Saturday, 18 September 2010

Sweden goes to the poll

Tomorrow is Election Day in Sweden, where both the general election and the local elections take place on the same day. Most interest is almost unavoidably focused on the election of the 349 Members of Parliament, an election which will also determine what government Sweden will have in the coming years.
Not too long ago it seemed like it would be one of the tightest races ever, but in recent weeks it seems to have become increasingly clear that the centre-right government led by Fredrik Reinfeldt most likely will win another term.
Almost from the very day that the Social Democrats lost the 2006 election to the centre-right coalition of the conservative Moderate Party, the Christian Democrats, the Liberal People’s Party and the Centre Party four years ago, the opposition has been leading in the opinion polls. But during the last year the gap between the two blocks has narrowed and for the last weeks the opinion polls have predicted a clear lead and a majority on their own for the government coalition, known as the Alliance.
Following the defeat four years ago of the Social Democrats, who had been in office for twelve years, the outgoing Prime Minister Göran Persson resigned as leader of the party and was succeeded by Mona Sahlin. Inspired by the Norwegian centre-left coalition which won a majority in the election of 2005 (and again in 2009), the Social Democrats formed a partnership with the Green Party and the Left Party and are hoping to win the general election with this alternative coalition, known as the Red-Greens. It now seems most likely that this will remain but a dream. An electoral defeat will probably also spell the end of Mona Sahlin’s time as leader of the party, which will again mean that she will be the first leader of the Social Democrats since before Hjalmar Branting not to have become prime minister.
Part of the problem for the Red-Greens seems to be that the voters seem to focus almost as much on persons as on politics and pressing issues such as jobs, social security and healthcare. Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt always does well in the opinion polls which ask the voters about the trust they put in politicians, while Mona Sahlin tends to do equally bad.
This is probably at least partly a result of the events fifteen years ago, when Ingvar Carlsson announced his upcoming resignation as prime minister and party leader and everyone expected the then Deputy Prime Minister Mona Sahlin to succeed him. However, Sahlin had to withdraw from the race and from politics in general amid a scandal which involved her using the government’s credit card for making personal purchases.
Göran Persson, who was in many ways an outsider, was chosen in her place and when he resigned eleven years later and was succeeded by Sahlin, who had in the meantime made a political comeback, it was all too obvious that she was only the third choice, following Anna Lindh, who had been assassinated in 2003, and Margot Wallström, who was unwilling to leave her position as Vice-President of the European Commission and has now left politics for a good job in the UN. While the Social Democrats have often received around 40 % or more of the votes, they are now down to 30 % below and thus expected to do one of their worst elections ever.
The leader of the Left Party, Lars Ohly, who called himself a communist until 2006, when, following a storm of protests which made it clear that it was electorally unwise to do so, announced that he would no longer be doing so, does not enjoy much electoral confidence either. That leaves the popular Maria Wetterstrand, one of the two spokespersons of the leaderless Green Party, as the Red-Greens’ best card.
A complicating factor in the election is the right-wing extremist party the Sweden Democrats, which aims to win its first seats in Parliament. This will require that they win at least 4 % of the votes, a hurdle which most, but not all, recent opinions poll regrettably show that they will overcome. Scared by the Danish scenario, where the right-wing government for the last nine years has allowed itself to be held politically hostage by the far-right, racist Danish People’s Party, all the seven parties currently in the Swedish Parliament have made known their unwillingness to deal with the Sweden Democrats in any way.
While the race between the Alliance and the Red-Greens was at its closest it did seem as if the Sweden Democrats might find themselves in a position to tip parliamentary balance in either direction, a situation which would have caused chaos and might have led to some unexpected coalitions between the blocks and perhaps even to parliament being dissolved and a new election being held for the first time ever. This is still a possibility, but most recent polls show that the current government is likely to win a majority of their own, which will leave the Sweden Democrats without any influence.
The opinion poll published in Svenska Dagbladet today shows the gap between the two blocks narrowing – the Red-Greens now have 45.3 % (which is up 3.3 %) and the Alliance 49.9 % (which is down 1.8 %). This means that the opposition needs to win 133,000 new voters before tomorrow if they shall defeat the government. With 700,000 voters still undecided, this is possible, but probably not very likely. But, as with most elections, all predictions may turn out to be rubbish in the end and only the actual results tomorrow night will be able to tell what political future Sweden is facing.
The photo shows the main chamber in the Parliament Building in Stockholm.

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