It’s become a very familiar pattern. The media obsessively talk up the prospects of the far right, but in the event, while (disturbingly) making gains, they fall well short of expectations. And so it was overnight in Sweden.
Commentators had worried that the neo-fascist Sweden Democrats would top 20% of the vote, beating the centre-right and closing in on the Social Democrats for first place. But with results almost final they have 17.6% and 62 seats – up 4.7% and 13 seats on their 2014 result, but still firmly in third place, 2.2% behind the Moderates.
In first place, as always, were the Social Democrats. But their 28.4% (down 2.8%) for 101 seats (down 12) is their worst result since 1908. Their only consolation is that they outperformed expectations. It’s been a horrible few years for the centre-left in Europe, and it shows no sign of ending soon.
But although it’s phenomenally close, the left-of-centre parties have retained their edge. Social Democrats, Greens and Left have 40.7% of the vote and 144 seats between them; their rivals, the four-party centre and centre-right coalition known as the Alliance, have 40.2% and 143 seats, a gap of only 28,000 votes in more than six million. (It’s unlikely, but the result is so close that late-arriving postal votes, which are counted up until Wednesday, could still make a difference.)
In a sense, as I remarked last week, that’s all you need to know. The Sweden Democrats were always going to hold the balance of power, so the only other thing that mattered for the parliamentary arithmetic was which coalition came out ahead.
But the psychological difference between a far-right vote over 22% (as some polls were saying not long ago) and one below 18% (as actually happened) is huge. With the former, Moderates leader Ulf Kristersson could have made a case that the Sweden Democrats needed to be brought within the tent in some fashion.
Now, he will find it much harder to go back on his undertaking to keep out the far right. There may be some bargaining to get there, but it’s almost that Social Democrat prime minister Stefan Löfven will remain in power. Even if Kristersson plays him false, the Centre Party, with its 31 seats, would be enough to give the left a majority.
The far right weren’t the only ones that the opinion polls overestimated. The expected big swing to the Left failed to materialise; their 7.9% was up 2.2% on 2014, but well short of the 10% the polls had been giving them. The Greens were also disappointed, falling 2.4% to 4.3% – uncomfortably close to the 4% threshold for representation.
So it seems that centre-left voters rallied to their traditional home, the Social Democrats, in the final days. On the other hand, the polls picked the distribution of votes within the Alliance almost exactly. Turnout was 84.4%, up 1.1% on last time.