Why should the world care how Sweden votes?

Foreign policy has been notable by its absence in this election campaign. But a defeat for the Social Democrats on Sunday would send a chill wind through the ranks of Europe's socialists, argues James Savage.

Asked by a Canadian journalist on Friday why Sweden’s election matters to the rest of the world, for a moment I was flummoxed.

After all, a win for the Right on Sunday should be a matter of utter indifference not only for North Americans, but even for Sweden’s European neighbours.

Nato membership certainly becomes more likely with an Alliance victory, but no new government is likely to push this policy anywhere near the top of the agenda. Indeed, foreign policy has been notable by its absence in the recent campaign, with opposition leader Fredrik Reinfeldt saying that his foreign policy won’t be very different from that of Göran Persson.

But if this election has any impact outside Sweden’s borders, it will be because a defeat for the Social Democrats will be a major blow to the morale of Europe’s Left.

“Europe is pining for the Swedish model as it did in the 1930s and again in the 1970s. It’s Sweden as object of desire: the way forward for European economies seeking to be both socialist and competitive in a free-market world,” wrote Newsweek in January.

Indeed, Stockholm welcomes a steady stream of left-wing politicians from other European countries. They want to see how Sweden manages to combine high taxes, high welfare and high growth.

This is particularly true in Britain. As left-wing commentator Polly Toynbee pointed out in the Guardian last year, “this is a contest Labour is watching closely. Young Labour ministers have close connections with the Persson government, as they ponder how a long-serving government renews and refreshes itself in office.”

Indeed, Toynbee went further, calling Sweden “the most successful society the world has ever known.”

Ironically, Britain’s (new) Labour Party is probably closer in terms of policy to the New Moderates than it is to the Social Democrats, who have a far more left-wing profile than their British counterparts. But this doesn’t reduce the impact on morale that an Alliance victory would have on the British Left. A Social Democrat victory would keep the Left’s dream alive.

A victory for the Alliance would also be a victory for Europe’s new soft Right, embodied by German chancellor Angela Merkel and Britain’s Conservative leader David Cameron.

Just as Reinfeldt has moved his party to the left, conservative parties facing left-wing incumbents across Europe are looking to capture the centre ground and are presenting themselves as the fresh, modern alternative. One of Reinfeldt’s only visible foreign policy moves in this campaign has been a visit to Chancellor Merkel in Berlin – a clear move to position himself in the ranks of Europe’s Right.

But the Swedish Moderate Party is less important for the European Right than the Social Democratic Party is for the European Left. The latter’s total dominance of Swedish politics and society has given it almost totemic importance. Defeat for Persson on Sunday will send a chill wind through the ranks of Europe’s socialist parties.