2014 Swedish General Election Results: With Whom will the Social Democrats Govern?

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Following the 2014 Swedish general election, which took place yesterday, 14 September, Sweden is set for a new government and a new political leader. The results show the Social Democrats with 31.2% of the vote, while the incumbent Moderate Party’s share has fallen to 23.2% from the 30.1% they won back in 2010. The Social Democrat leader, Stefan Löfven, will become Sweden’s Prime Minister, and must look to form a coalition government in trying circumstances. Sweden’s far-right, anti-immigration party, the duplicitously named Sweden Democrats, have increased their vote from 5.7% in 2010 to 12.9%, which makes them the third largest party in the country; and it is such a share of the vote that it means a minority ruling government appears inevitable. Even with the support of their usual allies, the Social Democrats cannot reach a majority in the Riksdag.

Since 2006, Sweden has been governed by Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt of the Moderate Party, and the Alliance for Sweden: a four party coalition to the centre-right of Swedish politics, comprising the Moderate Party, the Centre Party, the Liberal People’s Party, and the Christian Democrats. After the general election of 2006 – and following twelve years of governments headed by the Social Democrats – the Alliance for Sweden had enough seats in the Swedish Riksdag to form a majority government. Retaining power in 2010 as they beat off opposition from the Red-Greens – a three party coalition on the left, comprised of the Social Democrats, the Green Party, and the Left Party – they fell two seats short of an overall majority, owing largely to the Sweden Democrats, who entered parliament for the first time and took twenty seats.

The Red-Greens had formed their coalition explicitly for the sake of the 2010 election, and when the gambit horribly failed, the coalition quickly broke apart. In the intervening years, the Swedish public have been moved by a series of scandals involving the privatisation of state welfare and schooling; by a persistently high unemployment rate, particularly amongst the young; by more rounds of tax cuts; and by the falling performance of the country’s students, as ranked by the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment. Hence it has proved time to restore the Social Democrats to government.

The Social Democrats have been the major party in Swedish politics throughout the last century. 1911 saw the first Swedish general election with universal male suffrage, and the emergence of a modern party and parliamentary system. In that election, the Social Democrats finished in third place, with 28.5 % of the vote: behind the General Electoral League – which, after a couple of name changes, would become the Moderate Party – with 31.2%; and the Free-minded National Association – a precursor of today’s Liberal People’s Party – which won the election with 40.2%. The Social Democrats would become the largest party in the Riksdag three years later in 1914, although Hjalmar Branting would not become the first Social Democratic Prime Minister of Sweden until 1920.

The general election of 1921 was the first in Sweden with universal suffrage, as women won the right to vote. Over the next decade, power shifted between the Social Democrats, the General Electoral League, and the Free-minded National Association in the Riksdag – which operated as a bicameral legislature from 1866, with the first chamber indirectly elected by county councils and municipal assemblies, and the second chamber directly elected by eligible members of the populace; until in 1970 the two chambers merged to form a unicameral assembly. From 1936 until 1976, the Social Democrats enjoyed forty years of unbroken power.

Set against this long background of Swedish politics, despite the Social Democrats’ achievement in being returned as significantly the country’s largest party, and with the ability to form a government, their polling percentage is still relatively small. At general elections from 1936 until 1970, they uniformly won over 45% of the vote. And from 1914 until 2006, their vote never dropped beneath 36%. In 2006, they managed only 35% of the vote, making them still the largest party in the country by some margin, but resulting in a loss of power up against the Alliance for Sweden. Then in 2010, as the Red-Greens coalition did its constituents more harm than good, their vote fell to 30.7%.

31.2% of the vote this time round is a minor increase, even if any increase was largely unexpected. It suggests that the Moderate Party have failed to consolidate their successes in 2006 and especially in 2010, rather than the Social Democrats reaffirming their traditional dominance. Indeed, from the same historical perspective, 23.2% of the vote is not at all bad for the Moderate Party: between 1932 and 2002, their vote never rose above 23.6%; and dropped as low as 11.5% in 1970, a year after they changed their name to the Moderates in response to the perception that they were too right-wing.

With the Social Democrats having lost their old hegemony, and a distrust of the political establishment almost as characteristic of Sweden as it is of the rest of Europe, the resulting vacuum has been largely filled by the Sweden Democrats. The other parliamentary parties have repeatedly asserted that they will not work with the Sweden Democrats; and they are likely to resist any engagement despite the Sweden Democrats now holding the balance of power between the left and centre-right. The party formed in 1988, with various connections among its early membership to overtly racist and neo-Nazi groups, including the Nordic Reich Party.

The Sweden Democrats are not alone in bearing uncomfortable former ties to Nazism: the affiliated youth wing of the General Electoral League in the 1920s was the National Youth League of Sweden, which became increasingly radicalised and began supporting the German Nazis in the early 1930s, before the General Electoral League’s leader Arvid Lindman severed the connection in 1934. The National Youth League would briefly form its own far-right political party, which received just 0.9% of the vote in the 1936 general election, before the movement fissured and fizzled out.

Still, the Sweden Democrats retained some of their old connections, along with the slogan ‘Keep Sweden Swedish’, until beginning a process of moderation in the late 1990s. Especially under the leadership of Jimmie Åkesson since 2005, the party has attempted to distance itself from the vestiges of racism, sexism, and homophobia. Indeed, the party has even argued that its opposition to extreme forms of Islam amounts to strong support for sexual equality. Nevertheless, after the success of 2010, three of the party’s MPs were were forced to stand down owing to racist incidents. And the party continues to court controversy through provocative advertisements: as in 2010, when a commercial depicted a horde of burqa-wearing women chasing down an elderly Swedish lady in a race for benefits. The Sweden Democrats continue to campaign predominantly on restricting immigration and encouraging immigrants to return to their countries of origin; bolstering this thrust with what are increasingly common right-wing policies across Europe, including the renegotiation of EU membership and increased spending on defence.

While yesterday’s results mark a surge in support for the Sweden Democrats since their emergence in the 2010 election, the newest party to feature prominently in the election were the Feminist Initiative. Founded in 2005, in Sweden’s European Parliament elections held earlier this year the Feminist Initiative won 5.5% of the vote – enough for one seat, making the party the first feminist party to hold a seat in the European Parliament. Yet despite this result and much media interest – with co-founder and co-leader Gudrun Schyman appearing on stage over the weekend with Pharrell – achieving only 3.1% of the vote in the general election leaves the party short of the 4% required for a seat in the Riksdag. It also means a significant number of wasted votes, in so far as the 3.1% of votes for Feminist Initiative candidates will play no part in the construction of Sweden’s new government. But the party is well placed to continue to grow, and if the Social Democrats look more secure come the next election, more voters on the left of the political spectrum will be inclined to opt for the Feminists.

Sweden’s party system and proportional representation tend to result in the need for coalition governments. The Alliance for Sweden’s rule as a minority in parliament after 2010 was hardly an exceptional case, and weaker minority governments have been commonplace. Yet the results of this general election make the constitution of Stefan Löfven’s new Social Democrat-led government difficult to gauge. Any collaboration with the Sweden Democrats has been firmly ruled out. It is plausible that the Social Democrats will ally once again with the Green Party and the Left Party. But this would still provide only 43.7% of the vote, and 158 seats in the 349-seat parliament. Löfven and his party would then have to seek support for their policies on a case-by-case basis.

On the other hand, Löfven has expressed his openness to the possibility of partnering with the Centre Party and the Liberal People’s Party. These could add another 11.5% of the vote and an additional 41 seats. However, on the chance that they do break up the Alliance, it is unlikely that these smaller centrist parties will work alongside the Left Party. The Left Party splintered from the Social Democrats back in 1917, and as the Communist Party of Sweden had a history of cooperation with the Soviet Union. While the Green Party’s anti-nuclear and environmental focus is reconcilable with the aims of the others, the Left Party’s strong views on foreign policy and taxation, and absolute opposition to privatisation, make them an uneasy bedfellow even for the Social Democrats.

So the Social Democrats may have to forego the Left Party if they want to entice the Centre Party and the Liberal People’s Party. The Centre Party and the Social Democrats were once close, working hand-in-hand as coalition partners between the 1930s and 1950s when the former went under the guise of the Farmers’ League; but the Centre Party has moved to consolidate itself on the centre-right of Swedish politics ever since. Any union between these two will have been made more difficult still after a televised spat between Löfven and the Centre Party’s leader, Annie Lööf, in the run-up to Sunday’s election.