Sweden held general and local elections on September 19 (last Sunday), which resulted in yet another indecisive election following the trend set a month ago by Australia and the United Kingdom in early May. In terms of overall results, the governing centre-right coalition has recorded a small swing towards it but the entrance of the far-right Sweden Democrats in Parliament has entailed that the government has lost its majority. It has also seen the worst result for Swedish social democracy since 1914.
S – Social Democrats 30.66% (-4.33%) winning 112 seats (-18)
M – Moderate Party 30.06% (+3.83%) winning 107 seats (+10)
MP – Green Party 7.34% (+2.09%) winning 25 seats (+6)
FP – Liberal People’s Party 7.06% (-0.48%) winning 24 seats (-4)
C – Centre Party 6.56% (-1.32%) winning 23 seats (-6)
SD – Sweden Democrats 5.70% (+2.77%) winning 20 seats (+20)
V – Left Party 5.60% (-0.24%) winning 19 seats (-3)
KD – Christian Democrats 5.60% (-0.99%) winning 19 seats (-5)
ÖVR – Others 1.43% (-1.32%) winning 0 seats (nc)
turnout 84.63% (+2.64%)
Alliance 49.27% (+1.03) winning 173 seats (-5)
Red-Greens 43.60% (-2.48%) winning 156 seats (-15)
As expected, the government saw a swing to it, albeit a small one overall, a swing which was quasi-entirely to the profit of the Moderates, the leading party of the four-party Alliance. On the other hand, the Red-Greens did quite poorly, and, in the case of the Social Democrats, extremely poorly especially when placed in historical context. Finally, the far-right Sweden Democrats won their best result ever, which allowed them to enter Parliament and act, on paper at least, as kingmakers.
The results indicate that although the government doesn’t have the majority it needs to govern comfortably outright, it remains rather popular, and, for the Swedish right, extremely popular. The Moderate Party (and its conservative ancestors) have never won as high a percentage in an election since 1914, and this government is the first right-wing government which has managed to win re-election in decades (although there aren’t many examples of right-wing governments in Sweden since the 1930s). This reflects the popularity of the government, undoubtedly buoyed by the fact that Sweden is one of the best EU countries in terms of economic numbers right now and is experiencing rather important growth (one of the highest, if not the highest in the OECD) when few other European governments can say the same. Sweden’s budget could even boast a surplus next year, something few countries in Europe and the west as a whole can boast of right now (quite the contrary). The government’s numbers suffered a bit right when the markets crashed in the United States in 2008, but now, when people are asked who they prefer to be steering the economy, they give the right a pretty big advantage on that – as these elections have showed. In addition, the government’s popularity also has a lot to do with the competence of its amiable leader, Fredrik Reinfeldt, who has managed to keep the government together and avoid the four parties from falling out with each other and feuding amongst themselves as they had done in the 1970s and in the early 90s. The last right-wing government in Sweden, the 1991-1994 Carl Bildt cabinet, had been dogged not only by infighting but also an economic crisis which gave food to the idea that the Swedish right wrecked the economy and that the Social Democrats were the only competent managers (which isn’t entirely true). Arguably, the division of the right and the Social Democrat’s strong reputation as economic managers allowed them to stay strong in the late 90s and the first years of the 2000s, but that has since been hindered by the new united right invented by Reinfeldt and since then by the right’s strong economic management. The left, of course, has also hurt itself by having Mona Sahlin as its top leader, a rather incompetent one at that, and also by divisions between its three components, especially with the ex-communist Left. The success of the Greens within the left, which has propelled it to become the third largest party, should not be too surprising considering that the party’s leadership is rather competent and is a perfect party for loyal Red-Greens who are nonetheless not too keen on Mona Sahlin.
This isn’t the death of Swedish social democracy, however. Aside from the fact that these pronouncements are often quite stupid, an analysis of the results and of the Swedish right shows that Swedes haven’t become teabaggers or Thatcherites. Much emphasis must be put on the fact that a lot of the changes in Swedish politics since 2006 or so are caused more by the transformation of the right rather than the transformation of voters. Similarly to what David Cameron has done in the United Kingdom, the Swedish right has accepted the modern welfare model and has understood that any talk of abolishing it or radically altering it is not a vote-getting strategy. The right has just placed more emphasis on jobs and finances, introducing popular and rather successful tax policies to encourage work. It must also be noted, however, that in Sweden and other places, people are now less concerned with defending the welfare model than they are by jobs or immigrations. It was widely believed that the economic crisis would provide a quasi-universal boost for social democrats, on the other hand, it has provided no such noticeable effect and has instead bred an anti-incumbent in a lot of countries.
The other marking fact of this election, if not the marking fact itself, is the entry of the Swedish Democrats (SD) into Parliament. They have picked up on some growing distaste for immigration from traditionally low-income or old working-class white voters. This isn’t, however, the first far-right protest movement in Sweden. The last such movement, the ephemeral NyD (1991-1994) died out as soon as it won 24 seats in the 1991. Such trends allow us to think that there has been underlying anti-immigration sentiment in (southern) Sweden for at least a decade or so, though not necessarily one that entails a consistent far-right vote. SD’s transformation from a fringe neo-Nazi skinhead party to a slightly more educated and less barbarian party has undoubtedly played an important role in its success, past (2006) and present. Excluding Iceland, this now means that all Scandinavian countries (and Finland) have far-right representation in Parliament, though Sweden is nowhere near the levels of the Danish People’s Party. The Danish experience, where DF has practically steered the government’s immigration policy since 2001, has scared some observers into worrying that SD could take up DF’s role in Sweden.
The results leave the Alliance only two seats short of an overall majority, something which would, only on paper though, make SD the kingmakers. There seems to be consensus between the two coalitions to isolate SD and to ensure that it does not gain important leverage in Parliament. Reinfeldt has time and time again denounced SD, and the left has obviously no affection for SD. Because Swedish law says that a government can continue to govern until it has lost a parliamentary vote, the most likely outcome is a Reinfeldt minority government. Though Reinfeldt has publicly said that he’d like to win the Greens over to his government, the Greens have categorically refused these overtures and has said that it would not work with the Alliance (while also stating they would never work with SD). He could still depend on vote-by-vote support from the Greens (or SD) depending on the circumstances, but it is likely that the Alliance will find its second term a lot harder than its first term. There is little precedent in Sweden for snap elections after a government has lost the support of the majority of MPs, but a lot of that comes from the fact that, with a few exceptions, the governing coalition had a majority and party discipline usually ensured that there would be no chance of a government collapsing thanks to backbenchers or rebels. It isn’t however impossible that this government could face the voters earlier than 2014.
Swedish voting patterns have historically been easily explainable by class distinctions, and truth be told, this election isn’t much different. The right found most of its largest base of support in the affluent suburbs of major cities (places such as Danderyd and Lidingö near Stockholm or Vellinge and Båstad near Malmö – all of which were some of the right’s strongest areas) or in the less industrial rural areas of southern Sweden. With a 26.2% margin in its favour, Stockholm County (which in this case excludes Stockholm proper) was the Alliance’s strongest area. The left’s vote gradually decreased the further south you got, with Norrbotten, the northernmost county in Sweden, giving the Red-Greens a 37.8% margin over the Alliance. The Swedish left – S in particular – historically finds most of its strength in small towns and industrial centres in central and northern Sweden, as well as in some cities such as Malmö; a trend which correlates with the pattern of Swedish industrialization being based in small towns rather than large towns or urban conglomerations.
Apart from Gotland, which isn’t on the mainland anyway, the right won all the constituencies in southern Sweden aside from Blekinge, whose small population is more working-class than the rest of the region. The left, S in particular, did particularly badly in Skåne and in Malmö. Malmö, which had backed the Red-Greens by a 3.1% margin not only backed the Alliance narrowly but placed M ahead of S in the town, a major blow to the Social Democrats in one of their old strongholds. Outside Malmö, the left was demolished, losing the three electoral constituencies which make up Skåne by margins ranging from 12.8% to 24.4%. Immigration is a particularly big issue in Skåne, and, to add to that, a lot of the left’s strength in Skåne comes from declining small industrial centres with high unemployment, which is the breeding ground for SD (and the European far-right in general). It shouldn’t be surprising that some of SD’s strongest showings in Skåne – in towns such as Bjuv (14.9%) and Bromölla (15.4%) – are in old industrial centres. That being said, SD also did very well in rural Skåne, which explains why some have described SD’s voter as rural unemployed youth.
Looking at the results by party, quickly, one notices the close correlation between M and FP – nowadays these parties largely fish in the same pool – but a weak correlation between C and M or even between M and KD. C’s base continues to be in rural areas, including some traditionally left-wing rural areas, and it remains disproportionately weak in urban centres – winning just 2.8% in Malmö and 3.8% in Göteborg. However, C won 6.3% in Stockholm city, a result which is somewhat unusual for a farmer’s party in a major urban centre. That factoid – and the related factoid that C’s vote increased in both the Riksdag and municipal elections in Stockholm – is possibly a sign of the successful transformation of the party into a modern centrist green party. As for KD, the party clearly remains rather confined to Sweden’s Bible Belt and its heart in Jönköping County, where KD won 12.9% of the vote, which is nearly double its second best result. More amusingly, remnants of free churches-voting-FP in Västerbotten (where KD also did well while M did really poorly) is also quite amusing.
An interesting pattern in the results here is that the senior government party – M – picked up votes based on the popularity of its leader with the swing voter, but it didn’t squash the smaller parties. Many had thought that, as sometimes/usually happens with junior coalition partners, the largest party would pick up votes from the smaller parties. That may say a lot about the remarkably stable (overall) bases of party support in Sweden, but it also does say something about the competence of the smaller parties’ leaderships and their ability to find a voice in government. That being said, none of the smaller parties in the Alliance performed spectacularly and in fact M was the only party not to lose percentage wise (FP picked up 2,129 votes but lost 0.48% – higher turnout is the main culprit).
It shouldn’t be surprising that MP did best in urban areas, with a high of 12.2% in Stockholm and second-best in Göteborg (with 10.7%). It also did well in other rather middle-class urban areas (often those with a university), such as Uppsala but also Visby (on the island of Gotland, a place I know little about). Gotland is also the only county which voted for the right in 2006 but went to the left this time, albeit only by a tiny 0.4% margin.
On a final note on the other parties in this election, they did very poorly overall. The Pirates won only 0.65%, up a mere 0.02%, while the two other “big” small parties – Feminist Initiative (a rather insane radical fringe feminist party) and the Pensioners did worse than in 2006, losing 0.28% and 0.33% respectively. Junilistan, the Eurosceptic party which had done well in the 2004 EU elections (but got decimated in 2009) won a mere ten votes though the elections site says they weren’t on an ordered ballot, whatever that means.
Counting for local elections is far from over – they’re still in the early stages of re-canvassing results from the County Council elections, but, as in 2006, S did better in the local elections than in the national elections. The left had usually done worse in local elections – where local single-issue parties often do very well – than in national elections, but this is the second time in a row that the opposite has happened. Based on election night results, S has 33.1% against 27.3% for M, with FP in third (7.5%) ahead of the Greens (6.7%). C has 6.2%, V has 5.7%, KD has 5.1%, SD has 4.6% and others have 3.8%. That gives the left 45.5% against 46.1% for the left. If anything, it’s good proof for the theory that Mona Sahlin herself cost S a good bit of support, some of which switched over to the Greens. Without Sahlin as a major player, S did better in the local elections and the Greens did more poorly. SD has also done well on the local level, which is of some interest in that it shows that the party may not be (for now), a protest party confined exclusively to one level of government (as happens with a lot of those protest outfits, eg, the Pirates). In another trend of municipal elections, M lost votes – sometimes a lot – in its strongholds such as Vellinge (-17.7%), Danderyd (-8.4%) and even Stockholm (-2.7%) – to the benefit of FP, SD and in Vellinge, a local party. Most of the places where M lost ground are very wealthy, and nobody really knows why they lost votes, apart from local factors and potentially unpopular local administrations.
SD first blipped on the radar in the town of Landskrona in Skåne, a multi cultural working-class town hurt by the decline of shipbuilding. In the 2006 local elections, they had won 22% of the vote. I don’t know which role they played in the council, but the results after four years of a significant SD presence in legislature could be interesting if only to see what the future holds for SD and national Swedish politics. If Landskrona is any indication, SD could possibly not cheer for long. Indeed, the party’s vote receded by 6.5% to reach 15.8%, a trend which has – in Landskrona at least – benefited FP whose vote grew by 7.6% and won 30.1% of the vote overall. S also picked up steam a bit, winning back 2.1% of the vote, but M’s vote fell.
The second term of the Reinfeldt government will be interesting to watch, as it will likely provide answers as to the fate of far-right politics in Sweden (down the Danish road or down the NyD road), the fate of Swedish social democracy (and the Scandinavian model) and the Swedish right.