Neither a political party nor the people as a whole are likely to be declared the winner of the Swedish elections on September 14.
On September 14, Swedes went to the ballot box to cast their vote for candidates in elections to parliament, county councils and municipal assemblies. Naturally, they are an important neighbour of Estonia and the political winds there matter to us, especially in the current security situation.
Important electoral choices were ahead of the Swedes.A right-wing coalition had been in power for two consecutive terms of office. This was a remarkable achievement, but a third term would have been even more extraordinary. The key questions in these elections were the government’s ability to cooperate with others and the possibility of a red–green coalition, but also the usual topical questions such as employment, education, economic growth and social care.
First, Some Numbers
The quickest way to summarise the past year in Swedish politics is to recognise that support for the Social Democrats grew, whereas the governing alliance of four centre-right parties, the Alliance (in Swedish: Alliansen), lost votes. This trend reversed during the dash for the finish before the elections, but not enough to talk about victory or defeat for either side.
According to a survey conducted by the daily newspaper Svenska Dagbladet and research company Sifo, the difference between the support for left and right was 4.5 percent a week before the elections, and this turned out to be quite an accurate prediction of the election results.
There are 349 seats in the Riksdag. Before the elections, the Alliance held 173 seats, the red–greens 156 and the nationalist Sweden Democrats 20. After the elections, the new distribution will be 142, 158 and 49 seats respectively. The Social Democratic Party (in Swedish: Socialdemokraterna, S) garnered 31.2 percent of the votes, the Green Party (Miljöpartiet, MP) 6.8 percent, and the Left Party (Vänsterpartiet, V) 5.7 percent, making a total for the left wing of 43.7 percent. For the Alliance, the Moderate Party (Moderaterna, M) were supported by 23.2 percent, the Liberal People’s Party (Folkpartiet, F) by 5.4 percent, the Christian Democrats (Kristdemokraterna, KD) by 4.6 percent, and the Centre Party (Centerpartiet, C) by 6.1 percent. The total for the centre-right was therefore 39.3 percent.
The far-right Sweden Democrats (Sverigedemokraterna, SD) were remarkably successful: they managed to collect 12.9 percent of the votes, compared to 5.7 percent in the last elections. According to initial unconfirmed results, the vigorous left-wing newcomer, the Feminist Initiative (Feministiskt Initiativ, FI), was supported by 3.1 percent of the electorate.
The electoral threshold for parties to gain a seat in the Riksdag is 4 percent. Voter turnout was almost the same as last time—approximately 83 percent of the electorate.
Who Votes for Whom?
The Moderates are more likely to gain the vote of entrepreneurs, the young, and those who live and work in cities. They are supported by 18–23-year-olds (21 percent) and 24–29-year-olds (19 percent), entrepreneurs (27 percent), the Stockholm area (32 percent) and people in other large cities (31 percent), civil servants (31.4 percent) and those employed in the private sector (32 percent).
The Social Democrats get their votes mainly from rural areas, the working class and elderly people: adults in the age group of 50–64 (34 percent), 65-year-olds and above (39 percent). Support among younger people is, for example, about 16 percent; among people in small towns about 32 percent.
The Greens have the greatest support among the age group 18 to 23 (25 percent) and university students (28 percent). The Sweden Democrats also receive most support among the young (24–29-year-olds), at 17 percent. In September, a member of this party compared refugees to cannibals, referring to the recent Islamist execution videos in a manner offensive to many people.
The Red–Green Coalition
The Alliance had consistently increased their support in the final months, while support for the red–green coalition had declined. The last six elections have demonstrated that towards the end the governing party makes a certain dash: in 1994 this leap was 4.9 percent for the Moderates, but it was not enough then and this year it would have taken a rise twice as big to bridge the gap. The situation strongly favoured the opposition.
However, the individual success of the red–green parties would not in fact mark an electoral victory, probably not even a majority. The red–green coalition (S, MP, V) has not existed as such since November 2010, after the last elections, and people are sceptical about how it was formed. It involved the (former) communists of the Left Party, who oppose the European Union, and would harm the popularity of the Social Democrats. An alliance of other parties with the Greens alone would require difficult negotiations and major compromises from both sides but, in principle, a government could come of this. The Greens want an economic model which is not based on growth for Sweden and, additionally, fewer working hours (a 35-hour week), two additional months of paid paternity leave and a year of vacation paid for by the Unemployment Insurance Board. They also think that the use of nuclear and fossil fuels should be reduced (the Greens demand that four nuclear plants should be closed during the next mandate). This policy was, for example, absent from the 2010 red–green alliance’s manifesto.
Both the Greens and the Left Party would like to raise taxes but the Greens more so. Arms exports, fuel tax, immigration, shortening of working hours, closing down nuclear power plants, and defence spending would also cause disputes. All in all, according to experts the red–green parties lack a clear, agreed policy.
Social Democrats and Left-wing Tendencies
The target of the Social Democrats was to collect 35 percent of the vote. The last time their support was this big was in October 2013. Although they are still the most popular political party, their position just before the elections is one of the worst in history—with support lingering around 29–30 percent. The best result so far of Stefan Löfven, who has been leading the Social Democrats since 2012, has been 38 percent and his lowest score was 28 percent. Moreover, after the last elections (30.6 percent of the votes), the then leader, Mona Sahlin, resigned.
Presumably, most of the SD votes have been lost to the Greens and the Feminists, but also to the extreme-right Sweden Democrats. It is likely that the Sweden Democrats, headed by Jimmie Åkesson, will turn out to be the party holding the balance—in other words, an important “empty space” with whom no one wants to collaborate and who at the same time prevents others from achieving a majority. Åkesson said at the end of August that his target was the allegedly weak red–green government. He does not support them or the Alliance, but in his own words he only wishes to shift the balance. The Sweden Democrats would cooperate with the Alliance on defence matters and with the Social Democrats on questions related to pensions and the Unemployment Insurance Board.
The populist Sweden Democrats, who draw support from the opposition to immigration and discontent with the status quo, may be the pariah party but they still get their votes from somewhere (let us recall the riots). In turn, their support and activity cause concern and debate. At this year’s annual Almedalen Week in Visby, the most talked-about topics were racism and Nazism. Previously, matters related to employment and education had been top of the list. Antjé Jackelén, the first female Archbishop in Sweden, made a speech on behalf of the Church of Sweden, which received a warm welcome and even an award, cautioning against the anger and intolerance growing in Swedish society. People care about these issues, and SD uses this in a negative way while FI tries to use it in a positive way, as was demonstrated by social media surveys.
According to political theorist Ulf Bjerdel, the Social Democrats are torn between two sides: by positioning themselves on the left they are afraid of losing the centre-minded regular voters; discussing climate change and equal rights, however, would presumably increase support for the Greens and the Feminists.
Political theorist Jonas Hinnfors at the University of Gothenburg points out that the Social Democrats have become too cautious. This has not been beneficial, either according to opinion polls, or taking into account the fact that new niche parties have emerged on the left of the political spectrum whose strong messages the Social Democrats either do not dare or do not know how to adopt. The negotiations over a coalition would make clear how divergent the requests of the Social Democrats and other left-wing parties are. Although a potential red–green alliance might collect more votes than the right wing, this strategy would risk the Social Democrats getting their worst result for a long time.
Nothing has worked. Last year Löfven promised that by 2020 Sweden would have the lowest unemployment rate in the EU. This changed nothing. The Social Democrats revealed their manifesto extremely late, like the Alliance, but the latter still won this waiting game, which was named the “chicken race” by the media. Since they wish to raise taxes, there are proposals about schools, employment and welfare, but nothing major. The Alliance listed the appeal to accept more refugees. Prime Minister Reinfeldt (of the Moderate Party) asked the people to “open their hearts” and be more understanding about refugees at a time of several serious crises in the world.
This was discussed extensively in August, and the Moderates’ tactics brought changes but not to a major degree. The Social Democrats have not even mentioned the issue—not because of their opposing views but because of campaign tactics: there is no need to take the bait and have the Prime Minister lead the debate. The cost of reforms demanded by the Social Democrats totals 40 billion kronor (up to 2018), and they wish to raise taxes and do away with the concessions made by the Alliance so far. The cost of the latest reforms has been 13 billion kronor.
Even Thomas Piketty, an internationally noted French economist, was brought to Almedalen in the summer to perform on behalf of the Social Democrats. Among other things, he recommended restoring the inheritance tax and wealth tax. According to Piketty, this would help relieve inequality and make society more transparent since it would help to create a better picture of the differences between people’s income and assets. (The inheritance tax was repealed in 2004 by the Social Democrats and the wealth tax in 2007 by the Alliance.)
So, some new minor parties have gained support but they are rather seen as the symptom of the right-wing’s fatigue or a general, undefined discontent. According to an analysis by the journal Fokus, two major parties have already lost the elections beforehand because they have not recognised the recent expectations of society or managed to take considerable advantage of each other’s decreasing support. Instead, the Feminists, who fight for equality, have emerged on that vague platform and support for the Greens and Sweden Democrats has increased. Even a new, more radical and racist extreme-right party has been created: Svenskarnas parti—Party of the Swedes.
There is an odd balance on the political landscape: the old and major parties either cannot or do not want to adopt the messages of the minor parties sufficiently, or do not understand their background; at the same time, their messages are used enough to keep the minor parties from entering the game. According to a poll by Radio Sweden, 33 percent of Swedes considered themselves to be feminists in 2010, but this year it is already 47 percent. As a political party, however, the support for the Feminist Initiative lingers around the electoral threshold.
The Alliance was created in 2006 and includes four political parties. During the last term they operated successfully as a minority government.
Centerpartiet, the centre-right social-liberal Centre Party, was the biggest right-wing party in the 1970s and 1980s. Its chairwoman is Annie Lööf, the current Minister for Enterprise. Centerpartiet’s priority is tax benefits for employing domestic help and cleaning services (the system offering tax benefits rut—rengöring, underhåll och tvätt—cleaning, maintenance and laundering), which has enabled the workforce to grow.
Folkpartiet, or the Liberal People’s Party, was the largest right-wing party from the 1940s to the 1970s. Jan Björklund, chairman of the party and current Minister for Education, proposed in 2012 that in 10 to 15 years’ time Chinese (Mandarin) would be taught in Swedish schools. In relation to his concerns we might note the results of the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) test, which surprised all of Sweden last year: Sweden’s average score of 491 points was lower than the OECD average (500 points). One contested suggestion has been to start grading in the fourth year. Among other things, Björklund has expressed the wish that Swedish schools should talk more about communist crimes. The Left Party, of course, opposes this.
Naturally, there is some friction within the coalition. For example, at the request of the Liberal People’s Party, the Alliance’s manifesto, which was revealed remarkably late on September 1, did not include the Christian Democrats’ request to establish a third month of paid paternity leave. The Christian Democrats (KD) is a centre-right party that advocates low taxes and less regulation. Their chairman, Göran Hägglund, the Minister for Health and Social Affairs, would also like to improve access to health care services through a greater degree of centralisation. KD’s wish is to guarantee housing at a seniors centre to everyone older than 85 years.
At the moment, the driver of the Alliance is the largest right-wing party that favours low taxes and economic liberalism—the Moderate Party. Their chairman, Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, has stressed two things about the party during the election period: concern for the economy, and the ability to govern as a coalition while being a minority government during the last term. Polls suggest that people trust the Moderates on economic matters, but in other areas the Social Democrats are rather seen as the authority.
Comparing Reinfeldt and Löfven, the Prime Minister is trusted on foreign policy (61 percent vs. 19 percent), leading the government’s work (41 percent vs. 34 percent) and steering Sweden through the economic crisis (43 percent vs. 29 percent). The Moderates have good ideas about improving the economy, transport, defence policy and many other things, but it is as if they lack an inspiring vision. It is believed that Löfven will provide a better future than Reinfeldt (49 percent vs. 28 percent). In other words, it seems that people want something new, but don’t know exactly what it is. Taking everything into account, it is unnecessary to say that a third term of office will be difficult to achieve.
(In 2011, on the 20th anniversary of the restoration of Estonian independence, Reinfeldt apologised to the prime ministers of Estonia and other Baltic countries on behalf of Sweden, and said at a ceremony in Stockholm that Sweden owed those countries a “debt of honour”.)
Jobs always occupy an important place in Swedish elections, along with questions about education and social welfare. The Alliance has managed to increase employment during the economic crisis (according to Statistics Sweden, there are 300,000 more jobs than in 2006). The employment rate among 20–64-year-olds is 80 percent. As of last year, this is among the highest in the EU. In addition, taxes have been lowered and tax benefits provided, leading to continuous economic growth. In 2007, gross domestic product (GDP) was 3.4 trillion Swedish kronor (SEK), while in 2013 it was SEK 3.6 trillion.
Economic growth in 2013 was 1.6 percent, and in 2014 growth of 2.5 percent is expected. National debt was SEK 1,270 billion in 2006 and in 2014 it is SEK 1,260 billion, 45 and 36 percent of GDP respectively.
The unemployment rate is currently 7.1 percent. Unemployment was highest in July 2009 (9.8 percent); on average the figures have remained around 8 percent. All parties admit that this is too high and that the matter needs to be dealt with immediately and decisively.
A lot of bets have been made on economic performance during the elections. Leo de Bruin, adviser to the Moderate Party in the Riksdag, explained that the possible left-wing state of mind might have more to do with the Left, the Greens and the Feminists being more vocal than the people that support their opinions. The Alliance believes that economic growth, reasonable fiscal policies and a reduction in unemployment will guarantee the funds for social well-being (i.e. it cannot be financed by loans).
The Question of Governing
Discussions about the ability to govern help the Alliance, as they have managed to keep their four-headed coalition vital and successful. The Social Democrats do not talk about how and with whom they would rule. The Alliansen, however, will not approve a government that cannot go through with the budget or win parliamentary support. It was only last year that Reinfeldt said that if the opposition did better than them, they would resign. This year the story has changed slightly. They are reminding people that there is quite a long tradition of minority governments and, taking into consideration the continually growing number of political parties, it is important to cooperate and give the (already agreed upon) government your trust, in order not to hinder running the country too much. This is called negative parliamentarism: it is not important to have the majority on your side, but what matters the most is that the majority does not vote against you.
The Social Democrats have been saying tirelessly that the government has to work with the Sweden Democrats, while de facto depending on their grace. The right-wing parties have always stressed that they do not wish to cooperate with them but instead “isolate” them. DN has also viewed Löfven’s accusations as without foundation. In autumn 2013, the Social Democrats and the extreme right-wingers voted the same clauses out of the budget. Reinfeldt said that, by doing so, the Social Democrats had dug their own grave for the foreseeable future. The Alliance hit back through the media: if the Social Democrats lost the elections, would they also be willing to isolate the Sweden Democrats and give their approval for the current government to continue?
Defence Policy and NATO
There is not much talk about defence policy in Sweden before the elections, although around Easter the topic received more attention due to the Russian military flights in the vicinity of Sweden. In social media, defence was sixth in popularity at the Almedalen Week, behind immigration, employment, education, child welfare and governmental issues.
The Christian Democrats want to discuss the question of NATO membership with other parties. The Centre Party also wants a discussion but the Social Democrats will not even agree to talk about the matter. Reinfeldt, who is open to the matter at least in words, does not want to rush: the Moderate Party is in favour of it but they are taking some time out, saying that two out of eight parties is not enough support for joining.
The Folkpartiet wants to join NATO. Björklund would like to start negotiations as soon as the next mandate. In August he wrote an article with Finland’s Minister of Defence Carl Haglund, in which they called for both countries to discuss the matter. The Alliansen as a whole wishes to increase defence spending.
However, there have also been some complaints from the right that the country is getting close to NATO step-by-step through cooperation, without any discussion taking place. At the end of August, Minister for Defence Karin Enström signed an agreement that allows NATO troops on Sweden’s territory if necessary. The NATO summit gave Sweden the so-called golden ticket. Ratification in parliament would take months but fortunately the Social Democrats have not opposed this. The entire left-wing opposes NATO membership, and only the Social Democrats would want to increase defence spending.
In conclusion, it is difficult to foresee the winner a week before the elections. Parliamentary chaos is predicted, irrespective of which side gathers the most votes. No one will achieve a majority because of the Sweden Democrats.
Unless, that is, the Feminists cross the election threshold—it became apparent during the weekend before the elections that this is exactly what might happen. This possibility could prompt Social Democrat supporters to cast their vote for the Feminists. Just a few votes would do. A red–green–pink coalition, though, was still considered only a theoretical possibility a week before the elections.
Whether Löfven or Reinfeldt becomes prime minister, they will still have a weak mandate, unless a miracle happens. One of them would need to include the Left Party, not as a member of the coalition—which would be the only way to guarantee a majority—but simply as an ally in parliament. Parliamentary approval may turn out to depend of the Sweden Democrats. Calling a new election could also be considered, in extremis.
It is unlikely that the situation will be resolved by the large number of voters who still have not expressed a preference but of whom about half would vote for the Alliansen. If Löfven forms a minority government, the right-wingers might refuse to support it, although by so doing they would risk giving the impression that they are not able to give up power.
One of Alliansen’s options is to let Löfven drive himself into a corner with a weak and reluctant coalition and then return to power at the next elections—whether these are in a year, a few years or four years. Once more: if a minority government, whatever its colour, cannot go through with the budget in parliament, it is finished. Here, though, the Sweden Democrats might enter the game, but of course their “weight” as the balance of power depends on the results of the elections.
The voters’ last-minute decisions could also bring the Feminists into parliament and they could, although with great difficulty, be included in a red–green government. The red–greens might then hold the majority. But very divergent demands might tempt the Social Democrats to govern alone—highly unlikely, but possible. The so-called grand coalition of the sosses and the Alliance is not expected.
If this deadlock ever ends, no matter under whose rule, the election results must be correctly interpreted and the content of the resulting mandate evaluated. What is it that the people actually wanted? It is unlikely that the results of the elections on September 14 will provide a clear answer. So, neither a political party nor the people are likely to be declared the winner of these elections. Ground-breaking times are ahead in every respect.
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.