Better in one way, worse in another
Bernard Porter · The Swedish Election
Yesterday I voted in my first Swedish election – not for the parliament, as I’m only a resident, not a citizen, but for my Kommun, and for the local health authority. It was held in our neighbourhood school. There was a stall outside selling coffee, sandwiches and buns, staffed by the schoolchildren and their parents. You get the same sort of thing if you deliver your tax return in person to Skattehuset on the deadline; almost a carnival atmosphere, with hot dog stalls and the like. People were sitting around in the autumn sun discussing how they had voted; I don’t ever remember seeing that in England. This was social citizenship on display. Maybe it’s why Sweden regularly gets turnouts of over 80 per cent (around 83 per cent this time).
I’ve not yet found out how the local elections went. But you’ll know about the nationals. The centre-right Alliance did better in one way, worse in another. It increased its share of the vote, but lost its overall majority, because the far right Sweden Democrats (Sverigedemokraterna) for the first time got over the 4 per cent bar that entitles them to seats. Both the main coalitions have stated unequivocally that they will not enter into any kind of arrangement with it (on SVT last night the Left leader, Lars Ohly, refused to go into the same make-up room as the Sweden Democrat leader before his interview) but the far right theoretically holds the balance. How this will work out has yet to be seen. It is difficult to envision them voting with the Red-Greens against Reinfeldt’s government on any issue. But they could make things difficult for it, especially on immigration. If the worst came to the worst (or maybe the best to the best), the government could call another election, if a majority in parliament agreed.
If that happens, there is no certainty that last night’s result will be repeated. Only two years ago the Red-Green Alliance was miles ahead. But the Social Democrats fought a dire campaign – I don’t know about you, but as a slogan ‘I can’t wait’ (Jag kan inte vänta) doesn’t exactly fire me up; ‘OK dear, we’ll stop at the next lay-by’ – and the Centre-Right government benefited from the strength of the Swedish economy, compared for example with Britain’s (my pounds these days are worth fewer kronor than they have ever been), even if the foundations for that were laid in Social Democratic days. The dominant Conservatives in the Alliance have also been quite Machiavellian in their propaganda methods, calling themselves the ‘true workers’ party’ and ‘nya Moderaten’: obviously a trick learned from Tony Blair.
It might not work again. There’s encouragement for the left in some of the voting figures: they did far better than the right among women, people under 30 and first-time voters. The Social Democrats are also still the largest single party in parliament, if only by a fraction of a percentage point, at around 30 per cent. (That’s 10 per cent lower than eight years ago.) The Greens go from strength to (relative) strength. On the right, nearly all the gains were made by the Conservatives (Moderaten: 15 per cent up over the last two elections), with Centerpartiet, Folkpartiet (Liberals) and Kristdemokraterna all stagnant or down. Silly parties like Piraten (free downloads for nerds), which did surprisingly well in the last European elections, sank without trace. Indeed, one of the most striking features of the last two contests, taken together, is the way a two-party system seems to be emerging. Future outcomes are unpredictable.
What to make of the success of Sverigedemokraterna? There are some easy ways to explain it. Its leader, Jimmy Åkesson, is young and fresh-faced (unlike Nick Griffin), which may have lulled some voters. Discontent among the unemployed could account for much of their vote. Lars Ohly, asked about it on that interview after his refusal to be made up with Åkesson, saw it as part of a Europe-wide phenomenon, exacerbated by the recession and the whittling away of welfare states. Resentment against immigration is obviously the main overt reason for the SD’s rise, fomented by reports in the tabloid press of ‘honour killings’ and other crimes in immigrant neighbourhoods.
But perhaps we shouldn’t get this out of perspective. Sweden has a higher proportion of immigrants than almost any other European country: 15 per cent of a total population of nine million, with 100,000 entering each year. Yet its anti-immigrant party is far smaller, with just 5.7 per cent of the vote, than in Denmark, where the Dansk Folkeparti got 13.8 per cent in 2007 and 15.3 per cent in the Euros; or in Norway, whose ‘Progress’ party took second place, with 22 per cent, in 2009. One problem here is that these parties are not strictly comparable; Norway’s Progress party, for example, doesn’t have the neo-Nazi historical baggage carried by Sverigedemokraterna. Nonetheless, against these figures, 5 per cent doesn’t look all that alarming. Especially as most of it is found in Skåne in the far south of Sweden – Kurt Wallander country – which many Stockholmers regard as virtually Denmark in any case.