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Sweden wakes up to a new reality

Sweden wakes up to a new reality

Published: 23 Sep 2010 10:21 GMT+02:00
Updated: 23 Sep 2010 10:21 GMT+02:00

When the people of Sweden woke up on Monday morning, they faced a radically changed political landscape. To the Social Democrats, the party that defined modern Sweden, voters had handed the worst election result for nearly a century. For Fredrik Reinfeldt's centre-right Moderates these were the best results since full democracy was introduced. Yet this country that prides itself on tolerance and equality had also let in an anti-immigrant populist party, which now holds the balance of power in Sweden's parliament.

The election of the Sweden Democrats was hardly a surprise - indeed, the election result was roughly in line with predictions. Yet the lack of a government with majority support in parliament has sent the political establishment into a spin, and threatens to overshadow the success of the centre-right parties, who may be forced to seek an uncomfortable accommodation with a reluctant Green Party.

Where the Sweden Democrats succeeded was in tapping into an undercurrent of resentment among some Swedes at large-scale immigration - some 14 percent of Sweden's population is composed of people with foreign backgrounds.

The party, with its young leader Jimmie Åkesson, ran a professional campaign and toned down some of its more extreme rhetoric about throwing immigrants out of the country. It also capitalized on the fact that it was shunned by the political and media establishment, using its underdog status to its advantage.

Only time will tell whether the Sweden Democrats prove to be a lasting force in Swedish politics (a previous populist party, Ny Demokrati, made similar gains in the 1991 election, only to disappear without trace three years later), but the eclipse of the Social Democrats might have longer-lasting consequences.

The party, which has ruled Sweden for 65 of the past 78 years and built up the Swedish model of a highly taxed state with generous welfare benefits, has seen its share of the vote fall to just 30.8 percent. The result is the worst for the party since 1914, and puts it at level pegging with the Moderates for the first time. Moreover, this was the second election the party had lost in a row. For the first time since the 1970s, the centre-right would rule for two terms.

The Social Democrats are the victims of Reinfeldt's shrewd realignment of the Moderates. Reinfeldt persuaded his party that Swedes were willing to move to the right, but not too fast or too far. In this, he made a similar calculation to Tony Blair and Bill Clinton - he identified the centre ground and appropriated his opposition's language in order to conquer it. He formed the Alliance for Sweden with centrist parties, and vowed to rule in genuine partnership.

For the New Moderates, tax cuts needed to target ordinary wage earners and reducing unemployment became top priority. Reinfeldt dubbed his party the ‘New workers' party', appropriating the name from the Social Democratic Workers' Party. The message to voters was that he wanted to overthrow the Social Democratic Party, but not the whole Social Democratic system.

Yet subtle though the changes were, Sweden has not simply replaced Social Democracy with ‘Social Democracy lite'. From having the highest taxes in the world, Sweden is heading rapidly towards the European average. From having the highest level of sick leave in Europe, the current government's tough approach has brought it down to more normal levels. The state pharmacy monopoly has been consigned to history and the governments holdings in many other companies have been sold off.

Conservative hard-liners might think Reinfeldt has not gone far enough - the top rate of income tax remains 58 percent, for instance - but Sweden has taken a clear rightward turn.

As members of Reinfeldt's Moderate Party gathered at a glitzy hotel in Stockholm for their election night party, they only had to look out of the window to the grandiose headquarters of the Social Democratic-linked union organization LO to remind themselves of the journey they had made. This iconic bastion of Social Democracy is now dwarfed by the steel and glass edifice in which smart-suited Moderates feted their historic victory.

The Sweden Democrats would provide a mammoth hangover on Monday, but that would not alter the fact that the Moderates have changed the course of Swedish politics - and the party knows it.

This article has previously been published in full on the Swedish debate website Newsmill.

James Savage (james.savage@thelocal.se)

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Your comments about this article

21:43 September 23, 2010 by miss79
yep the swedes sure had waken up and now is a nightmare..congrats swedes..
22:37 September 23, 2010 by fredbloch
Quite shocking violence against politicians. First the attack on the far right politician (Sweden Democrat - Antoni) by liberals of all people, who apparently cut a swastika into his forhead; and now the beating of centre party politician. What is going on in Sweden?
08:35 September 24, 2010 by miss79
well fredloch, sweden USED to be a nice country under social democrates, but i guess swedish people choose this way, to reckon sweden..from a wonderful country to a violance enviroment
08:57 September 24, 2010 by skatty
Not yet, Sweden waked up but it takes much longer time to reach to the reality!
12:34 September 24, 2010 by bwana
Wahayy! .. I never thought that the alliance would win again !

Perhaps the taxes will drop down to a more humane level so that me and other tax-exiles can afford to return to Sweden.

I'll definitely look into it..
13:12 September 24, 2010 by here for the summer
@miss you say congrats Swedes sarcastically.. are you not a swede if not before now ?

Also the question of violence if it is in fact more violent ? If so what brought about the changes was it now the moderates or was it the fact that many more violent people have now moved to Sweden ? I think the later .
01:25 September 25, 2010 by Lil'Ayesha
Many Swedish politicians and journalists are under the impression that the Swedish social welfare system is admired and even envied. In Malawi and Iraq it probably is, but not in Europe. We are not surprised that many Swedes think that taxation on their hard work should not be used to fund Islamic ghettoes alien to everything Swedish where work-shy immigrant idle the time away enforcing Islamic customs on women in the area.
12:20 September 25, 2010 by Streja
The unemployment hasn't gone down. Does that mean that the Alliance policies don't work in times of recession and crisis?
16:11 September 25, 2010 by Pharazon
"The party, with its young leader Jimmie Åkesson, ran a professional campaign and toned down some of its more extreme rhetoric about throwing immigrants out of the country."

The Sweden Democrats have NEVER said that they want to throw out immigrants. This is yet another lie created by the media and the other parties so that they can label them as racist.

Sweden as any other nation can ad deportation as a penalty for foreign citizens when they have committed a crime. But as it is right now even if a criminal gets sentenced to deportation it is rarely carried out. The Sweden Democrats simply want to make deportation a standard penalty for all major crimes committed by foreign citizens. And to have them carried out.
21:15 September 25, 2010 by miss79
@hereforsummer yes i do say it sarcastically, after all u guys want to change right?but changing in the wrong time..

things will get worst my friend..moderates does making things worst..just wat streja wrote, unemployment hasnt gone down..if u dont want violent people to come to sweden, why not protest to EU goverment to stop the war in afghanistan, iraq for the oil or should i say dirty business-is all related
19:07 September 27, 2010 by darrenj
Swedes are out "ficka ring" its the dark cold autumn months. Time to wrap up in your lonliness and depression,. take happy pills, play WOW and drinlk!!

Soon evey one will forget about the plight opf the immigrants, Which are actually NOT taking away Swedish jobs. Stats still show that more Swedes have jobs and having a Swedish profile gets you a job faster!!

The middle point of normality will soon move again, people will be become more use to right wing extremism and think it normal to openly discriminate.

Darren Maharaj
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