Sweden’s overcrowded middle ground
Forget far-right surges and left revivals - Swedish politics is gravitating to the centre.
Sweden’s 2010 General Election represented a high point for the then incumbent prime minister, Fredrik Reinfeldt. Thanks to his successful handling of the financial crisis and a weak opposition – the Social Democrats, the Green Party (Miljöpartiet), and the ex-Communist Left Party had attempted an awkward show of unity – Reinfeldt’s four-party, centre-right coalition (the Alliance) stormed back from a mid-term low to record an impressive victory. His own Moderate Party even won 30 per cent of the vote, which was by far the best result this old conservative party had achieved since it began its New Labour-style afterlife under Reinfeldt.
But not everything was rosy in Reinfeldt’s party-political garden. In that same election, the Sweden Democrats (Sverigedemokraterna), a far-right anti-immigration party formed in the 1990s, entered parliament. Sweden’s proportional electoral system sets the threshold for parliamentary representation at four per cent – the Sweden Democrats managed 5.7 per cent. This was enough to block an absolute majority for Reinfeldt’s coalition.
Reinfeldt made two decisions following the 2010 election. The Alliance continued in government, despite not having an absolute majority. And to block any influence by the Sweden Democrats on the immigration issue, he entered into an agreement with the pro-immigration Green Party to ensure a majority when voting on immigration issues.
Reinfeldt’s alliance with the Greens on immigration is striking. Reinfeldt could be the only leader of a right-wing government who, in the face of anti-immigration sentiment, has sought collaboration with a pro-immigration party. In response to greater migratory flows from Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and Eritrea, Sweden has actually become less, not more, restrictive. Last year, Sweden, with its nine million residents, hosted 20 per cent of the EU’s total asylum seekers. Indeed, since 2006, when Reinfeldt first came to power, the number of immigrants coming to Sweden each year has roughly doubled in comparison to the previous government lead by Göran Persson of the Swedish Social Democratic Party. And thanks to another Alliance reform, workers from outside the EU are now able to enter the Swedish labour market.
These two decisions might be what came back to haunt the Alliance, and Reinfeldt’s Moderate Party in particular, in last weekend’s General Election. The left-leaning and Green parties may have won more votes than the Alliance, but that was overshadowed by the doubling of the Sweden Democrats’ vote. With a shocking 13 per cent, the Sweden Democrats are now the third largest party in Sweden. In many municipalities, it is the second largest. Reinfeldt’s Moderate Party dropped from 30 to 23 per cent, with many voters flowing to the Sweden Democrats.
Many pundits will no doubt suggest immigration was the key issue in this right-wing surge. But this claim needs to be questioned. Opinion polls in Sweden do suggest that many Swedes are sceptical of the benefits of immigration. But, at the same time, the proportion of Swedes saying they want fewer migrants is actually declining.
Moreover, there has been a big policy shift among the traditional political parties in recent years. During the 1980s and 1990s, the Moderate Party and the Social Democrats formed a solid parliamentary bloc, and argued for a more restrictive, but relatively generous asylum policy. During the 2000s, however, the Moderate Party adopted a more liberal migration policy as part of Reinfeldt’s post-2003 makeover – it also changed policy on conscription, gay marriage and the welfare state. In the run-up to this year’s General Election, even the Social Democrats, under new chairman Stefan Löfven, adopted a more open immigration policy (aside from wanting tougher rules for non-EU workers’ entry). Hence, in the new parliament, the majority in favour of a more relaxed immigration system could actually be larger than ever. This might change, of course, should one or more of the seven losing parties decide to shift their immigration policy to cater to those voting for the Sweden Democrats.
There are real issues to be solved here. Sweden not only stands out among its European neighbours for accepting many more asylum seekers than other countries; it is also notable for its inability to integrate these immigrants into the labour market. Based on rough figures from the past decade, it is thought that only half of new immigrants find employment after being in the country for eight years.
Sweden might have a high rates of labour-market participation (unemployment is actually quite high, even compared to the rest of Europe), but it is much lower for non-EU migrants. The housing market is also under increasing strain, with rent control and building restrictions making it hard to meet the rising demand for new houses. Reinfeldt’s government did achieve some success in tackling these problems, especially labour-market participation, which has risen to higher levels than were recorded before the financial crash of 2008. However, the main issues confronting Swedish society remain unsolved.
These issues take us back to Reinfeldt’s other decision: to continue with a minority government. It could be argued that this decision led to the development of a more defensive and less reforming government over the past four years. An infamous invitation to Reinfeldt and his Alliance friends to discuss new reforms, from Centre Party leader Annie Lööf, ended in farce. Journalists were summoned to the the small village of Maramö, in south Sweden, where they expected some big announcement, only to find the four party leaders grilling sausages – and that was it. The fear of parliamentary defeat, with the Sweden Democrats voting with the red-green parties to block measures, also dampened the Alliance’s political ambition.
The image of Reinfeldt as a great reformer, propagated by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge in The Fourth Revolution: The Global Race to Reinvent the State (2014), is somewhat exaggerated. Many of Sweden’s signal political reforms were actually made in the 1980s and early 1990s.
Admittedly, Reinfeldt does leave office having lowered not only income taxes but also total tax as a share of GDP. And he did this while simultaneously lowering government debt during a financial crisis. This was no mean feat. During his reign, he also abolished conscription, introduced gay marriage, and increased welfare spending on schools, hospitals, kindergartens and care for the elderly – with deliberate cuts made in benefits for sick leave and unemployment. Central to Reinfeldt’s legacy will, of course, be the decision to open Sweden up to more migrants, even during times of crisis.
But few in Sweden have bothered to note the achievements of Reinfeldt. Since the 2010 General Election, the commentariat has been obsessed with the Sweden Democrats, loudly suspecting a ‘normalisation’ of the groups’s anti-immigration agenda in every rhetorical slip. Almost all public discussion nowadays is passed through the prism of ‘This runs the risk of benefiting the Sweden Democrats’. The left blames the Alliance government for enabling the rise of the Sweden Democrats – in their minds, the Alliance has created a society that is now tearing itself apart. The right blames the rise of the Sweden Democrats on the street activism of the extreme left. The Sweden Democrats also arise in every discussion, or non-discussion, of immigration issues.
Life in opposition also seems to have prompted a revival in the fortunes of the Swedish left. After two controversial leaders, the Social Democrats have stabilised under former union leader and welder Löfven. The Left Party has gained support by focusing on private companies profiting from the welfare state, especially in the Swedish school system. The Green Party has also made a turn to the left after changing leadership, adding feminism and anti-tax-cuts messages to its core agenda. And an orthodox feminist party under former Left Party leader Gudrun Schyman, the Feminist Initiative, has gained support and media coverage. Winning over three per cent of the vote, it effectively deprived the Greens and the left of vital votes.
Despite their disappointment with the electoral results, the Social Democrats (making a half-per-cent gain, with 31 per cent, on their disastrous result in 2010) and the Green Party (polling just 6.8 per cent) are now trying to form the new government. The Left Party, though (with 5.7 per cent), will not be included.
Ideally, Löfven wants to collaborate with the centre parties from the former Alliance government, the liberal People’s Party (Folkpartiet) and the rural Centre Party (Centerpartiet). While the outcome of this process is uncertain, it seems that despite the shocking rise of a nationalist anti-immigration party, politics in Sweden might be more confined to the middle ground than ever before. A result that would, in the end, be quite Swedish.
Mattias Svensson is an editor at Neo magazine.