24/08/2006 - Analysis
Nearly seven million Swedes are being called to vote on 17th September next to renew all of their national and local representatives: the 349 members of the Riksdag, the only Chamber in Parliament along with the administrative councils and assemblies in the 20 counties and town councils in the 290 municipalities in the kingdom. This electoral calendar, which brings together both local and national elections, traditionally leads to a high participation rate and the predominance of national political themes in the electoral campaign. Sweden, which has been governed by the Social Democrats (SAP) since 1994 and for 64 of the past 73 years – the present Prime Minister, Göran Persson has been in office since 1996 – might however swing over to the right, since the opposition forces, who have come together for the first time and the ruling Social Democrat Party, now suffering the wear and tear of being in power, are running almost neck and neck in all polls.
The Political System
Sweden is divided into 29 electoral constituencies each electing on average 11 representatives to the Riksdag. The largest of these constituencies is that of the capital Stockholm which elects 38 members of parliament. To fulfil their civic duty Swedish voters can vote on Election Day but they can also vote by post in all post offices in the country 18 days running up to the election itself.
The mode of election is proportional with votes being distributed according to the Sainte Lagüe modified method with a primary divisor of 1.4. 310 seats are distributed amongst 29 constituencies, the other 39, called compensatory constituencies, are attributed to the various parties in order to ensure them the most precise representativeness possible on a national level. The candidates who are elected for compensatory seats win them in constituencies where their party enjoys the greatest remainder. To take part in the distribution of seats a party must have won 4% of the votes cast nationally or 12% within a given constituency.
Since the elections in 1998 in addition to being able to vote for a part, voters have also had the opportunity of having a preferential vote for one of the candidates on the lists offered to them by the parties and as a result they have had more influence over the attribution of seats to the various parties. During the count the number of seats won by each party is decided first before the candidates on each list having won the greatest number of votes are declared elected. Nevertheless in order to be elected according to the preferential voting system a candidate has to have won at least 8% of the vote won by its party in a constituency.
6,8 millions Swedes, 116,000 of whom live abroad will be voting in the general election and 7 million in the local elections. In the latter, apart from the Swedes, EU citizens are also allowed to vote along with Norwegians and Icelanders who live in the kingdom; people with another nationality but who are registered as domiciled in Sweden for at least three consecutive years (i.e. 330,000 people) can also vote.
A new electoral division was created for these elections providing an additional seat in the Riksdag to the counties of Stockholm and Uppsala (the counties of Ostergötlands and Västmanlands have each lost a seat).
Seven political parties are represented in the Riksdag at present:
- the Social Democrat Party (SAP), Göran Persson, the Prime Minister's party, holding a wide majority and dominating political life for a great number of years, has 144 MPs;
- the Moderate Party (M) the main opposition party led by Fredrik Reinfeldt lies to the right of the political scale and has 55 MPs;
- the People's Party-Liberals (FpL), an opposition party that tends to be social-liberal is led by Lars Leijonbord. It became the country's third leading party making a real breakthrough in the last general elections on 15th September 2002 (plus 8.7 points), the FpL has 48 MPs;
- the Christian Democrat Party (KD), a conservative party created in 1964, led by Göran Hägglund has 33 MPs. The party regressed significantly in the polls after the departure of its former leader Alf Svensson;
- the Left Party (Vp), former Communist Party led by Lars Ohly. It is against the EU and has 30 MPs;
- the Centre Party (C), former Agrarian Party led by Maud Olofsson, lies to the right of the political scale. The party which recently chose a more liberal orientation has 22 MPs;
- the Environment Party-the Greens (MP), a leftwing party created in 1981 is extremely Euro sceptic. It is represented by two spokesmen, Peter Eriksson and Maria Wetterstrand, the Greens have 17 MPs.
Since he does not have an absolute majority in Parliament Prime Minister Göran Persson relies on the support of the ecologists and the Left Party. During the last elections on 15th September 2002 the Social Democrat Party easily came ahead of its rightwing rivals, winning even more votes (+ 3,4%), an all time first for a government party since the war. However the Greens only just succeeded and the Left Party recorded a major decline (- 3.6%).
The "big" parties might however suffer in the next general elections at the hands of the numerous smaller, more recently created or older parties who have decided to take part in the election on 17th September. Hence the June List (J) will put forward candidates. With the success it achieved in the European Elections on 13th June 2004 in hand (14.4% of the vote, three of the 19 seats in the European Parliament) this Euro sceptic party is suggesting an increase in the use of nuclear power, the development of referenda, the halt of Sweden's European integration, the privatisation of the healthcare system, an obligatory language test in order to obtain Swedish nationality and finally the dedication of development aid to poor regions in the eastern part of the Baltic Sea. Another party might be a more direct threat to the left; Feminist Initiative (FI), a party created in September 2005 by the former leader of the Left Party, Gudrun Schyman. The party is asking amongst other things for the establishment of new laws against rape, the end of the difference in salaries between men and women and the reduction of inequality in parental leave. The Swedish Democrats, (SD), an extreme rightwing party is promoting a reduction in immigration and the dismantling of the EU. The party, which is primarily established in the south of the country (9% of votes and 4 seats in the town council of Kavlinge four years ago), has accomplished a great deal in order to become respectable replacing its former logo (a hand holding a torch) by a blue anemone.
Finally two parties represented locally, the Health Party (SVP) which is fighting for an increase in healthcare services, and the Party for Swedish Pensioners' Interests (SPI), led by Brynolf Wendt, which is requesting money dedicated to international aid to be directed towards increasing retirement pensions as well as the establishment of more severe laws against immigration, might, according to polls, be the source of surprise during these general elections. "The rise of these new parties challenges the policies of the blocs. They herald the end of the left-right tug of war," analyses Göran von Sydow, professor of political science at the University of Stockholm. "Since 2002 we have witnessed a decline in the identification with a given party in Sweden where one fifth of the electorate does not know who to vote for," stresses Karl Magnus Johansson.
The Election Stakes
The Christian Democrat Party, the Centre Party and the People's Party-the Liberals (FpL) which are carried along by the dynamic, charismatic Lars Leijonberg and the Moderate Party joined forces on 31st August 2004 in Högfors, a village where Centre Party leader, Maud Oloffson lives, in a coalition called the Alliance for Sweden, an all time first in the country's history. The four parties are presenting a joint programme in these elections even though each also has on of its own. In addition to this the four parties seem to have come to an agreement that if they win the leader of the party having won the greatest number of votes will be the Prime Minister.
Under the guidance of its leader Fredrik Reinfeldt, the Moderate Party gave up its programme of cutting social expenditure and reducing taxes. It now promotes the defence of the Welfare State (called the Folkhemmet, the People's House), to which the Swedes are greatly attached and is promising the creation of new jobs. During the elections on 15th September 2002, the Swedes preferred the defence of their social protection system to a reduction in taxes promised by the opposition parties and the Moderate Party suffered a severe defeat winning 15.1% of the vote, its worst result for decades with a loss of one third of its electorate and 27 seats in Parliament.
Severely challenged in the first half of the 90's (public finance recorded a deficit of 12% of the GDP and the unemployment level rose to 9% of the working population), the Swedish model has succeeded in adapting itself perfectly to world developments by employing a high dose of liberalism and pushing through major structural reforms to stabilise its public spending. Sweden, a country that has never undertaken any type of industrial nationalisation was therefore one of the first European states (after the UK) to deregulate its financial markets and many economic sectors such as transport and electricity. The education and healthcare sectors are also open to private enterprise. The upkeep of the powerful Welfare State and strong public services has not prevented the kingdom from lowering taxation (company tax at 28% is one of the lowest in the EU), to placing a ceiling on public expenditure, to cutting social spending severely, to reforming the retirement system with the creation of pension funds to supplement the part (50%) guaranteed by distribution and establishing greater flexibility in employment in exchange for which the unions, that rally nearly 80% of the country's workers, achieved the development of professional training.
The primary aim of the social democrats, allies of the Left Party and the Environment Party-the Greens in this election is still the establishment of a majority government. The Left Party and the Greens are clearly requesting participation in the next government if the leftwing forces win on 17th September.
Prime Minister Göran Persson can be proud of his results. Between 1995 and 2005, productivity has increased by 2.5% per year and the GDP has increased by 3% over the last few years. In the second quarter of 2006 the country recorded its greatest growth rate in six years: 5.6%. Exports are also rising tremendously: + 7% per year for the last four years. Finally inflation has been lower than 1% for the last three years and public debt fell in 2005 below 50% of the GDP for the first time in ten years. The Swedish taxation rate is the highest in Europe. It lies at 51.4%, i.e. ten points higher than the community average; it is the highest in the world along with that of Denmark. The Swedes benefit from a generous Welfare State and efficient social programmes; they live in one of the most egalitarian societies in the world. Its excellent socio-economic results and Swedish history (the kingdom has always been an export country) lead a majority of Swedes, amongst Europeans, along with their Danish neighbours in believing that globalisation is a "golden opportunity for national companies thanks to the opening up of markets" (Eurobarometer Special Survey, February-March 2006).
The economy and more especially unemployment are the major themes of the electoral campaign with an increasing number of Swedes saying that in spite of the healthy economy, there is increasing concern about the development of the labour market. The social democrats refuse to believe that Sweden has an unemployment problem and repeat that the system is working well and that they aim to increase healthcare services. However, according to the Swedish Statistics Office, only one Swede in three of working age (aged 16 to 64) has a job. In addition to this the unemployment of young people is reputed to be one of the highest in the EU. "The government has been unable to resolve the greatest problem facing a social democrat government, ie unemployment. Since 2003 in speech after speech the Prime Minister has continued to repeat that the economy is improving constantly and that the number of jobs will increase but nothing has happened and many young people have not found their place in the employment market," stresses Henrik Brors, a political analyst for the daily Dagens Nyheter. Indeed Göran Persson has certainly been prevented somewhat from acting by his Green allies and the Left Party who are against greater flexibility and any reduction in taxation on company profits.
If the government wins on 17th September it is promising to create 55,000 jobs in 2006 and 2007 mainly in the public sector along with the continuation of the "Plus Jobs" programme which it launched to act on the employment issue by subsidising employers in the public sector when they take on workers who have been unemployed for more than two years. Recently Göran Persson presented a project that would oblige employers to offer a full time contract to anyone having worked part time in their company for at least three years. The Left Party and the Greens asked for small companies to be exempted from this. The Alliance rejected this proposal that came from the unions in the public sector. The Swedish civil service does indeed have many temporary workers.
Göran Persson has also promised to increase subsidies to those who enjoy invalidity and retirement pensions and to invest more money in social aid for home help. These measures have been estimated at around one billion crowns, i.e. 108 million euro, which prohibits, according even to the Prime Minister himself, any reduction in taxation. The Prime Minister keeps saying that if the Alliance comes to power there would be an increase in unemployment and a severe effect on those enjoying invalidity pensions. Göran Persson has denounced the new direction taken by the Moderate Party and maintains that if the party comes to power it will undertake its traditional policy comprising a reduction in taxation leading in fine to a widening of the gap between rich and poor; a policy which the Prime Minister qualifies as "an American programme."
For its part the Alliance is suggesting an increase in the supply of jobs by creating a better environment for companies and by exempting people with the lowest incomes from taxation. The Centre Party for its party is suggesting the creation of a specific contract for the under 26's like the "first job contract" offered last winter by the French government enabling employers to dismiss them with greater facility during the first two years of employment. The Left Party and the Greens were highly critical of this measure which in their opinion would make the employment of young people permanently insecure.
The leader of the Moderate Party, Fredrik Reinfeldt, has in fact turned his party into a "social democrat" movement and now promotes the importance of public services and only promising moderate reductions in taxation. In the party's programme there are however reductions in unemployment benefits as well as a period during which these will be granted. "The rightwing want there to be a real difference between the money received by those who work and those who stay at home in order to motivate people to go and look for work. This is the main difference between the right and left in these general elections," maintains Henrik Brors, a political analyst for the daily Dagens Nyheter. The Moderate Party is considered by an increasing number of Swedes as a real alternative to the Social Democrat Party which for the first time ever is not threatening the Welfare State. The social democrat achievements such as the quality of life enjoyed by the population are almost natural in the opinion of many Swedes. Most of them no longer associate this to a specific party but to Sweden itself. Since there is no party which challenges the Welfare State Göran Persson must now convince the Swedes that the Social Democrat Party is the only one in power to be able to guarantee the successful running of the system and not that the social democrat model is good for Sweden. But the social democrats seem to be having problems in putting forward new ideas and the original personality of Göran Persson no longer has the same effect over the Swedes as in the past. "These general elections might herald the end of the minority, social democrat government (the last majority government in Sweden dates back to 1981). A coalition government with the Greens is a foreseeable hypothesis. But the Alliance might win. With the Alliance voters have less of a reason not to vote for the rightwing in comparison with the previous groups of non social democrat parties and people might be tempted to go for a change that would not have any dramatic consequences," analyses Peter Esaiasson, a political expert at the University of Göteborg.
The Social Democrat Party's ideas do seem to be outmoded. Its domination over the entire society has finally become a handicap and the party has to face up to an increasing number of accusations of corruption against some of its leaders. Hence the revelation by the press of the generous pension received by Anitra Steen, the Prime Minister's wife and leader of the State monopoly of the alcohol retail market, Systembolaget, caused an outcry across the country. Likewise on 14th August a trial opened against Ilmar Reepalu, head of the council of the country's third biggest town, Malmö. He is accused of having accepted a safari in Africa from a business man for himself and his wife for a value of 63,000 crowns. The social democrat leader says that this was a birthday present from the entrepreneur who is also his friend. Finally the Prime Minister was recently accused of not respecting environmental legislation during the extension of his sumptuous country house. The very existence of this residence has been held against him. Traditionally in Sweden social democrat leaders (for example Olof Palme and Ingvar Carlsson) live in small houses and share their daily lives with the majority of the population.
During the last term in office Göran Persson's government has had to face up to some difficult moments. Hence at the end of 2004 it was accused of acting slowly and inadequately to the crisis caused by the tsunami that devastated part of South East Asia on 26th December of that year. Sweden took several days to react whilst there were 20,000 Swedes in the region, notably in Thailand when the catastrophe struck and during which 543 citizens lost their lives. Foreign Minister, Laila Freivalds, admitted having gone to the theatre on the evening of the catastrophe and was the target of severe criticism; she finally resigned on 21st March last. Healthcare Minister Ylva Johansson left for a holiday just after the news of the catastrophe arrived lending the government an image of arrogance and egoism. In January 2005 an independent commission was given the task of throwing light on the government's reaction. "I am the first to say I am sorry for underestimating the extent of the catastrophe," declared the Prime Minister afterwards.
Göran Persson also suffered the failure of the referendum on the single currency during his term in office on 14th September 2003; the election was marked by the assassination four days previously of the Foreign Minister, Anna Lindh. In favour of adopting the euro the Prime Minister witnessed his rejection by 56.1% of the electorate who chose to say "no" to their country's entry in the Economic and Monetary Union. Göran Persson was accused of having started his campaign too late and of not having been able to estimate the Swede's scepticism with regard to the EU and the euro. The Prime Minister, who issued a string of clumsy declarations during the electoral campaign, did not succeed in managing the divisions that existed within his own majority (the Left Party and the Greens were against the euro), including within his own party and government; this led him to warn some of his ministers in an abrupt manner which displeased the population. This failure can also be blamed on the opposition parties who, except for the Centre Party, were all in favour of the "yes" vote.
The most recent poll undertaken by Skop and published in the Dagens Nyheter, says that the Alliance will win with 49.1% of the vote versus 47% for the Social Democrat Party and its allies the Greens and the Left Party. Another poll undertaken by Sifo and published on 10th August our Svenska Dagbladet, positions the opposition with 50.5% of the vote versus 46.1% for the ruling powers. Also for the first time in a poll undertaken by Sifo and published in the Dagens Industri on 14th August, 47% of Swedes say they grant their confidence to the leader of the Moderates, Fredrik Reinfeldt, versus 39% who say they are in favour of the present Prime Minister, Göran Persson.
For the time being, just a few weeks before the election both left and right are running extremely close together but around 20% of Swedes say they are still undecided.
Reminder of the General Elections Results on 15th September 2002
participation rate: 79%
Source : Agence France Presse