Election Preview: Sweden 2010
Sweden votes on September 19, 2010 for a general election to its unicameral legislature, the Riksdag as well as 20 County Councils (Landsting) and 289 municipal councils.
The Riksdag has 349 seats, 31o of which are elected in 27 constituencies (a majority coincide with counties, but the largest counties are split into two or more constituencies) and the last 39 are at-large ‘evening out’ seats which are used to correct the deviations from proportional national distribution that may arise when allocating the fixed constituency seats. The constituency seats are allocated using the corrected odd-number method, a variation of d’Hondt. Firstly, all vote totals for the parties in a given constituency are divided by 1.4. The party with the largest number of votes after division is then awarded the first seat and has its original vote total divided by 3. The numbers are again compared and the party with the largest number gets the next seat. When a party gets its second seat its number is divided by 5, then 7, 9, etc. In order to take part in the distribution of seats you must either have recieved 4% or more of the total national vote (the Riksdag-threshold) or at least 12% of the vote in the constituency.
Instead of giving a political history of the country, which will likely be too long, this preview post will introduce the parties and their electoral bases before moving on to look at the issues and leaders in this campaign.
After the 2006 elections, 7 parties were represented in the Riksdag. Here are the 2006 results:
S – Social Democrats 34.99% (-4.86%) winning 130 seats (-14)
M – Moderate Party 26.23% (+10.97%) winning 97 seats (+42)
C – Centre Party 7.88% (+1.69%) winning 29 seats (+7)
FP – Liberal People’s Party 7.54% (-5.85%) winning 28 seats (-20)
KD – Christian Democrats 6.59% (-2.56%) winning 24 seats (-9)
V – Left Party 5.85% (+2.54%) winning 22 seats (-8)
MP – Green Party 5.24% (+0.59%) winning 19 seats (+2)
Since 2006 at least, however, people have often classified these seven parties into one of two coalitions. In 2006, the Alliance for Sweden (also known as the “blues”) was formed between M, C, FP and KD. While the Social Democrats, V and Greens have cooperated in the past, they had no official electoral coalition until 2008, when they formed an Alliance-like coalition, the Red-Greens. In 2006, the Alliance won 48.24% and 178 seats to the Red-Greens’ 46.08% and 171 seats.
Though this division into formal coalitions is a recent occurrence, Swedish politics have often been polarized between two heterogeneous blocks formed by parties who disagreed by one another. For example, the current Alliance has long been referred to as the “bourgeois” parties, a term which has managed to stick to this day. This appellation is a fine reflection of the role class plays in Swedish voting patterns.
When one thinks of Sweden, a thought concerning the well-known Swedish welfare state or the so-called “Scandinavian model” is likely to come up. The Social Democrats (S or SAP), long Sweden’s hegemonic party and once a well-oiled electoral machine, have been central to building that Swedish model and they have been Sweden’s natural governing party, topping the poll in all elections since 1917 and governing for the vast majority of the twentieth century (since 1932 with the exception of a few months in 1936, 1976-1982, 1991-1994 and since 2006). The Social Democrats emerged in 1889 and gained strength throughout the first two decades of the twentieth century, eventually displacing Sweden’s two historical ideological families, the liberals and conservatives. The Social Democrats were instrumental in passing universal suffrage for males and females in 1921, but for most of the latter 1920s, the Social Democrats were out of power. In 1932, the first election after the Depression, the Social Democrats started their near-uninterrupted 44-year rule. Under people such as Per Albin Hansson and Tage Erlander, the Social Democrats developed Sweden’s famous model of a strong interventionist state playing a major role in the development of the economy and using state revenue to ensure the welfare of the general population. The so-called Swedish model, still in state today, proved to be vastly successful and lifted Sweden’s income up rather dramatically. Although Sweden’s export-dominated economy relied heavily on the United States and the west, Sweden became one of the leaders of the neutral non-aligned movement and allowed itself to be a vocal critic of American policies in Vietnam and other communist and socialist-bloc countries. In line with this tradition of neutrality, Sweden has also played a major role in international development efforts and remains of the top countries in terms of foreign aid spending. Despite the harsh criticism of American foreign policy in the 1970s offered by Olof Palme, probably the most emblematic Swedish prime minister (if only because of his assassination), the Social Democrats cannot be described as deeply left-wing in line with communist-bloc countries. While the Social Democrats, who rarely won outright majorities, relied on passive Communist support, the party in fact shunned and spied on the Communists and the Social Democrats have been noted for their historical pragmatism when it comes to accepting the market economy or a capitalist society. Even in the early twentieth century, the Social Democrats were reticent Marxists and embraced reformist socialism over revolutionary socialism rather early in their history. The lack of notable working-class repression in Sweden as well as the historical connection with religious (Lutheran) folk movements likely explains the apparent moderate nature of the Social Democrats.
The party’s current leader is Mona Sahlin, a fairly inept and not particularly charismatic one at that. She is something of a maverick within the party and the party – and the Red-Greens as a whole – have struggled to find a voice under her leadership.
Closely linked to the trade union movement, whose leadership often goes hand-in-hand with the party’s leadership, the Social Democrats have a strong base with the working-class, which in Sweden is spread out throughout the country in small and medium-sized industrial towns largely in central and northern Sweden. While the party has been forced to expand its base, the class-dominated nature of Swedish politics means that the party remains largely a working-class party, though it has also garnered in recent years the bulk of the immigrant vote. The Social Democrats won over 40% of the vote in all elections between 1932 and 1988, but has since broken that line only once, in 1994. It’s 2006 35% showing was its worst showing since 1914, and its 2009 European election result of 24.7% was its worst result in its existence.
Heir to the conservative tradition, the Moderates (M) find their roots in the conservative parties which have existed under various names since 1886. Originally, the conservatives were the party of the wealthy aristocracy and those tied to the Lutheran State Church. Originally protectionist, like most conservative parties, the right gradually moved to Keynesian policies and, since the 1970s, have de-emphasized traditionalist conservative rhetoric in favour of a traditional liberal rhetoric on economic issues, supporting tax and spending cuts, privatization and pro-business regulations. The party became known as the Moderates in 1969, as part of the party’s attempt to move it out of the electoral gutter by portraying it as a more modern liberal party. Under its leader, Gösta Bohman, M participated in the centre-right coalition government of Thorbjörn Fälldin between 1976 and 1982 but the Moderates’ opposition to Fälldin’s more centrist tax policy led to the breakup of that government in 1982. Later, under Carl Bildt, the Moderates were the largest party in the right’s unsuccessful 1991-1994 government, which started drastic liberal reforms of the economy including deregulation, privatizations and tax cuts. An economic downturn which had started in 1992 effectively doomed the government, which lost re-election in 1994. After a disastrous 2002 election under a rather right-wing incompetent leader, Fredrik Reinfeldt became the party’s leader in 2003 and effectively transformed the party. Under Reinfeldt, the Moderates have de-emphasized core liberal policies such as tax cuts and pro-business regulations, adopting instead a policy which accepted the welfare model and a new “work policy” including tax cuts for those who work while cutting unemployment and sick leave benefits. Reinfeldt’s shift towards the centre has often been compared to David Cameron’s similar shift in the United Kingdom, though Reinfeldt preceded Cameron in making that move. The Moderates remain pro-American and pro-European, though the pro-EU message has recently been toned down and the party’s earlier support for NATO membership all but forgotten.
The party’s base remains the wealthy, a fact which has often been a negative for the party because it associated a mistrust of the party with poorer voters, who saw M as being closely linked to the values and attitudes of the very wealthy. Their main areas of strength lie in the big cities, which in Sweden are very wealthy, as well in the suburbs of these cities. Stockholm, for example, is a Moderate stronghold. While it has gained strength in recent years in rural southern Sweden, it remains weak in rural areas, especially in the north.
In the mold of traditional Scandinavian farmers’ parties, the Centre Party (C) is historically linked to the agrarian rural farmers’ organizations which emerged in most of Scandinavia early in the twentieth century. They were in some ways very conservative, being, for example, the most pro-Nazi party (outside actual Nazi parties) in the 1930s, but they were also largely pragmatic and not inherently linked to either socialist or conservative ideology. It cooperated with the left in the 1930s and again between 1951 and 1957, but has since been largely allied with the right. As mentioned above, the Centre Party’s Torbjörn Fälldin was the leader of the 1976-1982 centre-right government, winning that right after the party emerged as the second-largest party after S in 1973 and again in 1976. However, after 1976, the Centre Party entered into a period of constant electoral decline which lasted until 1998, when the party was reduced to a mere 5%. Since then, the party’s fortunes have perked up, largely a result of a new liberal direction under Maud Olofsson. The party dropped its old Euroscepticism in favour of a policy of “Europe as a federal state” and notably became vocally socially liberal and also adopted an environmentalist-green shift, while also shifting more towards the right on economic issues, with the party railing against Sweden’s labour laws.
Despite this shift, which did not please the party’s old more leftist rural base, it has retained an old base in rural areas, which still make up the bulk of the party’s electorate. Though it has somewhat broken into more urban areas and gained representation in some town councils in the major cities, C remains extremely weak in major urban areas, holding, for example, only one seat out of Stockholm’s 101-seat municipal council.
The Liberal People’s Party (FP) is the heir to the old liberal tradition, which was historically supported by the urban professional middle-class but also members of evangelical “free churches” separate from the conservative Lutheran State Church. This rather awkward base led to a 1923 split in the liberals over the issue of prohibition, which the evangelicals supported but which the urban professionals opposed. This split was reconciled in 1934 with the creation of the People’s Party, which added the name “Liberal” in 1990. FP has long been a key supporter of liberal economic measures, but has also voiced support for a strong welfare state and public healthcare. Most notably though, it is the most vocally pro-American and pro-Israel party, supporting, for example, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is also vocally pro-Israel, something which has a lot to do with the fact that FP has often been the “party of Jews”. It has also taken liberal stands on social issues such as lesbian insemination and gay rights, but also on immigration, with FP traditionally being the most pro-immigration party. For example, the party’s leader walked out of a 1991 debate which included the leader of the xenophobic New Democracy (NyD) party. Yet, a paltry 4.7% in 1998 led the party to contradict its past support for immigration by taking a tougher populist line, favouring language tests for immigrants and taking up electorally fruitful law-and-order rhetoric. Though the party’s social liberal base may feel betrayed by these new positions, it did heavily pay off in 2002, when the party won 13.3% of the vote.
Similarly to M, FP is very much a urban party, and has traditionally been known as the party of academics, teachers and professionals (as well as Jews, as noted above); even more so with the slow erosion of the old rural base in the southern Bible Belt and the evangelical communities in Västerbotten.
The Christian Democrats (KD) are the youngest of the bourgeois parties, having been founded in 1964 and having entered parliament independently only in 1991 (it had won seats in 1985 through an electoral deal with C). Originally founded as a deeply socially conservative party based in the evangelical free churches, the fringe party moderated starting with the 1973 accession of Alf Svensson to the party’s leadership. It has dropped its opposition to abortion and homosexuality, changed sides in the nuclear debate (from opposition to support) and in the EU membership debate in 1994 (also from opposition to support). As mentioned above, Svensson himself got in in 1985 thanks to a deal with C, but got in on its own accord only in 1991 and won a record high 12% in 1998. However, the party has been struggling as of late, hindered by the departure of vastly popular Alf Svensson. While the KD’s 6.6% showing in 2006 was a fine showing, some of that may be attributed to the party’s populist liberal rhetoric displayed that year, with positions including cutting the gas tax and abolishing property taxes. Despite that apparently liberal rhetoric, KD has traditionally been an advocate of so-called “compassionate conservatism”, something which makes it, along with FP and C, pro-immigration.
Contrarily to FP and M, the KDs are weak in urban areas and their base is largely in rural southern Sweden, especially the Bible Belt of evangelical traditions. They are especially strong in Jönköping, which is the epicenter of the evangelical movement. Its other bases are largely small evangelical communities further north and west.
The Left Party (V), also referred to as the “communists”, are the successors to the Swedish Communist Party, originally founded in 1917 (though they only became known as the Communists in 1921) by a split in the Social Democrats between the reformist majority and the revolutionary minority. There were later splits within the party, first in 1921 with the formation of the anti-Comintern SSV and in 1929 with the formation of the anti-Stalinist Kilbom-Flyg faction, which later became Nazi. The party experienced a boost in support in 1944 and slightly less so in 1948, but the Cold War forced it into decline while it remained pro-Soviet until the mid 60s. While the Communists were shunned by the Social Democrats, who security apparatus spied on them and whose leaders publicly denounced communism, the party in parliament supported the “workers’ governments”, knowing that its voters would never forgive it for having brought down a government of the proletariat. Starting in 1964, the Communists moved towards eurocommunism (not without a few splits by hardliners) and changed its name to Left Party (V) in 1990, finally abandoning communism. While largely stagnant in the 1970s and 1980s, the party’s fortunes rebounded in 1994 and particularly in 1998, when it won a record 12%. The party has done poorly since it formally started supporting Social Democratic government, albeit from the outside, and fell to 5.8% support in 2006. The fact that V’s current leader, Lars Ohly (who is slightly bizarre), is an alleged communist, has often led more centrist and right-leaning observers to dislike V rather strongly and deride it as communist.
Though the stereotype is that V is the party of poor academics, which is true, the party also has genuine working-class support, especially true in old mining areas in the far north, where it still polls rather strongly.
The Green Party (MP) emerged in 1981 and entered Parliament in 1988 (and reentered in 1994 after failing in 1991) and has since been largely integrated into the left despite earlier claims of being neither left nor right. Its program is not worth much description, though the party’s traditional Euroscepticism (much more so in the past) does distinguish it somewhat from traditionally pro-European greens in continental Europe (such as the French or German Greens, though admittedly greens in the UK, Iberia and Italy are more eurosceptic). Until recently, the Greens were opposed to EU membership entirely. While it has not done especially well in Riksdag elections (averaging 5% or so), it did win a record 17% in the 1995 EU elections, largely out of being the anti-EU list that time. Though the Greens are the Social Democrats’ most acceptable coalition partner (V carrying around the unfashionable communist tag), they have cooperated locally with the right.
The party’s electorate is, as is to expected, urban and educated, in addition to being largely young and female.
On a final note of a party which is not in Parliament but may well be in a few days, the Sweden Democrats (SD). The SD is, basically put, the Swedish far-right (and the most ‘acceptable’ one, it isn’t Nazi for example) and is, as would be obvious, anti-immigration and favours stricter regulations on immigration. It received 2.93% in the 2006 election and did especially well in Skåne, where they are represented in the County Council. Its electorate is largely an old working-class or small shopkeepers one, though it isn’t especially poor but it probably also wins support from racist wealthy whites, of which there are quite a few in Skåne. The similarly far-right New Democracy (NyD) party had won 6.7% in 1991 and won representation, and later supported, from the outside, the Bildt cabinet (which unenthusiastically accepted their support), but internal squabbles and the like destroyed it and it fell to 1% or so in 1994.
Though one will probably complain about the exclusion of the Pirates (PP), who hold two Europarl seats, they are unlikely to do well this time. The fact that the debate has shifted to serious issues and the furor over the Pirate Bay shutdown in 2009 ended, PP lacks an issue to play on. Higher turnout, much higher turnout, in this election also hurts the Pirates in that most of its voters are extremely committed activists, the type who bother to vote when nobody else does.
After the 2006 election, the government slipped well-behind the Red-Greens in poll, falling to a paltry 38.8% overall in Feb. 2008. A number of scandals concerning the personal behaviour of certain ministers and some infighting led to this drastic and marked decline in support for the Alliance, as well as a short-lived boost for Mona Sahlin, one of Sweden’s first female major party leaders. The government rebounded somewhat with the financial crisis, where Sweden has managed to do fairly well, thanks in part to Reinfeldt’s “work policy” described earlier. Furthermore, as soon as the opposition unveiled its proposals, the government retook the lead in polls. Mona Sahlin has never been vastly popular and the Red-Greens have struggled to find a pragmatic, reasonable voice in their opposition. Furthermore, a recent pronouncement by the government that it would not campaign on tax cuts but instead on increased spending for social welfare programs caught the left off-guard, and effectively derailed badly the left’s proposal to spend 12 billion more than whatever the government would pledge to spend on welfare. The bottom line is that a campaign on the economy is good for the right, and bad for the left (if only because it hasn’t come up with a reasonable platform on that line). Efforts by the left to shift the debate to welfare, where the left is still somewhat stronger, hasn’t worked. As for the underlying debate on immigration, it is largely assume that only SD will benefit from it given that there seems to be a general distrust of all parties, even traditionally ‘immigration-skeptic’ parties like M and S, by the anti-immigration voter.
Under coalition lines on the right, M is doing well while C and KD are struggling and FP doing decently (meaning staying at 2006 levels); meaning that the historic division of the right (a major aspect of Swedish politics) is slowly fading as Reinfeldt manages to make M a centre-right party with a vaster appeal. On the other hand, the Greens are doing especially well on the left, reaching 8-9%, while V is also doing slightly better (or stagnating) than they did in 2006 – all a reflection on the low appeal that Mona Sahlin or her party have, even with left-wing voters. There is also the possibility that M might in fact overtake S as the largest party, something which would be a major symbolic blow to the Social Democrats, for whom being the “biggest party” is a defining part of the party’s identity.
The high likelihood that SD will win seats (if not by clearing 4% then by clearing 12% in Skåne) means that there is also the possibility of the right losing its majority while remaining the largest bloc. There are a number of scenarios which emerge, including a small party from one coalition switching to the other (like the Greens switching over to the right), a centrist government of sorts, a Grand Coalition and finally a right-wing (or left-wing, if they’re the biggest party) minority government relying on intermittent support from SD. The first scenarios all have a bunch of flaws in them, meaning that the last scenario is the most likely one to emerge in case of a minority Parliament. It must be noted though that SD hates Mona Sahlin, so the idea of a left-SD deal of sorts is to be excluded right off the bat. A formal Alliance-SD deal of sorts is also extremely unlikely, of course.
Below is the latest Sifo poll, the last before tomorrow’s vote: