Sweden’s Turn for the Worse

Alan Brownjohn

The young man from the Russian Republic who had come to the Stockholm election wake had also, rather surprisingly, witnessed the final days of the Walton by-election in Liverpool. ‘Well, I am confused,’ he replied bemusedly to the obvious question. ‘I thought democracy was one style, and it is many.’ He would not be drawn on which he preferred, or on whether anything he had seen in the West could be adapted to his own circumstances. He was still digesting the differences between British and Swedish elections, from the door-step activity at the grass roots all the way up to the manner in which campaigns are presented and reported on television.

The first sign of a triennial Swedish general election is a sudden rush of political home-building in public places. Since the date is fixed – always the third Sunday in September – the parties are well-prepared, and from early August they are busy constructing their outdoor committee rooms. Each one is a bright new pinewood hut, something like an ostentatiously handsome garden shed, housing a table, chairs, shelves, a telephone, trunkloads of election materials – and a representative who will argue his case volubly, and perhaps offer coffee or one of the party sweets manufactured specially for the campaign.

The big indoor rally has almost disappeared from Swedish elections, and the calm, almost casual treatment of election news on television (as distinct from the formalised party debates) does not encourage the staging of media spectaculars. Recently one special kind of small outdoor meeting has become an expected ritual. Two party speakers each take a hand microphone, position themselves a few metres apart, and conduct an energetic double act to draw a crowd. If a crowd does form (usually in a decorous circle not too near to the orators) a microphone will be offered to someone, with an invitation to join in the dialogue.

As often as not, this results in a flood of eloquence or anger which is heard with patience and answered with good temper, without the roughness of British political interchange, the heckling and the suppression of hecklers. It is common to see political rivals – a cabinet minister and his shadow, for example – conducting a vigorous open-air session in a shopping precinct. All very well-mannered, the essence of Nordic politeness? Yes, but also curiously intent and passionate, the sign of a quietly thorough political interest: much more social life centres on political parties and their off-shoot organisations than in Britain. A shudder of concern went through the Swedish media when as few as 85 per cent bothered to vote in this year’s election (compare that with 75 per cent in Britain in 1987 and a little over 50 per cent in the last American Presidential election). About half the population of Sweden watched the grand final of the campaign, the television debate in which leaders of eight political parties made their final appeal to voters. Positions at the two long tables in the studio, allocated by drawing lots, were uncomfortably close. The Green and the Conservative, the Count representing the new Right and the building worker who leads the refurbished, ex-Communist Left Party, literally rubbed shoulders. The Social Democrats, as the governing party (with more to answer for), had two representatives They found themselves sitting not in the centre, to which they are accused of drifting, but out on the edge.

In a way impossible to imagine of British politicians, everyone kept to the simple ground rules and submitted to the discipline of the chairman: Olle Stenholm, in the hot seat, said or did nothing at all on his own account – no leading questions in the style of Sir Robin, no Paxmanite raised eyebrows. His job, performed perfectly, was to instruct (no, not invite) speakers to answer each other; and monitor to the second the share of time they were taking. ‘Answer that in 28 seconds, Bengt Westerberg,’ he coolly told the Liberal leader at one point; and rapped the table when Westerberg finished his last sentence on 32.

This year, with what seemed like fine, old-fox cunning, the Social Democrats fielded dry, fatherly authority in the person of Prime Minister Ingvar Carlsson, offset by the youthful freshness of Mona Sahlin, the charismatic 33-year-old Employment Minister who could easily be leading the Party (and the Government?) by the end of the Nineties. She had every trick in the book, and every statistic. ‘You are trying to hide behind my skirts,’ she told the Centre Party leader, Olof Johansson, who had been a bit cagey on welfare policy, ‘and I warn you, they are very short!’ According to the telephone polls taken by the evening newspapers, she wiped the floor with all the opposition.

For all that, when Swedes went to the polls in what has to be the most meticulously fair electoral system in the world, they dismissed the Social Democrats, and translated their contradictory reasons for doing so into atrocious electoral luck and abundant confusion. The result was the one most dreaded by all the traditional parties: the balance between the Centre-Right and the Centre-Left, two implacably opposed blocs, was held by the most unpredictable of newcomers, a seven-month old party of the Right which has yet to define what it is for itself (their representatives sitting in the pinewood huts had often been party members for as little as a few days).

The valvaka, the election wake, is the traditional, nervously cheerful drinks party which spans the ever-diminishing period between the closing of the polls and the arrival of the first computer predictions on television. On election night the cameras never go to the counts, which are in any case formidably complex, lacking in personality interest in the large, multi-member constituencies, and dependent on the opening of huge quantities of postal votes. They visit the wake at each party head-quarters, and chart with dreadful accuracy the rising or sinking spirits. With the increasing infallibility of the computers the prevailing mood sets in early.

By about ten-thirty on the night of 15 September it was clear that Swedes had voted for a shift to the right: but done so with something worse than their customary reluctance to provide their ‘bourgeois’ party bloc with enough seats to replace the ‘socialist’ parties. Twenty-five seats and the balance (with a mere 6.7 per cent of the votes) had been presented to New Democracy. No other party was prepared to say it could co-operate with them. With an astonishing, unprecedented display of political disdain, the leaders of the Liberal, Centre and Christian Democrat parties walked out of the TV studio when the representatives of the New Democrats arrived; only Carl Bildt, the Conservative leader, remained behind. ‘Can we go now?’ Westerberg was heard to mutter. Next day he explained that he had not been prepared to sit on the same sofa with the new party ‘and look like a kind of government’.

New Democracy is an unpleasant child of the Swedish recession and right-wing impatience with the gradualist style of Swedish politics. Founded by Count Ian Wachtmeister, an aristocratic industrialist, and Bert Carlsson a pleasure-garden entrepreneur, it has set out to be the ‘fun’ party of public clowning, pop concerts and relaxed liquor laws. It has some appeal to those who cannot take complicated discussion and want their politics simple, though how many of those it persuaded to abandon the ‘stay-at-home party’ and vote for ‘Ian and Bert’ is not clear. Its background is the campaign activity of free enterprise organisations like the New Welfare Society, a rightwing think-tank supported by several members of the employers’ federation

According to Sture Nordh, chairman of the large local government officer’ union, which stands to lose badly if anyone in a future government takes the New Democrats’ opinions of officials seriously (not a likely outcome), the employers began backing away from the new party when the racist implications of their statements became clear. Racist sentiment was not expressed as directly as it is by openly anti-immigrant groups in south Sweden (where one egregious figure gained over 6 per cent, much the same as the New Democrats nationally; 12 per cent of local support would have given him a seat in the Riksdag). The tactic is to insist: we want immigrants who will work hard – perhaps people from the Baltic states? – and if they have somewhere to live, we will give them a loan, and a work permit. If they commit crimes they should, of course, be deported. We think it a scandal that many retired Swedes have less to live on than some present immigrants, that unemployment has been so high among young men.

The New Democrats also make the essential routine gestures towards the family and the environment. Is this unsavoury mixture what the politics of ‘fun’ means to disillusioned young Swedish conservatives and Social Democrats (who provided Ian and Bert with 34 per cent and 28 per cent of their votes respectively)? It looks like a Poujadism for the Nineties, not Rock against Racism but Rock for the Free Market. Its style is coarse. Bert Carlsson earned a sharp rebuke from the Swedish Speaker for getting inside the Riksdag chamber the morning after he was elected and having himself photographed with thumbs up and feet up.

The parliamentary stance of his fellow New Democrat MPs, Sweden’s own Essex men, is impossible to forecast. Strangers to each other, they do not look as if they can hold together as a disciplined group. But they would make uncomfortable companions for the orthodox Right if they broke up in frustration and tried to shift across and join the Conservatives. Too many conversions of that kind would alienate the smaller parties on whom Carl Bildt, the likely new Conservative prime minister, depends, and make a daunting task impossible.

Only three of the 23 New Democrat MPs are women, and the election showed sharp gender divisions. Sixty-three per cent of the New Democrats’ voters were male, 60 per cent of support for the Greens (but they lost all then seats in parliament) came from women. For the first time in their 27 year existence (except for a deal with the Centre Party which allowed them one member in 1985) the Christian Democrats entered parliament, with seven women MPs out of 26 and 57 per cent of their voters female. Those voters tended to be older than average. The success of the Christian Democrats, less brash and exhibitionistic than New Democracy, almost certainly more solid than the success of Wachtmeister and Carlsson (‘the Count and his Servant’), reveals the revived strength of an opposite, puritan tendency in Swedish life and politics. Most of their MPs are proclaimed Evangelical churchmen and women, devoted to the cause of the family and morality; there was no alcohol at their election wake. So 6.7 per cent of Swedes voting for a New Right of entrepreneurial razzmataz was balanced by 7 per cent who chose a middle-aged Right of cleanliness and godliness.

Not nearly enough of the Swedish electorate (only a total of 31.1 per cent) voted for the ‘New Start’ programme proposed jointly by the Conservative and Liberal Parties in the hope that they could capture an outright majority (the Social Democrats ended up with a better-than-expected 37.6 per cent, but the hopes of their opposition were born when polls put the ‘Sossies’ as low as the high twenties). ‘New Start’ offered whole-hearted EC membership, tax cuts, economies in the public sector, privatisation, and a continuation of nuclear power (currently scheduled to be phased out altogether by 2010). Did some voters believe they could have elements of all this from the Social Democrats anyway, with the benefit of the Sossies’ humanitarian concern and without running the risk of inexperienced and unstable minority governments? If so, such pragmatists were not numerous enough to keep the old governing party in power. Now everyone is promised what, presumably, no one wanted: months of endless manoeuvring to prop up two, three or four-party minority administrations.

Swedish socialists will now have to find answers to two questions. One of them is ringing in the ears of democratic socialist parties everywhere: what exactly do you do when you find yourselves in a world where there is no one over there on your left, against whom you can shine out as examples socialist moderation and common sense?

The second question is specific to the Swedish Social Democratic movement. Still the best-organised left-wing movement in the democratic world, it has nevertheless seen a gradual loosening of the ties which once bound together the Party and its press, the trade unions (blue and white-collar), the People’s Houses in every township, the co-ops and the education centres, the women’s and the youth organisations, into an unbeatable electoral machine. Can the Party restore the Structural unity and the ideological conviction which made it the natural and the only credible governing party in Sweden for nearly six decades?