Are different Scandinavian party systems similar and are they different from the Spanish one, and are these characteristics indicators of a top quality democracy?

Hugo Igartua


When looking for the countries which have a better quality of democracy two names constantly pop up: Sweden and Denmark. The Economist’s democratic index[1] points out these countries on the top positions, together with some very similar countries, all of which are liberal democracies stemming from the 1st wave of transitions to democracy (XIXth century), as Samuel P. Huntington remarked in his book “The Third Wave”[2]. These countries, not surprisingly, and probably due to the stabilization and duration of its democratic institutions, the trust of its citizens in them and the political culture also figure as top-notch in almost every well-being, freedom, employment rate or corruption rankings. For instance, Denmark was found to be the less corrupt state in the world in 2016 according to a Transparency International study[3]. Sweden was the 4th country on the list.

In this context, it is interesting to analyze one of the key factors for the correct functioning of a full democratic system: its party system, as Duverger named it. What traits do the party system indicators tell us about the democratic strength of these countries? How do they differentiate from the ones in our country?

Let’s take a look at the two most recent general elections in Sweden (2010 and 2014) and Denmark (2011 and 2015). From a merely electoral point of view, we immediately are shocked to see that the participation in these 4 elections was never lower than 83%, which is 4 points more than the highest ever turnout in Spanish Democracy. This high turnout helps to give an extra democratic legitimacy to the system and is a clear sign of democratic maturity and health. Nonetheless, such a high turnout can be instinctively related with having behind it, using Giovanni Sartori’s terminology, a multi-partisan or at least bipartisan system.


This hypothesis is corroborated when looking at the different indicators. The graphs below, crafted by myself with Excel, show the concentration (percentage of vote of the two most voted parties together) and electoral competitiveness (difference of percentage of vote between the two most voted parties) in Sweden, Denmark and Spain in the two most recent elections in each of these countries:


As we can observe, Sweden and Denmark show similar indicators. What in Spain was a revolution in politics (the rise of Podemos and Ciudadanos and the death of a sharply bipartisan or even hegemonic system with Felipe González, converting into a more fractionned and multi-partisan party system) was already a reality in Sweden and Denmark coming from decades ago. Of course, these very high competitiveness (which polls also pointed out as very likely) implies that citizens may feel their vote will be useful and will lead them to vote massively, leading thus to the usual 85% participation rates.

Nevertheless, at first sight the very low concentration in Sweden and Denmark might lead some to assume that these political systems are fragmented and that governance is not an easy task. This hypothesis seems to be also supported by the Effective Number of Parties (as baptised by Laakso and Tagepera), which, in the four electoral procedures, is always an astonishing 5 or 6 ENP. While this idea may have been showed true in Spain (the evidence is that elections had to be held one more time after political parties weren’t able to form a coalition government), in Sweden and Denmark it is nothing but a sign of the political plurality and richness of the countries, but never a problem to form stable governments. Why?

Back in 1967, Lipset and Rokkan gave birth to the concept of “cleavage”, a division between voters in different blocs in relation with some sociological splits. The very recognized Swedish journalist  and expert in Swedish politics Hans Bergström remarked that, traditionally, cleavages created by language, religion or ethnicity haven’t existed in Swedish society, leaving the only remarkable cleavages to take into account the left-right axis and the rural-urban one. Bergström simply referred to Sweden as “the simplest (party system) in any democracy”[4]

Even more evident is the case of Denmark. In this country, coalitions are formed almost instantly among the different parties, which are traditionally divided by the population between the “red” and the “blue” blocs, the “red” one comprising the more leftist parties and the “blue” one the rightist ones. It is worthy to mention that even the far-right party, Danish People’s Party, is included in the blue bloc and is perfectly integrated in the system, something radically different than other European countries. Hence, winning the election in votes doesn’t imply at all that the Prime Minister will be a member of that party: in the two elections I have analyzed, it hasn’t been the case at all.

This coalition culture and this absence of major cleavages are the key to understand the democratic stability of Scandinavian countries, at the same time that they maintain a multi-partisan party system which encourages people to vote massively and give even more legitimacy to electoral procedures.

All in all, even though this can’t be transposed into a country as complex as Spain and, whereas we can try to incorporate some of the common characteristics of Danish and Swedish systems, we can’t eliminate the particularities and cleavages that are exclusive to us. Nevertheless, the main hypothesis has been reaffirmed. Danish and Swedish party systems are, as expected, extremely similar. It would be naive to deem this as a coincidence. Instead, it is more likely that it shows the correlation between a certain type and form of political system and a fully developed and well established democracy.



[1]The Economist (2016). The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index

[2]Samuel P. Huntington (1991). The Third Wave. USA: University of Oklahoma Press. Huntington appreciates transitions to democracy as coming in waves, the first one being in anglosaxon and Scandinavian countries. After World War II came the second one, mainly in the Axis powers in said War and decolonized countries. In the 1970s, a third wave took place in Latin America and southern European countries such as ours. Many people claim a fourth wave took place after the breakdown of the Soviet Union and Jugoslavia, but Huntington’s book can’t refer to it since it was written previously to these events.

[3]Transparency International (2016). Corruption Perceptions Index 2016.

[4]Jan Erik Lane (1991). Understanding the Swedish Model. Great Britain: Frank Cass.