Introducing… The 2014 Swedish Elections

Introducing... The 2014 Swedish Elections
A woman votes early at a polling booth in central Stockholm on August 27th. File photo: Bertil Ericson/TT
With elections less than a week away, you may be wondering what it's all about. Fear not. The Local's handy 'Introducing' guide will walk you through just about everything you need to know.
Help! I just got to Sweden and everyone's talking politics. Who are these people and what do they want?
Welcome to Sweden! You're here just in time for elections – time to elect a prime minister and form a new government. Early voting has already started, and the main event takes place on Sunday, Septemer 14th.
You may have noticed some key players already – such as Moderate party leader Fredrik Reinfeldt, who has been prime minister since 2006 but is now battling Social Democrat Stefan Löfven for the position.
 
Reinfeldt is also the leader of the Alliance, a coalition of four parties which have been governing since 2006. Those parties are the Moderates, the Liberal Peoples' Party, the Centre Party, and the Christian Democrats.
The power of the Alliance means that the Social Democrats, Sweden's largest party, hasn't been in government for eight years – their longest period of "down time" in more than a century. And now they want to take it back.
Ah, so they're an old, popular party. But what's new this time around?
Well, Stefan Löfven for one thing. The party leader has never been in parliament and never been a minister, so he's quite the fresh face. He's been leading in polls along with his party, although that lead has dropped in recent days
Okay, so who are the red-greens then?
The red-greens is a collective term for the Social Democrats (red), the Green Party (green), and the Left Party (also red). Although none of the parties have confirmed what their government would look like, many people suspect that the three parties will indeed collaborate if the Social Democrats win.
The Left Party is sort of on the outside, though, as Sweden's second-smallest parliamentary party. The Social Democrats work much more closely with the Greens, but there has been speculation that the Left Party will also be included.
You can read more about all of the parties and their leaders here.
So it's basically the red-greens versus the Alliance…right?
 
Well, sort of. But exactly which group will ultimately win the right to govern will also depend on how many voters are attracted to parties at the far end of the spectrum. On the far-right, we have the nationalist and anti-immigration Sweden Democrats. They entered parliament for the first time in 2010 and are vying with the Greens to be Sweden's 3rd-largest party, and could end up holding the balance of power if neither coalition reaches a majority.
 
And on the far-left there is the Feminist Initiative, a small party that could nevertheless have a big impact on the election. The party isn't in parliament yet, but some polls suggest they have enough support to get there, adding to the uncertainty of these elections.
 
Sounds like these elections are going to be hard to predict. But what are the big issues?
There are three main issues in the 2014 elections: Jobs, schools, and health care.
 
These were the topics ranked most-important by Swedes, and for the most part the political discourse has stayed in line with these concerns, with a heavy emphasis on how to address high unemployment rates and struggling school results.
However, immigration and the environment are also very important issues, which have been taking more and more of the spotlight as elections approach.
All of the parties have promised a Sweden with better jobs, schools, and healthcare — nothing strange about that. So where do the parties differ, you might wonder? Well, we're about to tell you, issue by issue.
Okay, I'm ready. Tell me why schools are such a big deal.
Well, many consider Sweden's schools to be in a crisis state after Sweden's results plummeted in a major study of developing countries' education systems carried out by the OECD and known as the PISA rankings. Teachers and students alike seem largely unmotivated. The red-greens point the finger largely at "free schools" as the culprit, but not everyone agrees.
Wait, what are free schools, and what's wrong with them?
Free schools in Sweden are actually free-standing schools, or schools not run by the state or public sector, but still largely funded by taxes, as opposed to purely private schools which are funded primarily by student fees.
But several parties say free schools are a problem because there currently is no limit on how much profit the owners can make. This means that owners can cut back on the quality or quantity of staff in order to keep more cash for themselves.
The Left Party is fighting for a total profit ban on schools, and the Social Democrats have said they will rein in free schools by giving local councils the power to decide for or against having free schools and limiting – but not banning – profits.
Meanwhile, the Alliance has stayed away from the free school debate. However current education minister and Liberal Peoples' Party (Folkpartiet) leader Jan Björklund has previous expressed support for curbing profits at free schools and argued that Sweden's schools should have been re-nationalized.
The Alliance has instead opted to address the school issue with smaller class sizes, more teachers, making an extra year of school mandatory, and getting Sweden into the top 10 in PISA rankings by 2025.
The Social Democrats and the Green Party also are pushing for smaller class sizes and increased teacher pay. They also agree on expanding adult education and vocational programmes.
Additionally, the Social Democrats want to make teacher education programmes more rigorous. And when it comes to higher education, the Greens want to abolish tuition fees for students from outside the EU – fees which were instated in 2011 and saw foreign student enrollment plummet at Sweden's universities.
Not a bad idea. But what about jobs?
That's a serious issue, too. The unemployment rate in Sweden for 2014 has been hovering between about 7 and 9 percent, rates significantly above neighbours Denmark and Norway. The numbers are even higher for youth unemployment, with about 24 percent unemployment for youth between ages 15 and 24.
At the same time, job help programmes are considered ineffective. The Alliance and opposition agree that current unemployment programmes are problematic, with far too many people getting stuck in long-term unemployment. It is also largely agreed that the jobs agency, Arbetsförmedlingen, is in need of reforms or at least a serious cash injection.
The Social Democrat's "most important" election promise is a 90-day job guarantee for youth, which will ensure that unemployed young people are given a job, an internship, or a spot in an educational or vocational programme within 90 days of enrolling. 
The Alliance also plans to expand apprenticeship schemes, attempting to keep pace with the guarantee.
Both the Alliance and the Social Democrats have promised 50,000 new jobs – with the Alliance planning 20,000 new jobs in the construction sector alone, and the Social Democrats focusing on jobs for youth in welfare and the public sector.
The Alliance also wants to cut employer fees for companies offering jobs to those under age 23, as well as subsidizing companies that employ those who have been long-term unemployed.
 
The Social Democrats want to give long-term unemployed workers jobs in the voluntary sector, and increase unemployment benefits. They also want Sweden to have the lowest unemployment rate in the entire EU by 2020, though the party has been criticized for viewing unemployment as a comparative goal instead of presenting a specific target number.
The Green Party policy is close to the Alliance when it comes to sick pay, wanting to eliminate sick leave costs for small businesses. Like the Social Democrats, the party also wants to limit short-term employment contracts. The Greens furthermore wrote in their manifesto that they want to shorten the work week to 35 hours.
 
Wow, that's a lot to take in. What about this health care debate?
Similar to the education issue, Sweden faces a crucial debate about the limits and effects of privatization in the health care sector
The Social Democrat campaign has featured a strong spotlight on elderly care, promising to strictly monitor privately-run care homes to make sure they follow guidelines, not allowing patients with private medical insurance to jump queues, and increasing grants for elderly care.
 
The party also wants to close the "generation gap" by giving 32,000 young people jobs in the care sector, particularly working with the elderly.
Points presented in the Alliance's campaign include raising taxes on alcohol and tobacco and improving overall hospital quality. Both the Alliance and the Social Democrats agree on cutting waiting times for cancer treatment and extra efforts to address mental health problems among youth.
 
The Green Party, meanwhile, agrees with the Social Democrats on increasing staff at nursing homes, but also wants to improve care for homeless EU migrants and invest more in maternity care.
 
Ok, something needs to be done about health care I guess. But I keep hearing people debate about migration. Why is this an issue?
Good question. While immigration was not initially seen as a key issue in the 2014 elections, the topic has become hotter and hotter over recent months.
Sweden, which makes up only 1.9 percent of the EU's population, takes in 19 percent of refugees arriving in the EU – more than any other EU member state. And the numbers are on the rise.
Wow, those are huge numbers. What do politicians want to do about it?
Well in August, Moderate and Alliance leader Fredrik Reinfeldt wove the issue of immigration and refugees into his summer speech, asking Swedes to "open their hearts" to refugees.
After that speech, the debate took off, with both sides discussing the rising costs of taking of immigration how Sweden's budget can be adjusted to accommodate more refugees.
Meanwhile the nationalist and anti-immigration Sweden Democrat party, headed by Jimmie Åkesson, has suggested that the country limit immigration and refugee intake and instead give additional funds to UNHCR, the UN's refugee agency.
The Alliance stated in its manifesto that it aimed to more evenly distribute refugees across Swedish cities, as well as make it easier for municipalities to receive government compensation for the costs associated with asylum seekers. The coalition also wants to "keep Sweden open" and decrease waiting times for labour migrants.
When it came to refugees the Social Democrat policy was nearly identical to that of the Alliance, specifying that the responsibility for asylum seekers should be distributed more evenly across the EU and municipalities within Sweden, while Sweden should remain open and view the right to asylum as "fundamental".
However, the two differ when it comes to labour migration, with the Social Democrats promising to "sharpen" the rules for labour migration, "to guarantee order and clarity in the Swedish labour market".
 
Ah, sensitive issues I see. Let's move on. Swedes are pretty concerned about the environment, right?
Indeed. Swedes view the environment and climate change as a critical issue, contributing to the Green Party's gains in recent years. 
The Alliance wants to address environmental issues by decreasing taxes on renewable energy, continuing to subsidize purchases of electric and environmentally-friendly cars, and increasing taxes on vehicles with high carbon emissions. They also want to subsidize the construction of charging stations for electric cars.
The Social Democrats have slammed the Alliance for sluggish progress when it comes to environmental goals, and stated that they will address the issue much more quickly. The party has promised to make Sweden completely free from fossil fuels by 2050, and to stake 250 million kronor ($35 million) each year on reaching environmental goals.
The Green Party naturally has the largest focus on the environment, with a lengthy list of promises should the party take a place in government.
The Greens' manifesto presented an ambitious goal of making all electricity and heating come from renewable energy by 2030, and having all vehicles run on fossil-free fuels by the same time. The party is also fervently against nuclear reactors – an issue on which the Social Democrats have remained cautious.
 
Whew, that was exhausting. But I think I get it. When do we find out who the winner is?
 
A provisional result in the national poll is usually announced on election night, with local election figures being released later in the week. The Local will also have a live blog of the elections, so come back here to the SI News Network for updates on election night, and the day after.

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