Election preview: Sweden

Sweden, the ninth-largest economy in the European Union, goes to the polls today. The opposition Social Democrats, out of office for two terms – a phenomenon without precedent in living memory – are favored to return to power, although their prospects no longer look as bright as they did a couple of months ago.

Prime minister Fredrik Reinfeldt was first elected in 2006 at the head of a four-party centre-right coalition, and is now the longest-serving Swedish leader from the centre-right since the nineteenth century. His government has generally been seen as a success; Sweden has ridden out the European financial crisis reasonably well, with growth rates that are the envy of its neighbors, although unemployment remains stubbornly high.

Eight years, however, is a long time, and many voters are evidently ready to swing back to the centre-left. Swedes remain attached to the basic principles of their welfare state, of which the Social Democrats are the chief guarantors. In particular, some of the privatisation measures of the Reinfeldt government are apparently seen to have gone too far.

Although there are eight parties represented in the current parliament (a number that is unlikely to go down), Sweden for several elections now has looked a lot like a two-party system. At the last election, in 2010, the Social Democrats and Reinfeldt’s Moderate Party, a mainstream conservative party, had about 30% of the vote each. The other six were all bunched between 5.5% and 7.5%.

There is a minimum threshold of 4% for representation, and seats are allocated on a nationwide D’Hondt proportional system, so seat totals closely track vote totals. The Social Democrats led narrowly with 112 seats to the Moderates’ 107 in a unicameral parliament of 349.

Three of the six minor parties were – and are – aligned with the Moderates on a common platform: the Christian Democrats (19 seats), the Liberal People’s Party (24) and the Centre Party (23), an agrarian liberal party. On the other side, the Greens (25) and the ex-communist Left Party (19), ran in alliance with the Social Democrats, although their ties have since loosened.

That gave the centre-right alliance a total of 173 seats, well ahead of their opponents on the left but just short of an overall majority. The balance of power was held by the Sweden Democrats, a hard-right anti-immigrant party, who entered parliament for the first time with 20 seats.

Other centre-right parties placed in similar situations, notably in Denmark and Norway, have done deals with the hard right to stay in power. But Reinfeldt refused to go down that track; both sides agreed on locking out the Sweden Democrats, and the centre-right stayed in power as a minority government, negotiating on a case-by-case basis (especially with the Greens) to get its legislation through.

Having failed to unseat the government, the Social Democrats underwent some soul-searching. Their new leader, Stefan Löfven, is a former trade union leader who is not yet in parliament. Throughout 2013 and for the first half of this year he maintained a big lead over the government in the polls; in the European parliament election in May the Social Democrats led the Moderates by 10.5%.

But whereas once that looked like being enough to deliver a centre-left or red-green majority, that now seems unlikely. Recent polls give the Social Democrats, the Greens and the Left about 44% of the vote between them. Another potential partner, the Feminist Initiative, is hovering just under the crucial 4% mark. If it falls short, it’s most likely that the hard right – whose support has roughly doubled – will again emerge with the balance of power.

The best option for Löfven would be to induce one or both of the liberal parties to switch sides and to back a centre-left coalition with the Social Democrats and the Greens. That would keep out the hard right and also avoid having to rely on the ex-communists. Policy settings would shift slightly leftwards but remain basically anchored in the centre.

For all the country’s collective angst about the rise of the Sweden Democrats, the degree of consensus in Swedish politics remains impressive. Centre-left and centre-right seem equally committed to preserving Sweden’s image as a tolerant, multicultural society that combines a strong market economy with a generous welfare state. Civic engagement remains high: turnout in 2010 was 84.6%, one of the highest in Europe.

Polls close at 4am Monday eastern Australian time, so results should be available with breakfast. Try here for official figures.



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