This was an entertaining evening if you were a political scientist or a Sweden Democrat.
From the beginning, it was clear the SwedDem would pass the 4% threshold and the question was if the government would retain its majority. In the end, we had the rather weird situation that the government in fact increased its share of the vote compared with 2006 and lost its majority in the process.1 Even stranger is the fact, that immigration (SweDem’s major issue), despite the hopes of Danish right-wing commentators, appears to have been a marginal issue for the overwhelming part of the voters. The dynamics behind the increased support for the Sweden Democrats are not completely impossible to explain (a mix of nationalist and industrial society nostalgia in a limited segment of the electorate), but they add a new level of complexity to a party system which has been dominated by the socio-economic left-right dimension since the 1920s. If you read Scandinavian, you might want to take a look at this post by Anders Johansson Heinö about the development of the Sweden Democrats.
Despite the focus on the Sweden Democrats, I will maintain that they are a sideshow to some more profound developments in the Swedish party system and society as a whole. Since the 1930s, the Swedish party system has been a dominant-party system with the Social Democrats in command of the median voter and the median MP (until 1970, the SocDems had an additional advantage due to the composition of the upper chamber). Exactly when the Age of Social Democracy ended may be a topic for discussion: The party faced electoral problems during the 1970s and since 1988 it has only once managed to win more than 40 percent of the vote. Yesterday, the Social Democrats only managed to win marginally more votes than the Moderates – just as in Denmark, the party’s share of the vote is the lowest for a century.
Bad leadership has played a role but as my colleague Ulf Bjereld points out, the party faces some more fundamental challenges. Sweden 2010 is not Sweden 1985.
One characteristic of the present party system is an increased volatility. As Fredrik Reinfeldt was careful to point out, the difference in the share of the vote between the Social Democrats and the Moderates in 2002 was 25 percentage points. In 2010 it was down to less than one percentage point. Much of this volatility is intra-bloc volatility but the fight for the median voter has definitively increased.
Another characteristic is that Sweden now has to major parties commanding around 30 percent of the vote and six smaller parties each holding around 5-7 percent of the vote. The real difference between Sweden and Denmark is that Denmark has two 25% parties (V, SD), two 15% parties (DF, SF) and four parties hovering between 3 and 10 percent of the vote (KF, RV, LA, EL). Finland and Norway each have three major parties and a number of medium-sized and smaller parties.
There are many aspects of the 2010 to discuss but the most acute problem concerns the parliamentary basis of the government. First, we should note that there is one, and only one, way Fredrik Reinfeldt and his four-party government can be brought down: If the Sweden Democrats join the Red-Green opposition in a vote of no confidence.2 Needless to say, the Red-Greens could present a motion of no confidence but they will need the SweDems to vote actively against the government and such a move would trigger a massive round of recriminations.
Commentators and political scientists have pointed out that the government has the advantage of being able to choose between relying on the Sweden Democrats (Fredrik Reinfeldt emphatically ruled out this alternative on the election night) or seeking more or less formal agreements with the Social Democrats (as did Carl Bildt during the 1991-1994 parliamentary term) or the Green Party (Reinfeldt made such an invitation, only to be rejected by the leaders of the Greens). We should remember that these are early days and all three alternatives bring advantages and risks to all parties even if the interest on election night concentrated on some kind of agreement between the alliance and the Green Party.
Besides the symbolic aspect, the problem with the Sweden Democrats is that their economic policy builds on the assumption that curbing immigration will finance the expansion of a lot of transfers and services. The problem with the Greens is that the environmental and energy policies of the Alliance differ fundamentally from those of the Green Party (nuclear energy, for starters!) and if we look at the Social Democrats, taxes and social insurance appear as the major stumbling blocs.
That’s it for tonight, but stay tuned for more in the coming weeks.