Change We Can’t Believe In?

Change We Can’t Believe In?

Sweden’s Social Democrats return to power – but the political issues the country faces are hardly solved by this election. 

By Daniel Nord

* This article, along with the image, was originally published by Project for Democratic Union

After eight years in power, Swedish voters have told their prime minister Fredrik Reinfeldt and his center-right alliance to make room for a new government. Last Sunday, the Social Democrats, together with both the Green and the Left Party, gained 43.7% of the national vote. Thus, and as polls had predicted, the center-left opposition narrowly beat the four-party alliance, which in its turn ended up convincing a mere 39.3 % of the electorate. Mr Reinfeldt went on to announce his resignation from the Moderate Party already in his election night speech, a move few had foreseen. Currently, Social Democratic leader Stefan Löfven is facing an intricate task of forming a new minority government. Having declared already the day after the election that this government won’t include the Left Party (which is seen as a too troublesome governing partner), Mr Löfven has instead attempted to reach out across the aisle to the liberal People’s Party and the Centre Party. The invitation has been met with cold shoulders. It seems that the former union boss has burned a bridge only to run into a closed door. At a time when a second election cannot yet be taken off the table, voices are raised to bring about an end to the organization of Sweden’s largest parties into left and right coalitions.

The alliance has largely successfully manoeuvred the country through an economic crisis that has left much of the rest of Europe scarred, but a repeated campaign message emphasizing responsible governing did not convince Swedes to let Mr Reinfeldt – widely respected even by many who don’t vote for him – go on to lead the country for a third time. Voters’ attention has been directed towards continually high unemployment, privatization of parts of the welfare state, and school results increasingly dropping in international comparisons. These are problems that according to the socialist-green opposition, and many Swedes have emerged worsened from the past eight years. Jobs especially have been at the focus of debate, and Mr Löfven’s promise to modernize infrastructure and bring about “trainee jobs” in the care for the elderly to battle youth unemployment have been concrete suggestions as how to bring about improvement. More than anything, it seems that Swedes have felt that some type of change after eight years couldn’t hurt.

But given Sweden’s immensely strong social-democratic tradition, the return of Mr Löfven’s party to power has been most cautiously celebrated. In fact, the Social Democrats’ voting numbers (31%) were only marginally better than those in the last election, which were in turn viewed as a big failure. The Green Party, also, ended up with weak numbers (6.8%) in a campaign that did not concentrate as much on environmental issues as party speakers Gustav Fridolin and Åsa Romson would probably have hoped.

Instead, the center-left victory can mainly be ascribed to the drop in numbers for the alliance. Continuing the disastrous trend from this spring’s EU elections, Mr Reinfeldt’s Moderate Party lost almost eight percentage points compared to 2010. This relates to what has been viewed as a major aspect overshadowing the election: the nationalist Sweden Democrats more than doubled its seats from when it first entered the Riksdag, Sweden’s national parliament, four years ago. With almost 13% of the vote, the party led by Jimmie Åkesson is now Sweden’s third largest, and it is primarily from the Moderate Party that the Sweden Democrats have taken over new voters. Polls had shown that the anti-immigrant black sheep in Swedish politics was growing, but numbers rarely went above 10%. On election day, however, more than one in every ten decided to cast their vote on what is often described as a racist party – despite the social stigma attached to doing so. This means that the overwhelming agreement in Sweden four years ago to treat the political newcomers with ridicule, taunting and protest instead of argument has backfired. Even if the Sweden Democrats will most certainly remain isolated from influence in the parliament, their continued success is sparking debate. If elsewhere the economic crisis has been given as an explanation for a wave of right-wing populism over Europe, Sweden’s relative immunity to austerity means that explanation could hardly be seen as plausible as to why the Sweden Democrats have steadily kept attracting voters.

Instead, it appears that in Sweden, a country with some of the highest levels of immigration in Europe, failed integration is viewed as a highly important topic. And while other parties have tried to deal with the subject by either staying away from it or inventing slogans against racism, the Sweden Democrats have been the only party loudly talking about the issue. How the center-left and center-right parties can win back those voting for the Sweden Democrats will surely be the big question in the time ahead, and until voters hit the booths again in 2018. But various combinations of silence and shouting won’t do.

Finally, the Feminist Initiative, a party headed by former Left Party leader Gudrun Schyman, has received much medial attention in the last months leading up to the election. Described by one writer as the “option for the discontent middle class voter”, the Feminist Initiative, with its emphasis on feminism and anti-racism, has portrayed itself as being diametrically opposed to the Sweden Democrats. Although the party will be represented at the local level – especially in Sweden’s big cities – it only received 3.1% in the national elections, which means it did not pass the 4% threshold to enter the national parliament. Perhaps the lack of success here can be ascribed to other parties’ ambition to properly deal with gender equality issues.

If a similar responsible conversation can come to include immigration, without falling for the Sweden Democrats’ ideas and rhetoric, Sweden might have a better chance to avoid what has increasingly started to look like the beginning of a culture war. Such a conflict, in perhaps one of the world’s most culturally homogenous countries, should be avoidable. And to avoid it should rank high on any party’s agenda, as it diverts from a much-needed discussion of bigger questions concerning the whole of the continent. For example, security policies appear to be only of mediocre interest to Swedes, despite this year’s development in the Ukraine.

Whether or not the breaking of the conventional coalition politics is indeed about to happen remains unclear, but it could be a welcome first step towards healthier politics at a time when a majority of the Swedish population claimed to wake up to a gloomy September 15th.

Image: ‘Stefan Löfven at the Swedish Social Democratic Youth League’s genaral election camp 2014’ by josve05a_at_Wikimedia