Ideology adds fuel to marathon campaign

If you’re planning to be in Sweden for the next year, I hope you’ve got a good supply of wet towels and smelling salts. It’s going to be tough.

Polling day for the Swedish general election is the third Sunday in September. That’s September 2006, folks, and we’ve already had two televised party leader debates. We’re in this for the long haul.

But if the campaign is set to be long and gruelling, the one thing it won’t be is boring.

If you disagree with me on that, then you’re not alone. Many people are heartily fed up with the whole campaign before it has even started for real. But coming from a country, Britain, where ideology has been erased almost entirely from politics, to a country where old fashioned socialists battle it out with conservatives and liberals is every bit as refreshing as it is weirdly retro.

Of course, Sweden isn’t the only Western democracy where ideology has reared its head in recent campaigns. Analysts may be divided over the extent of its impact on the result, but religious ideology in the last American presidential election pervaded the whole campaign.

What viewers saw in Sunday’s party leader debate was two sides with very different views of how Sweden should be. Put crudely, the Right put the emphasis on creating jobs through cutting taxes and benefits, and the Left preferred instead to concentrate on defending high levels of unemployment benefit, and accusing the Right of wanting to “Americanize” Sweden’s economy.

Fredrik Reinfeldt, the leader of the conservative Moderate Party, may have tried to do a Blair, and move his party towards the middle ground of Swedish politics, but he is still way to the right of Göran Persson’s left-wing block.

But with unemployment lying somewhere between seven and twenty percent (depending on who counts as unemployed), there’s a real chance for Reinfeldt’s Alliance for Sweden to dent the Social Democrats’ hold on power.

The question remains whether he and his chums in the alliance have moved far enough to the Left to attract dissatisfied Social Democrats. It also remains to be proven whether the four parties of the Right will maintain their united front to the election.

But again the comparisons with Blair are striking – like the British Labour Party in the mid-nineties, the Right is hungry for power, and dissidents realise that a less-than-perfect right-wing government is better for them than another four years of Social Democrats.

The Right certainly cannot afford to be complacent. While Reinfeldt’s Alliance has had a ten point lead in some polls, one survey this week saw their lead cut to just one percent.

This should – and must – lead to a stimulating and high-level debate in the run-up to the next election. Sweden has a real choice next year, and both sides have everything to play for.

What do you think of Sweden’s election campaign? Discuss here!

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ANALYSIS: Why Sweden’s Greens are happy despite losing big in EU vote

If all you had to go on were pictures from the Green Party's Sunday night event in Stockholm, you'd think they were the victors of the European election rather than one of the parties that lost the most votes.

ANALYSIS: Why Sweden's Greens are happy despite losing big in EU vote
Green party spokesman Per Bolund, top EU candidate Alice Bah Kuhnke, spokeswoman Isabella Lövin and Pär Holmgren, second EU candidate celebrate on Sunday. Photo: Janerik Henriksson/TT
While its sister parties in Germany, France, Ireland, Denmark, Finland, Austria, and the UK made historic gains, the Swedish Green Party lost half of its four MEPs after its share of the vote plummeted from 15.2 percent to 11.4 percent.
Although it wasn't alone – Sweden's Liberals and Feminist Initiative both lost more votes than the Greens did, and it did remain the country's fourth biggest party in Europe – the “Greta effect” achieved in many other countries could not be as clearly seen in the home of the Swedish teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg.
But on Sunday night, the party's charismatic lead candidate Alice Bah Kuhnke was grinning from ear to ear, and the party posted a message on Twitter thanking supporters and boasting of the 11.4 percent. 
Top EU candidate Alice Bah Kuhnke celebrates her election as an MEP. Photo: Janerik Henriksson/TT
What's going on? 
Arguably, it's because the Sweden's Greens are actually a step ahead of their sister parties. The party had its own green wave in the 2014 European elections, when it soared by 4.1 points. 
European Election ANALYSIS: Six key takeaways from Sweden's vote
Months later it entered national government for the first time as the junior partner in coalition with the Social Democrats and the painful concessions it was forced to make over the next four years left it with only 4.41 percent in September's election, just a whisker over the four percent threshold to enter parliament. 
“It's obvious that they are very happy,” Roger Hildingsson, a Lund University researcher specializing in green politics, told The Local. “The rule of thumb is that the Green Party doubles its result in the national elections in the European elections, so this is a lot better than that. They were afraid of a much lower result.” 
The party achieved a lot in power, doubling Sweden's environmental spending, driving through a flight tax, subsidies for electric bikes and low-emission cars, a new climate law, and a proposal that tripled the cost of European emissions allowances.
But it also made painful concessions, breaking a key promise to close down Vattenfall's coal mines in Germany and backing a tightening of Swedish refugee and immigration policy that lost it half of its members. 
Former Green Party spokesperson Åsa Romson nears tears as she announced a tightening of refugee policy. Photo: Janerik Henriksson/TT
The party has also faced other parties competing for the same space, with the Centre Party and Liberal Parties positioning themselves as economically liberal greens, and the Left Party competing on the more radical green turf.  
There was also the breakaway Vändpunkt (Turning Point) party formed by longtime Green Party figure Carl Schlyter after he left the party in protest at the January Agreement struck with the Centre and Liberal parties. 
“As far as I understand from the Green Party they have been nervous as to what extent they will be challenged by Vändpunkt,” Hildingsson said.
In the end Vändpunkt pulled in only a fraction of a percentage, ending up humiliatingly lumped together in the 0.7 percent of “other parties”. 
“I think this will give the party some kind of self-confidence that they are back on track and attractive to voters concerned by climate change. That they might have come out of their crisis.” 
Carl Schlyter at the February press conference announcing the launch of his new party. Photo: Jonas Ekströmer/TT
Hildingsson said that the result could also strengthen the party in negotiations, both within Sweden's ruling coalition and in Europe, where its two mandates are now part of a block with a potential kingmaker role. 
“When the agreement was made in January, the Green Party was definitely the weakest partner, with this result they can maybe argue with more confidence,” he said of Sweden's coalition.  
The European situation very much depended, he said, on negotiations with the Social Democrats or centre-right European People's Party in the European parliament. 
“It could be sufficient for them [the centre parties] to strike an agreement with Alde [the Liberal group], so in that sense they could jump the Greens,” he warned. “But on the other hand I think they are concerned that there is some popular concern about climate change.”
The question, he said, was to how radical a programme of action on climate change the mainstream parties of the centre-left or centre-right might be willing to agree. 
“If this green wave is a result of stark concerns that we need to act now, rapidly, transforming our societies, that speaks in favour of a more radical position,” he said. “On the other hand, the room for pushing very radical positions might be limited, because the green group aren't alone in the middle.”