Contrary to what has been figured by most of the foreign media on the eve of the 9 September general election, with the far-right Sweden Democrats presented as the new kingmakers, the power to form a government lies in the parties at the centre.
Last Sunday, Stockholm was under siege. Media from all over the world had rigged up their cameras, microphones and laptops, ready to chronicle the downfall of one of the last European bastions of social-liberal democracy, perhaps the most illustrious of them all. No one wanted to miss the havoc when the Swedish model should finally crumble under the pressure of immigration and failed integration. The Social Democrats, who has been the dominating political force in Sweden for over century, was expected to collapse, just like their sister parties in many other European countries had done before them. Moreover, the right-wing populists, the Sweden Democrats, with roots in the 1980’s neo-Nazi scene, could instead become the major force in Swedish politics. This was at least what the flown-in reporters and commentators expected.
But nothing of this happened. Doomsday was postponed. Some international media outlets stuck to their pre-conceived scripts when reporting the election results, but in fact neither of the predicted 10.0-magnitude earthquakes took place.
Though the Social Democrats made their worst election in history they still gathered 28.4 percent of the vote in a country that counts eight parties in the parliament. They retain the position as Sweden’s largest party, surpassing their closest rival, the conservative Moderate Party, by almost 9 percentage points. Compared to the near-eradication of the Socialist Party in France last year – or even the recent dismaying defeat of the German Social Democrats – this can hardly be described as a total meltdown.
Furthermore, the Sweden Democrats ended up far below 20 percent and well short of all their own targets. Encouraged by some polling institutes, who obviously over-adjusted their algorithms to compensate for having systematically underestimated the populist vote in the past, the Sweden Democrats had hoped to become the country’s largest party. At the very least they wanted to double their votes compared to last time, just like they had done in every election since Jimmie Åkesson became party leader in 2005. In the end, they received 17.6 percent of the vote, gaining 4.7 percentage points compared to 2014. This makes them Sweden’s third largest party and the big winners of the elections, but it’s far from the upheaval many had expected, let alone from the “seizure of power” some foreign commentators had insinuated was in the cards.
And yet, this was in several ways a historical election. For one, it confirmed that Sweden is now a country like any other in Europe and the political establishment urgently needs to answer the question that most European countries have grappled with a long time already: how should the Eurosceptical, right-wing populists be treated? As of last Sunday, this is no longer a theoretical or tactical question, it is about realpolitik and ultimately the governing of the country. Whether Sweden will choose the Austrian way – the inclusion of the populists in the cabinet, or at least in the parliamentary support for the government, as chancellors Wolfgang Schüssel and Sebastian Kurz have done – or the German way – cooperation between the parties in the centre, across the political divide between left and right – remains to be seen. Whatever the choice will be, it will be consequential – both for domestic politics and for Sweden’s place and role in the European union.
In fact, almost a third of the members of the new parliament want Sweden to leave the EU. In addition to the success of the right-wing Sweden Democrats, who describe themselves as nationalist and social-conservative, their counter-part on the other side of the political spectrum, the Left Party, won close to 8 percent of the vote and an additional seven seats. The Eurosceptical wings are thus the elections biggest winners.
After Sunday’s elections, the most urgent challenge seems to be to break the stalemate resulting from a near-draw between the two traditional blocs. Neither the Left Party, the Greens and the Social Democrats on the left, nor the centre-right Alliance, comprising the Liberal People’s Party, the Centre Party, the Christian Democrats and the Moderate Party can form a government on their own. All eyes are therefore, again, on the Sweden Democrats as potential kingmakers.
This perspective is understandable: “bloc politics” has been the defining feature of Swedish politics at least since 1945. Yet, a closer look at what actually happened in the run-up to this election, and on the situation after election night, can lead to a very different conclusion. This might not be “the burial of bloc politics” that still-prime minister Stefan Löfvén of the Social Democrats has proclaimed, but what we see could very well be the formation of a new bloc on the right, consisting of the Christian Democrats, the Moderate Party and the Sweden Democrats. In any case, it seems as if those who will really decide the future of Swedish politics are not a fringe party but the two parties that are in fact in the centre of the balance, namely the Liberal People’s Party and the Centre Party.
Such a shift of perspective makes visible the empowerment of the political centre and could be the true upheaval in Swedish politics this autumn, and perhaps the beginning of a new Swedish model. There are politicians all over Europe that would probably do well contemplating the maxim of Theodor W. Adorno: “The almost impossible task is to let neither the power of others, nor our own powerlessness, stupefy us.” As difficult as this might be, much depends on it – even if not every election day is doomsday.
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