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Swedes vote in tight election race as far right surges

Swedes began voting in legislative elections Sunday that will either pave the way for an unprecedented right-wing government supported by the far right or a third straight mandate for the ruling Social Democrats.

Swedes vote in tight election race as far right surges
A supporter of the Social Democrats holds a banner with a picture of Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson. Photo: Jonathan NACKSTRAND/AFP

Opinion polls have predicted a close race with a razor-thin lead for Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson’s Social Democrats and the left bloc, following a campaign dominated by rising gang shootings and soaring electricity prices.

Polling stations opened at 8:00 am (0600 GMT) and will close at 8:00 pm, with final results due around midnight.

At a voting station set up in Stockholm’s Central Station, 34-year-old IT worker Erwin Marklund said he was concerned about the rise of the far right and had voted for the small Left Party.

“It’s important to not get the far right into the system”, he told AFP.

The right-wing bloc has never before agreed to cooperate with the nationalist and anti-immigration Sweden Democrats, long treated as “pariahs” by other political parties.

The far right has leapt to second place in opinion polls behind the Social Democrats in the final weeks of the campaign, credited with around a fifth of votes.

Their surge — overtaking the traditional leaders of the right-wing bloc, the conservative Moderates — was attributed to an election race focused on issues close to their voters, including crime, segregation and the integration of immigrants.

Prime Minister Andersson, 55, hopes however to hang onto power with the support of the small Left, Centre and Green parties.

Speaking to reporters at a rally on the eve of the vote, she said she hoped she had convinced voters “that the Social Democrats are a party for ordinary people, for workers, with good safety nets, good jobs and a good future.”

Tough days ahead

Andersson, whose party has dominated Swedish politics since the 1930s, enjoys broad support among Swedes. She has consistently led her challenger for the post of prime minister, Moderates leader Ulf Kristersson, by a wide margin in opinion polls.

Yet pollsters put the two blocs in an almost dead heat, predicting 49.7 to 51.6 percent of voter support for the left and 47.6 to 49.4 percent for the right.

Kristersson is the architect behind a major U-turn for the right wing. He launched exploratory talks with the Sweden Democrats in 2019 and deepened their cooperation before the two other small right-wing parties, the Christian Democrats and to a lesser extent the Liberals, followed suit.

“As it stands, we have two fairly clear blocs,” political scientist Katarina Barrling told AFP, noting it should be fairly easy to predict the next prime minister after election night.

However, both blocs are beset by internal divisions that could make for laborious negotiations to build a coalition government.

The previous 2018 election resulted in a four-month stalemate that ended with the Social Democrats forming a minority government. That would be a nightmare scenario this time around.

In addition to a looming economic crisis, Sweden is currently in the delicate process of joining NATO and is due to take over the EU presidency in 2023.

“The pressure to have a united and effective government is larger today than in the last election”, Barrling noted.

‘Enormous shift’

The end of the Sweden Democrats’ political isolation, and the prospect of it becoming the biggest right-wing party, is “an enormous shift in Swedish society”, said Anders Lindberg, an editorialist at left-wing tabloid
Aftonbladet.

Born out of a neo-Nazi movement at the end of the 1980s, the Sweden Democrats entered parliament in 2010 with 5.7 percent of votes. They won 17.5 percent in 2018.

The party’s surge comes as Sweden struggles to combat escalating gang shootings attributed to battles over the drugs and weapons market.

The country now tops European statistics for firearm deaths.

While the violence was once contained to locations frequented by criminals, it has spread to public spaces such as parks and shopping centres, sparking concern among ordinary Swedes in a country long known as safe and peaceful.

“My country totally changed from maybe the safest in the world”, 56-year-old Ulrika told AFP at a far-right rally late Saturday. “I’m so happy about my childhood… in that kind of a safe country but today no one can go out without fear”, she said.

“We know it’s because other cultures are coming to our country”.

Ingrid Schmidt, a 62-year-old researcher, disagreed. “It is important to express your voice against these right-wing values,” she said as she voted at Central Station on Sunday.

More than 80 percent of Sweden’s 7.8 million eligible voters are expected to cast ballots.

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2022 SWEDISH ELECTION

Why is Sweden’s parliamentary speaker election so important?

Sweden's parliamentary speaker is second only to the King in terms of formal rank. The prospect of a Sweden Democrat speaker taking over the role from popular Moderate Andreas Norlén has sparked debate. Here's why.

Why is Sweden's parliamentary speaker election so important?

On Monday, Sweden’s newly-elected parliament will elect a new speaker – talman in Swedish, but it’s still not clear who is likely to take over the post from Moderate Andreas Norlén, who has held the position since 2018.

How is a speaker candidate usually chosen?

There is no formal rule on how a speaker candidate is nominated, with the Social Democrats usually insisting the largest party supplies the speaker, and the Moderates arguing that the largest party in their bloc should provide the speaker.

Until now, that has meant that the Social Democrats believe the speaker should be a Social Democrat, and the Moderates believe the speaker should be a Moderate.

However, with the Sweden Democrats now the second-largest party in Sweden’s parliament, they have made claims on the speaker post, as they are now the largest party in their bloc, meaning under the Moderates’ rules, they should supply the speaker.

This has made the question of who should take over as the new speaker unusually charged.

Often – but not always, the speaker has been from the same party or bloc as the government. However, there are examples, such as in the case of Norlén, who has held the post despite there being a Social Democrat government for the last eight years, as there was a majority supporting him in parliament.

Moderate Party leader Ulf Kristersson sits down for a talk with Andreas Norlén, speaker of the Swedish parliament. Photo: Anders Wiklund / TT

How is the speaker elected?

The first time parliament meets after an election, members of parliament (MPs) decide which MP will become the parliamentary speaker and which three MPs will become the deputy speakers. These four speakers are elected in separate ballots, first the speaker, then the first deputy speaker, the second deputy speaker and the third deputy speaker.

The candidates are nominated by parliamentary party groups, after which a secret ballot is held where each MP votes anonymously. To be successful, a speaker candidate must secure a majority of votes – 175.

If no candidate secures a majority, another vote is held, where a candidate must still gain 175 or more votes to win.

If no candidate is successful, a third vote is held, where the candidate with the most votes is elected – they do not need a majority.

If the third vote ends in a tie between two candidates, lots are drawn to determine which candidate is elected speaker.

A speaker is elected for an entire election period – they cannot be removed by parliament during this period, and the role can only change hands after a new parliamentary election, which usually means that a speaker sits for four years at a time.

What does the speaker do?

The speaker – aside from being the second-highest ranking official in the country after the King – holds a prestigious position.

They do not have political influence and, if elected, must resign from their role as a member of parliament. But they have an important role to play in building a government, nominating Sweden’s new prime minister after an election and dismissing the prime minister if they lose a no-confidence vote.

Although there are checks on these powers – a new prime minister must be approved by parliament before they take power – a speaker could, theoretically, nominate four prime ministerial candidates to parliament in succession, knowing that each would lose a parliamentary vote, and thereby trigger a general election.

The speaker, currently Andreas Norlén (left) regularly welcomes foreign dignitaries alongside Sweden’s King Carl Gustaf. Here seen with King Carl Gustaf (left) and Finland’s President Sauli Niinistö (centre).
Photo: Anders Wiklund/TT

The speaker could also theoretically refuse to nominate a prime ministerial candidate despite them being the leader of the largest bloc, although this has never happened in practice.

It is also impossible for parliament to remove a speaker once they are elected, unless a new parliamentary election is held and an entire new parliament is elected, meaning that if a speaker were to misuse their powers, it would be difficult for parliament to replace them.

The speaker is the main representative of parliament, leading and planning parliamentary activities. The speaker is chairman of meetings in the parliamentary chamber and is an official representative for Sweden at home and abroad.

Why would it be controversial if the Sweden Democrats supplied the speaker?

Electing a Sweden Democrat speaker would be a win for the far-right party, as a confirmation that the party has finally been accepted into the corridors of power.

According to a source at newspaper Aftonbladet, the four parties backing Moderate Party leader Ulf Kristersson to become Sweden’s next prime minister have already agreed on stricter migration and crime policies, as well as who should be voted in as speaker of the country’s parliament when the role goes up for a vote on Monday. 

Multiple parties in the left-wing bloc have objected to a Sweden Democrat supplying the speaker, with outgoing Social Democrat Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson stating that her party is willing to collaborate with the Moderates and reelect Andreas Norlén as Sweden’s speaker instead in order to avoid a Sweden Democrat taking on the role.

Andersson said her party would be willing to “make an exception” to its principle. “We think there are arguments at this time, to have a speaker who can be appointed with very broad support in the parliament. What’s important is that it’s someone who can bring people together, either a Social Democrat or a Moderate”.

“I can state that Andreas Norlén enjoys great respect, both in the parliament, and among the Swedish people,” she said. “He has handled his duties creditably and during a turbulent time, and a problematic parliamentary situation.”

She said she was offering to discuss the issue with Kristersson to avoid the risk of a Sweden Democrat speaker, something she said would be “problematic”.

“This is a party whose whole rationale is to split rather than unite. This is also about the picture of Sweden overseas.”

Moderate Party leader Ulf Kristersson has not responded to Andersson’s comments.

Sweden Democrat former deputy speaker Björn Söder (left) and party leader Jimmie Åkesson (right). Photo: Jessica Gow//TT

There are also some MPs in the Liberal Party – who have agreed to support a Moderate-led government alongside the Sweden Democrats – who have stated they will not approve a government with Sweden Democrat ministers, and may also vote against letting them have the role of speaker.

Sweden Democrat Björn Söder, who held the role of deputy speaker between 2014-18, is a possible candidate for the far-right party. Söder is a controversial figure, having previously stated that Jewish people and Sami are “not Swedes”, leading to calls that he is not suitable for a role as a representative for all of Sweden.

Söder has also previously likened homosexuality to pedophilia and bestiality, stating in an article on the Sweden Democrats’ official online news site that “these sexual aversions are not normal and will never be normal”.

A public petition against electing Björn Söder as parliament’s new speaker had over 65,000 signatures as of September 23rd.

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