24/08/2010 - Analysis
On 19th September next 7 million Swedes are being called to renew all of their MPs: both national (members of the Riksdag, the only Chamber of Parliament) and local (town councils and county councils).
Norwegians and Icelanders who live in the kingdom, those with a nationality of another State but registered as resident in Sweden for the last three consecutive years and citizens of the 26 other EU Member States will be entitled to vote in the local elections.
With regard to the general election voters can vote by post in advance in all of the country's post offices during the 18 days preceding the election i.e. as from 1st September. If they so wish they can cancel their postal vote by returning to the ballot box on Election Day. 497,000 Swedes will be voting for the first time on 19th September next i.e. +15% in comparison with the last general elections on 17th September 2006, representing 9% of all voters. Finally 132,780 Swedes living abroad will be taking part in the election.
Just one month from the election the result is still uncertain. Many political analysts believe that the election will be fought out in the centre. In a SIFO poll in July 36% of Swedes said they tended to the right, 24% to the left and 33% to the centre. Another poll in July showed that 46% of voters thought that the Alliance forces, in office at present, were going to win on 19th September whilst 40% were forecasting a change in government and therefore a victory for the left. The Swedes, who were for a long time loyal all of their life to the same party, now tend just like their European counterparts to be more volatile. Their vote fluctuates depending on the electoral context or the position adopted by the parties with regard to the various themes. All of this makes the general election results less certain than in the previous decades with the end result remaining a mystery until the last minute. In addition to this the election campaigns are increasingly focused on the two main political leaders – Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt for the Alliance and Mona Sahlin for the left coalition – the candidates' personality usually plays a lesser role in Sweden than in other States. The debate of ideas is still elementary and voters always votes primarily according to each party's economic programme and the ability to govern.
The Swedish Political System
Sweden has a unicameral Parliament, the Riksdag that includes 349 members elected every four years on the third Sunday in September by proportional representation. For the elections the country 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.
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 best possible representation 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 party, 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.
7 political parties are represented in the Riksdag at present:
- the Social Democratic Party (SAP), the main opposition party led by Mona Sahlin since 2007; this party has dominated Swedish political life for the last 70 years. It has 130 MPs;
- the Moderate Party (M) led by outgoing Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt lies to the right and has 97 MPs;
- the Centre Party (C), a former farmers' party led by present Industry Minister, Maud Olofsson; it has 29 seats;
- the People's Party-Liberals (FpL), whose leader is the present Education Minister, Jan Björklund; it has 28 seats;
- The Christian Democratic Party (KD), a conservative party created in 1964 led by Göran Hägglund; it has 24 seats;
- the Left Party (Vp), formerly the Communist Party whose present leader is Lars Ohly with 22 seats;
- the Environment Party-Greens (MP), a leftwing party created in 1981, represented by two people, Peter Eriksson and Maria Wetterstrand, with 19 seats.
The Alliance: results of four years' of government
In office since 2006 the Alliance that rallies the four rightwing parties (M, C, FpL, KD) is proud that Sweden was not as badly affected as most of the other EU Member States by the international economic crisis. Sweden, which is an extremely open country and therefore highly affected by the collapse in world trade did not however experience such as severe recession as the other countries because of the support given to domestic demand and public finances that made it possible to limit the decline in the GDP. The latter did however decrease last year to settle at -4.7%. Inevitably the recession led to an increase in unemployment; this now totals 9.5% of the working population (June 2010) but this includes 21.2% of young people aged 20 to 24 and this in spite of that fact that the Alliance won the previous elections on 17th September 2006 with the promise of reducing unemployment.
When they came to office the four parties in the Alliance struck the unions and unemployment funds managed by the latter by increasing the cost of union contributions. As a result the country experienced a decline in union support (500,000 Swedes did not renew their subscriptions) which represented a decrease of unionised employees between 2006 and 2009. In addition to this the State withdrew from the funding of unemployment benefit organisations with its contribution falling in January 2007 from 95% to 55% (i.e. savings of 10 billion crowns – 900 million € – for the State coffers over 2007). The conditions required to be able to receive a basic daily benefit of 320 crowns (29€) have been tightened up. A person now has to have worked 80 hours in the month (in comparison with 70) or 480 hours out of 6 of 12 of the last 12 months at a rate of 50 hours monthly. Finally the amount of benefit is now based on the average income received over the last 12 months (instead of 6). Many Swedes therefore receive daily benefit that is lower than the basic benefit of 329 crowns. The measures taken by Fredrik Reinfeldt's government have affected the weakest Swedes since they mainly involve those who not employed according to an open end contract, i.e. 571,000 people out of 4 million wage earners. The government also reduced the advantages enjoyed by employees in terms of paid sick leave (previously unlimited in terms of time) by establishing new rules in July 2008. Only people who are extremely sick can benefit from long term sick leave. Others receive 80% of their salary for a year (the limit has been set at 2,000€). This period can be extended by 550 days (with 75% of the salary being paid). After this time people lose their right to sick pay.
In an interview in the newspaper Expressen Fredrik Reinfeldt maintained that his government "had contributed to the establishment of a more effective employment policy that was an attempt to put an end to a specific culture of passiveness." He said that youth unemployment could be explained by the fact that many leave the education system without any qualifications. "Hence the usefulness of the reforms we have established with regard to coaching and the development of apprenticeships," he said, adding, "on the other hand this means not being choosy about accepting work at McDonalds. After all having paid work is a good thing." In its programme put forward on 8th May the government said it wanted to step up work on apprenticeships. The Peoples Party-Liberals said it was convinced that this measure encouraged employment thanks to lower salaries. It is proposing the employment of an apprentice under a new specific work contract for young people under 24. The Prime Minister rejected criticism about his reform of sick pay which says that it is hard. "I simply said that we tend to believe rather too rapidly that such and such a person is no longer apt for work," he declared.
"We want to continue on this path. Our public finances are in order. We do not have debts like other European countries that were incurred during the budgetary crisis," declared Fredrik Reinfeldt, who is running again for office as head of government. He promised to make education his priority in the fight against unemployment. His programme is based on budgetary responsibility. Although the country's public finances are strong (the public debt totalled 42.8% of the GDP in 2009), the four parties in the Alliance want to review the finance law to include an objective of public surplus. They are planning however to increase that budget that town councils devote to the care of the elderly and education. Finally mid-August the government decided to devote 5.4 million euros to a programme designed to improve the housing of the elderly.
Economy Minister Anders Borg (M) indicated that the parties in the Alliance were planning to sell the shares held by the State in several major companies for a total of around 100 billion crowns (10.46 billion €). "We hope to achieve an income of around 25 billion crowns per year during the next term in office. This money should help to pay off the public debt" he said. Finally the Prime Minister promised to continue decreasing taxes notably in support of the retired who, if public finances return to the black, should witness a decrease of 20 billion crowns (2.1 billion €) in their taxes over the next four years. The Moderate Party likes to stand as the "workers' party". "We have the employment policy that the Social Democrats do not have. We are the only ones to guarantee the creation of jobs," he maintained.
In terms of foreign policy the government said at the beginning of August that it was planning to extend the presence of Swedish troops in Afghanistan. "Sweden must take part in the work to manage the international crisis with a clear legal mandate so that it shows its involvement and responsibility in world events. The Alliance parties want to extend the mandate of the Swedish forces and are open to increasing our military contribution if the situation requires it," wrote the Defence Minister Sten Tolgfors (M), in a column published in the daily Dagens Nyheter. Sweden is officially a neutral country, it is not a member of NATO and it has been taking part in the international force in Afghanistan since the start of 2002.
Foreign Minister Carl Bildt (M) denounced the danger the leftwing would cause the country and the "crude anti-Americanism that typifies the opposition's programme," (demanding the closure of American bases abroad). "If we give the Social Democrats the chance of allowing the former communist left to enter government it will be an open door to the implementation of a policy the result of which unfortunately leaves no room for doubt: a government without unity and a weakened Sweden," he declared.
Although the rightwing is presenting a united front just one month before the general election several parties are questioning their individual weighting within the coalition. The Moderates led by Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt who have chosen the motto "Framat tillsammans" (Forwards together) enjoy a high popularity rate, but achieve this to the detriment of the other three parties. The People's Party-Liberals rally the Swedes living in the major towns and the most qualified as a well as a high contingent of teachers whilst the Centre Party is more that of the rural areas. According to an interview published by the daily Aftonbladet on 26th July the party's chair, Industry Minister Maud Olofsson re-iterated her ambition to make it "the party of entrepreneurs and rightwing ecologists." Even though traditionally it is against the nuclear industry the party approved Parliament's adoption of the building of new nuclear reactors in replacement of the ten old ones (that cover 42% of the country's energy requirements) when they come to the end of their time (a text that was only just approved in the Riksdag 174 votes in favour, 172 against). "The Centre Party has not changed its opinion and is still promising renewable energies but chose to accept a compromise which means the replacement of the ageing reactors for new ones," indicated Maud Olofsson after the vote. The Christian Democratic Party seems to have been marginalised with its new concept of "real people" struggling to find support. Its chair, Göran Hägglund, indicated that this term was directed at all of those "who sometimes felt left out or ill treated by the authorities and the intelligentsia." Its programme focuses on three points: the creation of new jobs, notably thanks to a decrease in employers' contributions; increased freedom for citizens notably thanks to a limiting of the political sphere of influence and better quality of services provided by the State. The elderly are at the heart of the party's target which wants to reduce the difference in terms of taxes between the retired and those at work (273 million € in tax reductions) but it also wants to raise the maximum age of retirement from 67 to 70.
Finally the People's Party-Liberals have chosen to place education at the heart of their electoral programme. At the beginning of August its leader, Education Minister Jan Björklund said that "school was not designed to raise children in the place of parents". He said that parents whose children were a problem should be allowed to attend certain lessons with their children so that they could see the situation in the classroom for themselves. The minister hopes to open "some elite classes" in colleges and high schools. "Gifted pupils have the right as much anyone else to feel comfortable at school without being forced to listen to lessons that are not on their level. After 1968 we reduced our level of requirements and gave pupils too much power. It is prohibited to give them marks before the 11th year (16)! The result of this negligence is that teachers are no longer respected," he said. A poll by the research centre FSI published in the Dagens Nyheter reveals that education is the principle concern of Swedes ahead of health, the situation of the elderly and employment.
Today the parties on the right are facing two major issues just one month before the general elections. The first is this: apart from the Moderates and the People's Party-Liberals will the two other parties in the Alliance – the Centre Party and the Christian Democrats - rise above the 4% threshold of votes cast necessary to be represented in Parliament on 19th September? The second involves the far right: what will the score of the Sweden Democrats (SD) be in this election? Will they deprive the rightwing of its absolute majority in Parliament?
Can the Social Democrats return to power?
On the left the Greens are moving ahead well and are approved in the polls whilst the social democrats are struggling. Social Democratic leader Mona Sahlin is still not very popular amongst the Swedes and faces strong competition on the part of Maria Wetterstrand, the extremely popular Green spokesperson. Mona Sahlin suffered greatly in the 1990's due to the so-called Toblerone scandal. In 1990 and 1991 when she was Employment Minister she used her professional bank card to make private purchases on several occasions. Amongst the articles she bought were two Toblerone bars. The Greens' second spokesperson Peter Eriksson is concerned about Mona Sahlin's low popularity rate which in his opinion might cost the leftwing its victory. "She is an element of discouragement," he declared. The chair of the Social Democratic Party said "that he was at ease with the feelings she caused" and stressed that she had always been "loved or hated". "At least people take up a position," he concluded.
The Social Democratic Party was qualified for a long time as the "most effective political party in the world". It has to be said that it dominated Swedish political life right through the 20th century. But the socio-professional categories that guaranteed its victory (workers and poorly paid employees) are slowly turning away from the party for two reasons: voters' identification with a political party is now very weak and the former working class is disappearing. The most important parties on the left have recovered the support of new voters such as Swedes of foreign origin, but whose numbers are not adequate to help it recover domination of the political arena. The Social Democrats are presenting the general elections on 19th September next as a time of choice between "a policy that will create more employment and equality between the sexes and a policy that increases inequality and which excludes." The party has chosen the motto "Vi kan inte vänta" (We cannot wait).
On 7th December 2008 the leftwing came together within a coalition called Rödgröna (Red/Green coalition) in the ilk of the rightwing in 2006 when they rallied under the label of the Alliance. The union of leftwing parties came about because of the Confederation of the Unions of Sweden (LO) that drew closer to the Left Party to the detriment of the Social Democratic Party. If it wins the general elections the Social Democratic Party will govern with two "small" parties – an all time first in the kingdom. But the leftwing, which led in the polls for a long time is now lagging behind the Alliance.
The Greens' electorate is young, urban and highly qualified. They are campaigning for the opening of the country's borders (even though Maria Wetterstrand has said that her party would give up its demand for the legal settlement of illegal immigrants) in Sweden, a moratorium on the building of hypermarkets in the suburbs of major towns, a twofold increase in the use of public transport over the next ten years (they want to increase the number of rail and tramways). Maria Wetterstrand defines herself as a "Green liberal". She is against the State taking up too great a position; she is also against centralisation and hopes to privatise several state companies. Eurosceptics for a long time, the Greens have now been converted over to the European Union thanks to the influence of Maria Wetterstrand.
Peter Eriksson has said he is open to working with "the small conservative parties". It is indeed highly that neither the Alliance parties nor the leftwing achieve a majority in Parliament on 19th September next and that the far right Sweden Democrats find themselves in the position of referee. Since all of the political parties have excluded working with the latter the two blocs may be obliged to "attempt the recruitment of one of the parties in the coalition opposite". Political analysts believe in this case that the Alliance parties may convince the Greens to join them if they achieve the greatest number of MPs. In an interview in the Expressen Fredrik Reinfeldt did however exclude all cooperation with the Greens in the next term in office. "They are clearly far too opposite us in terms of employment," he indicated.
The Left Party (Vänsterpartiet), that is an assembly of former communists, associative militants of immigrant descent and militants opposed to "American imperialism" chose to change its name in this electoral campaign. It now defines itself as the Välfärdspartiet (V), the Welfare State Party, of which it would like to stand as the most vigorous defender which includes going against the will of its coalition partners – the Social Democratic Party and the Greens. It sees the Alliance's results as head of the country as a "major failure". It is campaigning for the opening of the frontiers, a six hour working day, the sharing of parental leave (at present assumed to a total of 80% by mothers) between both parents, the opening of infants schools in the evenings and at night and the withdrawal of Swedish troops from Afghanistan. With regard to this it is echoed by the Social Democrats whose leader, Mona Sahlin says she plans for a return of Swedish troops stationed in Afghanistan since the region which they are in charge of should be amongst the first to be transferred back over to Afghan responsibility. "If this is the case and if the Afghan election on 18th September next (general elections will take place in the country the day before the Swedish election) goes off well then it seems clear that we shall start to reduce our presence there during the next term in office," she indicated. On 6th August Mona Sahlin wrote in a column published in the daily Aftonbladet: "To succeed totally the country needs our help and support. Sweden has been one of the main contributors in terms of aid to Afghanistan for a long time. But military assistance has taken over development aid. We want to overcome this situation so that development aid is at least equal to the military effort. If security conditions improve the time will have come to think about our withdrawal. However it is vital that civilian assistance lasts well after the departure of Western troops."
On 29th July last a poll revealed that 41% of Swedes believe that the Swedish presence in Afghanistan is unjustified (35% thought this in February), 42% were in favour (46% in the last poll).
Mona Sahlin has promoted the unity of the red-green coalition with regard to taxation, integration and even foreign policy insisting on the idea of solidarity which in her opinion is the heart of her programme. Hence the left coalition has established a joint strategy with regard to education promoting amongst other things school marks at the end of the first part of the secondary school period. It qualifies the present suggestions put forward by the Education Minister as "a step in the wrong direction". "Teachers are perfectly able to spot the most advanced pupils in their classes and adapt their methods to the level of each one individually. We simply have to create more jobs," she declared to the daily Aftonbladet. "We shall dedicate 12 billion additional crowns (1.2 billion €) to education and healthcare. The survival of the Welfare State is more important than tax reductions," promise the leftwing forces. According to the opposition spending should create between 10,000 and 15,000 jobs. The Social Democratic Party has qualified "youth employment" as put forward by the Alliance as "cheap labour" and says that new training was required so that young people were not relegated to the bottom of the ladder and so that they were not offered salaries lower than those earned by other wage earners.
The leftwing would like to see an increase in public spending, a rise that would be funded by an increase in taxes that would however remain "moderate" for most Swedes. Taxes on alcohol, tobacco and fuels would rise. On 15th August last Mona Sahlin accused Prime Minister Reinfeldt of having weakened the Swedish social model during his term in office and that he is continuing on the same path, which in her opinion is damaging, since he is promising to decrease taxes. "The Moderate Party thinks that reducing taxes is the priority. They only talk of that. Nothing else counts in their opinion, neither youth unemployment, nor the exclusion of the sick, nor the growing inequalities between Swedes. Is this really the Sweden we want? Is this the country in which we want to live? No, a thousand times no! she declared.
With regard to taxation the opposition would also like to continue tax reductions in support of the retired; the latter would be granted 7.5 billion crowns in tax relief. "Sweden is one of the rare countries in the world which taxes the retired more that wage earners," wrote former Social Democratic Prime Minister (1986-1991 and 1994-1996) Ingvar Carlsson in an article in the press. In addition to this, whilst average Swedish income increased by 32% between 1999 and 2008, that of the retired increased by 24% (and that of elderly single women by 19%). The over 65's represent 18% of the Swedish population.
The opposition is accusing the Fredrik Reinfeldt's government of having failed from an economic point of view and denounces the rise in unemployment – at its highest rate since the end of the economic crisis of the 1990's. "The government cannot be held responsible for the world crisis but it is responsible for the fact that the collapse of the labour market in Sweden is worse than the average in the European Union," repeats the leftwing. It says that the youth and immigrant unemployment rate in Sweden is "one of the highest in the EU" and that Swedish productivity and competitiveness have decreased to the point that "Sweden's place in Europe" is in danger. The leftwing wants to increase the upper limit of unemployment benefits (680 to 950 crowns) reduced by the Alliance in 2006.
With regard to transport the opposition wants to introduce a single tariff for transport in Stockholm. All trips would cost 35 crowns (3.65€) and children under 12 would travel free. The left coalition would like to create new high speed rail links (between Stockholm and Göteborg and between Göteborg and Malmö. Investments in the rail industry would increase by 120 billion crowns (12.51 billion €) Finally the three parties want to facilitate entrepreneurship or reduce employers' contributions and to help craftsmen they would grant further tax relief on all renovation work on buildings that leads to a reduction in energy consumption.
Will the far right makes its debut in Parliament?
The possible entry by the far right in the Riksdag is one of the vital issues in the electoral campaign. Until now the country has been spared extremist trends. The nationalist party, Sweden Democrats, founded in 1988 and led by Jimmie Akesson has made constant progress in both general and local elections. It won 2.9% of the vote (nearly 10% in Scanie, a border area with Denmark, during the last election on 17th September 2006). The Sweden Democrats therefore made their entry into three regional parliaments and won 20 town council seats.
In the polls they achieve good results amongst young voters, particularly amongst those voting for the first time. The party that has historical links with the neo-Nazis (which it drew away from in an attempt to become more respectable) and which emerged from a racist movement "Keep Sweden Swedish" is both conservative and social in terms of its ideology. It wants to restrict access to abortion and put an end to what party secretary, Björn Söder qualifies as the "normalisation of homosexuality", it is against feminism etc ... But like the leftwing (and the far right movement the Danish People's Party, DF) it stands as the defender of the Welfare State.
In a country in which one inhabitant in four has a parent who was born abroad, the Sweden Democrats support a reduction in immigration so that Sweden can remain an "homogeneous society". They want to see a 90% reduction in the number of immigrants and asylum seekers, the establishment of a residence permit that is only temporary, the obligation for asylum seekers and future immigrants to undergo a DNA test and also examinations to check them for TB and to see whether they are HIV positive. "Most Swedes share my ideas with regard to immigrants. In this country if you criticise the immigration policy you are seen as being racist or xenophobic. It is difficult to make people stand up and for them to say "this is what I think". Swedes are very tolerant but I believe that a great part of the electorate thinks that the immigration policy has been too lax and far too generous," says Jimmie Akesson who talks of "Swedishness" – a term he uses not to qualify a "skin colour or part of our body" but rather "our values and our behaviour". For many years the national trend (anti-globalisation – anti-European) was the realm of the country's leftwing. In 2003 the then Prime Minister Göran Persson (SAP) advised on a restrictive approach to border controls, notably with regard to workers from the Baltic States. He spoke of "social tourists" who might undermine the Welfare State.
The rightwing like the left has excluded any collaboration with the far right after the general elections on 19th September next.
During this term in office (2006-2010), the leftwing came out ahead of all rightwing parties in all opinion polls. The last poll published on 20th August last credits the Alliance with 47.9% of the vote in comparison with 46.3% for the opposition (the Social Democratic Party is still Sweden's leading party with 32.7% of the vote). The difference between left and right is therefore very narrow. The Sweden Democrats are due to win 4% of the vote and would therefore make it into Parliament. Finally 22% of those interviewed said they still had not decided to whom they would grant their vote. The difference between the two coalitions is very narrow and is tending to grow even narrower as the weeks go by. "It is likely that the situation will be extremely muddled after the election," analyses Carl Melin from the pollster United Minds. "If neither of the coalitions succeeds in achieving an absolute majority a government might be formed but if it rejects the support of the Sweden Democrats it would be highly unstable," indicates political expert Peter Santessen-Wilson from Institute Ratio. "The Sweden Democrats may vote with the opposition on the law governing the budget, which would cause real political chaos and force the government to resign," he added.
In conclusion the Swedes preferred the right to the left only twice in the kingdom's history: in 1991 and 2006 i.e. two electoral years that witnessed victory for the rightwing.