Image: picture alliance / DPR
Image: picture alliance / DPRDPR

The end of Swedish exceptionalism

Petter Nilsson / Rikard Warlenius

The day after the election, no one knows who will be governing Sweden in the coming four years. The two traditional coalitions are tied at almost exactly the same result. The current governing red/green coalition; the Social Democrats, the Greens and passive support from the Left Party, received 40.6% of the votes, while the challenging centre-right coalition; the Moderates, Liberals, Centre Party and Christian Democrats, ended up with 40.3%. The rest was made up of the right-wing populist Sweden Democrats at 17.6%, which makes them the third biggest party and, possibly, kingmakers. One caveat remains, as votes from ex-pats and some postal votes still have to be counted and these could possibly nudge the current result by the tiny amount needed to make either coalition the largest minority – now there is only one seat separating the two blocs, with 143 for the red/green coalition and 142 for the centre-right.

This situation has been long in the making and the centre-right coalition has already had several spin doctors at work explaining how they will be able to govern as a smaller minority block without ending up dependent on making deals with the far right Sweden Democrats. Given the balanced situation no one can really say what coalition will result from the coming negotiations – not only which parties will be the basis of this, but even whether it will be a stable majority, different ad hoc majorities, or a minority government with other parties abstaining to allow this through.

The collapse of the center

However, some things can be safely stated even before the dust is settled. The grand narrative of the election is the decline of the two largest parties; the Social Democrats and the Moderates, and the concurrent rise of the Sweden Democrats. The Swedish Social Democrats, once the flagship of a radically reformist social democracy in Europe, have been veering towards a centrist position for so many elections that their current situation is a catastrophe that has been a long time coming. This is the same development that has been seen for the last decade or so and the Sweden Democrats have been picking up lost voters from both parties.

In the end, this tendency was weaker than predicted. The Social Democrats are still the largest party, followed by the Moderates. The Sweden Democrats had a weaker result than anticipated – as did the Left Party. In all the polls, the Left Party got around 10%, but at the last minute, many leftist voters seem to have decided to vote for the Social Democrats instead. The main reason is probably that in the expected parliamentary chaos, a new government is likely to be formed in the centre, which would leave the Left party without much influence.

The increasing divide between city and countryside

The Left nonetheless enjoyed very strong results in the major cities. In Stockholm, it received 13%, which is the highest result since 1946. In several districts it is now the largest party with up to 35% of the votes. In Göteborg, the Left got 12.5% and in Malmö 11%. On the other hand, this mirrors the increasing divide between cities and small towns and the countryside, where the Left and the Green parties are considerably smaller, where the Social Democrats have lost most of their former support, and where Sweden Democrats have their strongest support. This process has accelerated the most in rural Skåne in the extreme South, where the Sweden Democrats are the largest party in a majority of municipalities.

The future of the welfare state hangs in the balance

The coming weeks will consist of political manoeuvring, procedural technicalities and free rein for press secretaries to spin the resulting coalition – whichever compromise ensues – as the only responsible and therefore inevitable thing to do. But it is evident from the fractured political landscape that at the moment Sweden has no coherent political project that can count on a majority for any long-term transformation.

The strength of the Swedish labour movement was based on its universalism; by compressing wages it could build a coherent collective of workers who shared similar lives and therefore had similar grievances that could be addressed by the political wing of the unions, the Social Democrats. This has been slowly eroding over the years. For a number of years Sweden has had one of the fastest growing class divides within the OECD. Union density has gone from 85% in 1993 to 77% in 2006, and then a historically unique decline of 6% in two years to 2008. This was due to political reforms pushed through by the centre right coalition. This coalition, shrewdly, did not attack the welfare state head on but instead attacked the pillars of collectivity.

The decline of the social democracy and the rise of far right

During the same period the Social Democratic Party went from more than a million members in 1990 to less than a hundred thousand today, and at 28.4% in this election this is their worst result ever. The underlying cause of the decline of the Social Democrats and the concurrent rise of the populist far right is the erosion of the welfare state. The voters that jumped ship in the last four years were specifically those that had suffered most of the relative impoverishment and welfare cutbacks. The attack on the universal welfare state has in turn been made possible by the privatisation of public institutions in general and specifically the decline of the unions, the organised working class. The lost voters have been won over to a xenophobic and populist far right project, but this was not caused by immigration – rather it was made possible by the incresing rift between the labour movement and the institutions of the welfare state. There is nothing to be gained by trying to win them back by catering to their xenophobic impulses, and neither should we consider them forever lost and demonize them.

Chances for a common progressive future

Instead, any progressive future for Sweden rests on being able to formulate a project that can once more embed these people in a progressive class-based representation of interest that can rebuild trust in a common political future for broad layers of the population. This will entail large-scale investments in public institutions and universal welfare, as well as in retraining and education for both migrants and domestic workers in the coming years of restructuring, towards a socio-ecological transformation. This sounds like a tall order, and it is – but anything else will mean more years of slowly administering decline.