22.10.2010, Riina Kaljurand
Considering the last one hundred years of Sweden’s political history, a slight shift to the right in society’s political preferences can be only beneficial. It will also stimulate serious self-reflection and internal reforms on the left wing.
Although the most burning current issue in Sweden is the possible reunion of ABBA, the recent parliamentary elections are probably also worthy of mention.
In Estonia, Swedish elections are usually followed less passionately than those in Germany or Russia because they do not affect the more significant demarcation lines in European politics to the same extent. However, the parliamentary elections that were held in Sweden less than a month ago, on September 19, and the election results themselves, have been widely discussed in Europe and beyond. There are several reasons for this.
Despite the fact that the centre-right alliance, which includes the Moderate Party (Moderaterna), the Centre Party (Centerpartiet), the People’s Party (Folkpartiet) and the Christian Democrats (Kristdemokraterna), had to settle for a minority government after its second consecutive election victory, its re-election is nevertheless historic in the Swedish political context. Another topical issue, of course, is the second consecutive defeat of the Red-Green coalition, which unites the Social Democrats (Socialdemokraterna), the Green Party (Miljöpartiet) and the Left Party (Vänsterpartiet). It seems that the first blow, dealt to the Red-Greens in 2006, was not as random as initially thought and that there is a more profound political paradigm shift underway in Sweden. A third piece of news – probably the most widely covered by the media – is, as expected, the entry into parliament of a far-right party, the Sweden Democrats (Sverigedemokraterna).
Opinions about the election results both inside and outside the country are divided. One side is heavily tolling the bell for Sweden, the last stronghold of social equality and justice, which is now supposedly destroyed forever. Stockholm – the capital of social democracy – has surrendered to the right-wing bourgeoisie and its streets are filled with xenophobia. The illusion that there is no place for this kind of intolerance in Sweden has been shattered.
Others do not see anything special in the election results; they rather discern a certain kind of logic and inevitability that has emerged in many other European and Nordic countries. If unemployment, smaller social benefits and the rising cost of health services become an everyday reality, people cannot help searching for whom to blame. Immigrants and the system, rendered unsustainable by the changes, are the usual suspects. All this resembles an evolutionary social self-purification process because every member of society must bear responsibility for its functioning. “From each according to his ability, to each according to his ability!” might have been the victory slogan at the last elections! Truth, as usual, loves the middle ground, which is why both sides are right.
Still, how can we explain the reasons behind this political paradigm shift? What makes the centre-right’s second rise to power so historic? First, there are the simple statistics to consider. Since the establishment of the party in 1904, the right wing or more conservative forces led by the Moderates – who definitely enjoy the most broad-based support on the right of the political spectrum – have managed to form only four governments which stayed in power for very short periods: 1906–1911, 1928–1930, 1976–1982 and 1991–1994. So, in 2010, it is a first for the conservatives to be re-elected for a second consecutive time. In addition, it is a first for the right wing to expand its supporter base in mostly social democratic Northern Sweden.
The success of the centre-right forces can largely be attributed to the Moderates’ growing popularity in recent years, although the alliance’s support would not have been as extensive without the Centre Party, the People’s Party and the Christian Democrats. Unlike their allies, the Moderates have undergone constant internal changes to find their right profile and inner balance. This was partly to do with the scandals surrounding them. They have been reproached for excessive snobbery and even racism. It was the racist remarks by young moderates that brought on their catastrophic defeat in the 2002 elections. The incumbent Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt became party leader in 2002. Having been one of the Moderates who had been elected to parliament already in 1991, he was no newcomer to politics. He built a strong team around him and tabled the idea of forming a new electoral alliance with centre-right parties in 2003. This alliance was successful in the 2006 elections, enabling them to deliver most of their election promises.
The policies of the Moderates also shifted more towards the centre. Earlier their main target groups had been private entrepreneurs and citizens of above average wealth; now they decided to approach the working class and to tackle their problems. The Moderates began to pay ever more attention to issues concerning the everyday welfare of the people. It has to be said that a labour party called the ‘New Moderates’ sounds a bit strange, but this is what the Moderates call themselves. The brains or the grey eminence behind the party’s new image was the current Finance Minister Anders Borg, a man who left high school without getting a decent grade in mathematics, but who later took evening classes, worked his way up, studied at university and is now considered to be one of Sweden’s most brilliant minds.
Unlike Sweden’s left-wing forces, the centre-right’s success stems partly from their effective economic policy, which allowed Sweden to emerge rather unscathed from the last economic crisis. At this point, we should not forget the economic crisis that engulfed Sweden at the beginning of the 1990s, when the state loosened control over the lending policies of private banks, causing the economy to overheat. Although the Social Democrats got the credit for overcoming that crisis, much work was done and the crucial decisions were taken already under the Moderates’ rule in 1991–1994. Despite their efforts, the Moderates could not lift the state completely out of the crisis before their mandate expired. However, they did gain valuable experience in how to operate in an economic crisis.
In the last elections, the main emphasis fell on labour market policy, job creation and increased employment. This domain has been a focal point of contention between the centre-right and the Red-Greens – while the Social Democrats have stressed the importance of raising taxes and the possible provision of higher state benefits to those who have been excluded from the labour market, the Moderates want to engage as many people as possible in the labour market and to avoid excessive dependence on benefits. Benefit application procedures have been made more complex and every case has to be substantiated. Increased personal responsibility is evident in other fields as well. By and large, it could be said that the success of centre-right policies has been based on flexibility, keeping up with the times and better adaptation to global changes, while bringing a citizen’s personal responsibility, in addition to the state’s responsibility, back to the forefront of attention.
Generally speaking, the Social Democrats were successful during their almost 65-year-long reign, in particular after World War II and during the Cold War when the resulting geopolitical situation and Sweden’s choice to stay neutral were the two factors that largely saved the country from more extensive destruction and conflicts, enabling it to keep its economy stable, to develop its industry and to accumulate reserves. There was a fixed world order: the globe was clearly divided into East and West. The international dimension had therefore only an insignificant role to play in domestic politics. At that time, the social democratic concept of the ‘people’s home’ emerged, which relates primarily to the feeling of security of every single person. The most important aspect of the concept was the activeness of civil society – citizens’ initiatives, the voice of citizens. The rapid development of industry soon created a demand for a foreign workforce and the first immigrants, mostly from Finland, arrived already in the 1950s. Foreign workers wanted to be reunited with their families and relatives. In the 1980s, they were followed by asylum seekers and refugees. Thus the groundwork was laid for an immigration policy, on the basis of which today’s Sweden accepts up to 100.000 immigrants annually.
Sweden’s current image has been defined by the Social Democrats during the last one hundred years. Sweden, as we know it today, is a state that promotes collectivism, equality, openness and security; a state with the world’s best social security and health system and with the most liberal immigration policy based on humanistic principles; a state that willingly accepts the role of mediator in peace negotiations, a human rights defender and a champion of international law. Even though he was a very controversial figure in domestic politics, Sweden clearly has to thank Olof Palme for its image as the conscience of the international community. At least three generations of Swedes have been raised to believe this, which is why a blow to the Social Democrats equals a blow to their national identity and the democratic values on which it is built.
Still, the Swedish Social Democrats seem to be facing serious challenges, the roots of which can be traced back to the 1990s. We can only speculate on their exact nature, but it is possible that the rapidly changing international arena of the time – the collapse of the Soviet Union, the restoration of independence of the Baltic states and a geopolitical power shift – had something to do with them. While a social democratic Sweden continued its blissful existence, its thought patterns became outdated. The state found itself in an economic crisis and the Social Democrats were plagued by scandals. In 1994, they once again managed to win the elections, but had to settle for a minority government. The same scenario was repeated in 1998.
Göran Persson’s rise to the party’s top position in 1996 was a positive development because he was a charismatic leader – admittedly with some authoritarian tendencies in his leadership style – who could rekindle the fighting spirit of the Social Democrats. Persson implemented a relatively successful fiscal consolidation programme and the state’s economy started to get back on track. However, it became increasingly obvious that the party’s supremacy, which had seemed indisputable, had come under threat. The Social Democrats became ever more dependent on the support of other parties – first on the Centre Party, then on the Left Party and the Green Party. A ‘father of the nation’ with an authoritarian style can both attract and repel people, which is why the making of compromises became harder and harder. Persson announced his resignation as party leader on the evening of the 2006 election day when it was clear that they had lost. The Social Democrats needed to bring fresh blood to their top ranks but, as it turned out, their choices were quite limited. So, in 2007, Mona Sahlin got her second chance1 to lead the party. Sadly, like others, she has not been able to restore the party’s damaged reputation.
Having become slightly unstuck after the defeat, it was decided in 2008 to follow the example of the centre-right and to form an electoral alliance with the Left Party and the Green Party. Now, after having suffered yet another loss in the 2010 parliamentary elections, many claim that the Red-Green coalition was the biggest strategic mistake of the entire post-war era. However, we should face facts and admit that in 2006 the Social Democrats lost the elections even without having entered an alliance.
Everything suggests that the Swedish Social Democrats must update their world views in order to keep up with the times. If a state starts to act, figuratively speaking, like an overprotective parent, it will decrease a citizen’s personal responsibility and become very expensive and frustrating for the whole society in the long-term perspective. It seems that members of the older generation have turned into convenience voters, creatures of habit, who cast their votes without considering the changes that have occurred. However, one needs to be attentive to spot the changes. The rhetoric of the 20th century sounds outdated in the politics of the 21st century.
What evidence is this conclusion based on? The generation that built the ‘people’s home’ in Sweden is on its way out, being replaced by young and even younger people for whom the state’s membership of the European Union is the only reality they know, for whom the international dimension plays a significantly greater role in domestic politics than for previous generations and who place slightly more emphasis on Sweden’s international profile. Economic difficulties have led increasingly more people to reconsider their views on Sweden’s squandering social system, which makes it far more profitable to be unemployed than employed, thereby undermining the sustainability of the whole system. Sweden’s immigration and integration policies are out of sync, contributing to social segregation. In many counties and city districts there are entire ethnic communities, whose members do not speak a word of Swedish and who are therefore cut off from Sweden’s information space and labour market. The inability to motivate immigrants to learn the official language has created a situation where a vast majority of, in particular, the older immigrant generation get by on social benefits. It is always a challenge for the youth to enter into the labour market, but it is not wrong to suggest that young people from immigrant backgrounds also make their contributions to society and compete for jobs on an equal basis with others. If they do that, equal treatment should be guaranteed to them.
Immigration policy is clearly one of the most significant and sensitive issues in Sweden. Therefore the entry into parliament of the anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats with as many as 20 MPs is historic in its own way. What seemed impossible in Sweden has proven to be possible. As if having relinquished its exclusiveness, Sweden has become a state like any other. Their entry into parliament might have been a deliberate choice of a section of the population, but it might also be the result of protest voting with the aim of raising awareness of the issue, the more so as neither of the electoral alliances set out a coherent vision for solving immigration problems. One can talk about democratic values, human rights and humanism with no end in sight, but a society’s belief in these ideas must also be reflected in its budget and action plans.
It is true, however, that against the background of a general upward trend in Europe, it was only a matter of time before the far right gained popularity in Sweden. Yet one should not draw any dramatic or profound conclusions from this. This is not the first time that a small party with similar tendencies has been elected, and it usually comes as a surprise to the party itself. Let us not forget the New Democrats who got into parliament in 1991, although their agenda was slightly more chaotic – in addition to a stricter immigration policy, they promised that all Swedes would have incomes sufficient for eating out in restaurants. As they did not have enough resources to implement their policies, the New Democrats had become exhausted by politics already by 1993. The same fate seems to be awaiting the Sweden Democrats who allegedly resemble the New Democrats in many aspects. They also plan to fulfil most of their election promises at the cost of immigration policy. They cannot expect any support from either of the electoral alliances, which have decided to seek cooperation opportunities between themselves in order to weaken their standing. And these opportunities will be found because Swedish parliamentary factions are characterised by a readiness to cooperate on crucial matters.
In the tumult of elections, some issues which probably matter the most to Estonia got very little attention – those related to foreign and security policy. The electoral alliances have radically different views on these issues. The centre-right forces place emphasis on the strategic role played by the USA in guaranteeing Sweden’s security and on a very strong partnership with NATO, as a proof of which Swedish troops are stationed in Northern Afghanistan. They want to increase defence expenditure and to give some real content to the solidarity declaration put forth by a Swedish defence minister. Carl Bildt as the embodiment of Swedish foreign policy is one of the few foreign ministers in Europe who has not refrained from criticising Russia’s policies.
The left-wing alliance, on the other hand, wants to weaken US positions on European territory (their reluctance to make a similar proposal to Russia obviously raises certain suspicions), to persevere with Sweden’s non-allied policy, to stage an immediate withdrawal of Swedish forces from Afghanistan and to continue slashing the defence budget. They have adopted a rather courteous approach to Russia, underlining their willingness to cooperate.
Sweden’s accession to NATO will not be contemplated in the more immediate future, but the election debates left the impression that both the Swedish media and the younger citizens are critical of the security policy solutions promoted by the left-wing parties, which do not seem to have an adequate understanding of the security environment. If the defence budget were cut even further, Sweden’s defence capability would amount to nothing more than words on paper. Critical attitudes to Sweden’s excessive conservatism and insufficient responsibility for its national security are increasingly spreading in the Swedish media and Internet chat rooms.
In sum, it has to be said that everything is okay in Sweden and that the new ruling government is current with the times, while being the best one from Estonia’s perspective as well. All changes have been quite logical and the state is developing in the right direction. Considering the last one hundred years of Sweden’s political history, a slight shift to the right in society’s political preferences can be only beneficial. It will also stimulate serious self-reflection and internal reforms on the left wing. Still, the centre-right’s success was not so huge that the left wing’s role in politics would become non-existent. A balanced competition between political blocs and pressure to cooperate in subduing the far right offer Sweden the best change to prove that it does bear in mind the interests of the nation and the state as a whole. Democratic values can be defended by using either social-democratic or more conservative methods. The important thing is to keep up with the times and to draw the right conclusions from the changes.
Although the Sweden Democratic Party may be a harbinger of undesirable social developments, Sweden continues to be one of the few societies that are able to solve these issues, if it really makes an effort to do so. In this country, idealism and missionary instincts are still imbibed with mother’s milk.
1 Mona Sahlin was a candidate for the post of prime minister for the first time in 1995, but she withdrew her candidacy in connection with the ’Toblerone affair’.