion, but he wasn’t ready to speak out about Putin, and there are various connections between his party and the Kremlin,” Odmalm added: similar connections have plagued other far-right parties in France, Austria and Italy.

Jimmie Akesson, who for almost two decades has sought to move the party from the far-right fringe toward the mainstream, looks on during a campaign speach Monday, Aug. 22, 202 AP/AP

Ulf Kristersson is a veteran politician, former minister, and leader of the right-wing Moderate party. Traditionally the most important opposition party in Sweden, Kristersson has presided over a period where support has slipped, as voters look further right to the Sweden Democrats. If the Moderates are not part of the next Swedish government, and if Kristersson leads them to a third place defeat behind the Sweden Democrats, his position as leader might be untenable.

Ebba Busch is the leader of the Christian Democrats, a photogenic party leader who makes no bones about her opinions on immigration, especially from Muslim countries, and how she thinks it has impacted the traditional idyll of Swedish life.

Ebba Busch, party leader of Sweden’s Christian Democrat, casts her ballots at a polling station at Drottningtorget in Gothenburg, Sweden, 24 August 2022 Björn Larsson Rosvall/AP

What are the most important issues for voters?

So what issues are Swedes concerned with a head of Sunday’s election? Is it the cost of living crisis, the war in Ukraine, winter fuel bills or maybe in the homeland of Greta Thunberg, environmental issues are important?

Nora Theorin, a researcher at the University of Gothenburg’s Department of Political Science says it’s the issues that are traditionally important to the right-wing that have dominated this election campaign.

“I would say that at the top right now of the political and media agenda, and also for many voters, are law and order, crime, and often the issue is connected to integration and immigration,” she told Euronews.

“On the other hand, the left parties are rather emphasising the role of class gap and differences in income.”

“We also have a lot of discussion right now about the economy and rising energy prices as well, and as a consequences of that, nuclear is higher on the agenda than normal because many parties think that is the solution,” Theorin added.

What are the likely outcomes of the election, who will win?

Based on the most recent opinion polls there is still a mixed picture, even though the Social Democrats seem to be picking up a tiny bit of extra support.

Of three opinion polls released over the weekend, two of them showed Magdalena Andersson’s Social Democrats and a bloc made up of Greens, Left and Centre parties on course to form the next government.

However, the poll with the most recent field work and the biggest sample size showed a narrow win instead for the right/far-right parties in a bloc lead by Sweden Democrats, Moderates, Christian Democrats and Liberals:

“I think it’s interesting that the issues which are on top in political debate are more right-wing issues, they are more likely be the issues owners. But at the same time Magdalena Andersson has significantly higher trust than Ulf Kristersson,” said Gothenburg University’s Nora Theorin.

“And anyway, about 30% of people decide only in the last week which party they will vote for,” she noted.

Who are the winners and losers, so far, in the campaign?

The biggest losers of this election cycle – even if they end up in government – are the Moderates who have hemorrhaged support to the far-right Sweden Democrats: a shift in the Swedish political landscape that other parties have also tried to cash in on, including the Social Democrats spending more time and energy than would ever be expected to highlight their places for law and order.

On the flip side of that, the big winners of this election cycle – even if they don’t end up in government – are the Sweden Democrats who have proved that it’s now ‘socially acceptable’ to support a far-right party in Sweden, and who have built up a very strong media operation that has been successful about getting their message out on social media channels and YouTube.

The Greens look set to have reason to pop the champagne corks next week, no matter if they’re in or out of government. Earlier in the campaign it looked like they might struggle to get over the 4% threshold, but one of Sunday’s new polls had them as high as 7.6% which would be their highest poll numbers for seven years, and if it held up on election day would be the party’s best ever election result.