Another Swedish cliffhanger

Opinion polling in western Europe is pretty accurate. But when an election is just very close, there’s not much a pollster can do, other than tell you that. And as I said in Friday’s preview, the two sides in Sweden were so close that “even a tiny movement could be very significant.”

So it was. Polls closed at 4am, eastern Australian time, and exit polls suggested that the government – Social Democrats, backed by a broad alliance of Centre, Left and Greens – had a very narrow lead. But that changed as actual results came in: only a little, but enough to put the combined centre-to-right opposition in the lead.

Centre-left prime minister Magdalena Andersson refused to concede defeat, saying quite correctly that it was too close to call. At the moment (a bit after 4.30am in Sweden), with 94.9% of polling places in, the opposition has 49.6% of the vote to the pro-government parties’ 48.9%, a lead of about 47,000 votes. (See official results here.)

If those numbers hold up, it will give the opposition a one-seat majority: 73 Sweden Democrats (far right), 67 Moderates, 19 Christian Democrats and 16 Liberals, against 108 Social Democrats, 24 Centre, 24 Left and 18 Greens. But the final seat is very close, with the Left just ahead of the Moderates; if that flips over, the majority would come up to three seats, 176-173.

With some overseas and postal votes yet to come in the government could still snatch (again) the narrowest of victories. But if the opposition’s lead holds, it will then have to put together a government, which might not be straightforward. The far-right Sweden Democrats, having outvoted the Moderates for the first time, will have the most seats; they will not press their claim to the prime ministership, but they will expect to participate in government.

The Moderates would much prefer to take the Christian Democrats and Liberals into coalition and leave the far right to provide support from outside. It’s not at all clear how the Liberals will react if the Sweden Democrats are brought within the tent – last time they switched sides rather than compromise themselves, before changing their minds two and a half years later. Sitting in cabinet alongside far-right ministers could be a bridge too far for them.

Much of the commentary around the election has focused on the far right’s gains and the worrying extent to which it has set the policy agenda. Those are certainly grounds for concern, but the other side of the coin should also be noted, namely the way in which the Sweden Democrats have moderated themselves and shown a willingness to share power with the establishment.

In several countries (Austria is an obvious example), taking in the far right as a junior partner has proved an effective way to deflate its support; it’s quite possible that Sweden could go the same way. But there are no certainties in this area. The German conservatives who tried that trick in 1933 discovered they had made a very bad mistake.

Further updates to come as more data emerges.

UPDATE 6.30am Tuesday, Swedish time: Another day’s worth of counting hasn’t really changed the picture. There are still 4.8% of polling places not counted; media reports suggest that these represent “the votes of Swedish citizens living abroad and those of some who voted early.” It’s not clear how many of them there might be or how much they might differ from the ordinary votes.

The slight progress in counting since yesterday has narrowed the gap between the two sides to 44,533 votes, or 0.72 percentage points. The provisional seat allocation remains unchanged from the numbers given above, with Left still beating Moderates for the final seat.

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