Sweden follows the script

The general trend in European elections over about the last two years can be summarised as an underwhelming swing to the left. Sweden on Sunday followed the script exactly. (See my preview here.)

The opposition Social Democrats, led by Stefan Löfven, emerged as the winners, but it’s a meagre sort of victory. Preliminary results give them 31.2% of the vote and 113 seats, up just 0.4% and one seat from 2010. Of their potential coalition partners, the Greens went backwards by the same amount, finishing with 24 seats, while the ex-communist Left Party gained 0.1% and picked up two seats. Feminist Initiative, with 3.1%, failed to reach the 4% threshold for parliamentary representation.

So the three left-of-centre parties between them will hold 158 of the 349 seats. What makes this a victory is that their centre-right opponents went backwards sharply: the four-party coalition of outgoing prime minister Fredrik Reinfeldt in aggregate dropped almost 10% and 31 seats, most of the losses being suffered by Reinfeldt’s own Moderates.

But most of the government’s lost ground went not to the opposition but to the anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats, who more than doubled their vote to 12.9% and won 49 seats. That’s up 29 on last time, fortifying their hold on the balance of power.

In other words, if the centre-right parties were willing to deal with the hard right, as many of their counterparts in other countries have done, they would easily have the numbers to remain in power. But before and since the voting Reinfeldt has firmly closed off that option. Yesterday he conceded defeat and announced that he would be resigning from his party’s leadership.

The Social Democrats are equally determined to keep out the Sweden Democrats, with Löfven saying “We will make sure they don’t get that kingmaker role.” From his point of view the best outcome would be to attract some of the former governing parties into a broadly centrist coalition. If the Social Democrats and Greens were to team up with the Liberal People’s Party and the Centre Party, for example, they would command 178 seats, a narrow but workable majority.

So far the centrist parties are not buying the idea. No doubt there will now be a prolonged period of negotiation, but it seems more likely that Sweden will emerge with a minority Social Democrat government that will have to rely on shifting alliances to implement its legislative program.

The downsides of minority government should not be exaggerated: Reinfeldt was also in a minority for the last four years yet managed to govern effectively. But with 173 seats his position was a good deal stronger than Löfven’s looks like being.

Most of the media seem to be spinning the result as a vote against privatisation and a return to Sweden’s traditional centre-left allegiance. But it’s certainly not a resounding vote of confidence in the Social Democrats – their vote is its second-lowest in a hundred years.

The most dramatic shift in the electorate is the rise of the Sweden Democrats, but that too should be put in perspective. The consensus on a liberal immigration policy still commanded the support of almost seven-eighths of voters. If the established parties hold their ground, they can keep the extremists from exercising political influence – a lesson that some of Sweden’s neighbors should pay some attention to.

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