SMALL EARTHQUAKE in Stockholm. A general election in which Sweden’s Social Democrats have received a near-unprecedented hammering and which has seen the emergence as a parliamentary force holding the balance of power of a far-right, anti-immigrant party, Sweden Democrats, has sent ripples of shock not only through the country but through European politics. Is this finally it for the “Swedish model”, that meld of liberal values, high taxes, outstanding childcare and welfare that made the country the poster boy for European social democracy?
For the Social Democrats, in government for 65 of the last 78 years, and who have never lost two consecutive elections, the result is the worst since universal suffrage in 1921. The party’s virtual hegemony defined the country’s politics and its decline reflects a combination of the party’s inability to adapt and some say its increasingly technocratic profile, its failure to address immigration concerns and the successful management of the economy by Fredrik Reinfeldt’s Moderate party-led coalition. And it echoes a parallel decline of much of Europe’s left.
Sweden seems also to be replicating, albeit late, the sort of European anti-immigrant far-right that has elsewhere been well-entrenched for years, whether in the form of France’s Front National, Italy’s Liga Nord, Belgium’s Vlaams Belang, or more recently in the Netherlands, Denmark and Hungary. But all is not quite as it appears. Jimmie Aakesson’s Sweden Democrats, a group with explicit neo-Nazi origins, has been building for two decades and its breakthrough in this election is attributable not to a massive swing but to crossing the 4 per cent threshhold for seats. From no seats to 20, at a stroke. And although complicating Reinfeldt’s task of putting together a majority, the democratic parties will rightly shun any alliance with Aakesson.
It would be wrong also to exaggerate the significance of the Social Democrats’ poor showing as a qualitative shift in the country’s political culture. To a large extent Rheinfeldt, who is seeking talks with the Greens to put together a working majority, won his mandate by moving his party to the centre ground and promising to refine rather than dismantle the country’s welfare system. As Sanna Rayman of the daily Svenska Dagbladet puts it: “The fact that the Swedish voters re-elected the sitting government does not mean that they have abandoned the ‘Swedish model’. It only means that they think someone else is a better caretaker.”