Swedish Election


Step backwards for Left Party, but "left" stays in power

Jan Å Johansson analyses the results of a disappointing, but mixed, election.

The Swedish election result was both wine and water for a socialist. The right wing forces were defeated, but the Left Party took a step backwards. In the local elections we lost some seats and the extreme right succeeded in electing one or two councillors in around 30 of the 290 local Swedish communities. But The Left Party for the first time in history took a majority in a town - 53,9% in Fagersta.

Why did the Left Party lose votes to the Social Democrats?

First of all, the electorate was not entirely the same as in 1998. About 400.000 of the 6.700.000 eligible voters were voting for the first time, though among them the Left Party took 18%.

During the legislature 1994-1998 the governing Social Democrats together with the Centre Party effected cuts in unemployment insurance and other social programmes, which persuaded many Social Democrats to turn to the Left Party in 1998, as well as EU-parliament elections of 1995 and 1999.

Since 1998 state finances have been in better shape and the Social Democrats have held budget negotiations with the Left Party and the Greens. The Social Democrats had a right wing position in relation to proposed new reforms, for example the shortening of working hours, but from the voters' point of view the situation was less stark, and less clear. Cuts as such have not been on the state agenda since the '98 election.

When, during the election campaign, the Social Democrats made a left turn, scrapping all plans to govern with right wing parties, they were able to attract the voters who stood between their own views and those of the Left Party.

Left Party ignored in the debate

The fact that 80% of the newspaper are non-socialist and the remaining Social Democratic makes it hard for the Left Party to make any impression in the debate. The Social Democrats and the Conservatives hogged the debate, presenting it as a battle between left and right. The main issues for the Left Party - such as feminism, shortening working hours and whether Sweden should join the single currency - were shunned by the other parties.  The question of whether Sweden should abandon the Kroner in favour of joining the Eurozone was totally ignored by the Social Democrats, since they knew that they would lose votes to the Left Party if this became a central issue. The Christian Democrats and the Centre Party were also not keen to debate a question which divides their parties internally. A referendum on the Euro is expected to take place next year.

The Left Party maintained its support amongst women, but lost out to the Social Democrats when it came to the men. A strong feminist position contributes to this, but our party leader Gudrun Schymans' two statements and speeches, one statement labelled "Death to the family" and the other "the Taliban speech" - in which she questioned Sweden's image as a gender-equal society - were damaging for us, with the opposition press bending and twisting what was said and making it hard for her to defend what were reasonable, if colourfully-expressed views. This weakened us among male voters before the election campaign really got under way.

Conservative-Liberal division

The Conservatives lost heavily to the (right wing) Liberals. This was unexpected, since as late as spring of this year the Liberals poll ratings scarcely crossed the 4% threshold, below which a party receives no parliamentary representation.. However, the Liberals declared in August that a language test should be required for Swedish citizenship. That, and the fact that the Conservatives had an unimpressive election campaign focussing almost exclusively on tax cuts - which voters could see could be made only at the expense of redistributive social programmes, made many voters change from the Conservatives to the Liberals.

The Conservatives became the largest non-socialist party in the election 1979, when took over the role as leaders of the opposition from the Centre Party that had that "title" since 1968, inheriting it from the Liberals. Now the four non-socialist parties will battle for four years over who will lead the opposition.

The Swedish election result (with changes from the election 1998):

Moderates (Conservatives)                 15,2% (-7,7%)

Centre Party                                      6,1% (+1,1%)

People's Party (Liberals)                    13,3% (+8,6%)

Christian Democrats                          9,1% (-2,6%)

Greens                                             4,6% (+0,1%)

Social Democrats                              39,8% (+3,5%)

Left Party                                          8,3% (-3,6%)

Others                                              3,0% (+0,4%)

Turnout 80,1% (-1,3%)

Everything is relative. In 1979 the Centre Party received 18,1% of the votes, and that was seen as a catastrophe. The Social Democrats lost the election of 1976 when they won "only"  42,7%. In that period the Christian Democrats had around 1,6% of the votes and the Left Party between 4,8% and 5,6% of the votes.

But the Swedish political landscape has drastically changed since then. Until 1991 Sweden had a very stable electorate bound to vote according to family tradition and social class. Today it is not like that. Many voters follow the trends in the society and vote for or against the present government depending on whether the economic situation is good or bad.

The turnout has fallen in Sweden, and of course it is more obvious in working class areas. At the Social Democrats and the Left Party have gained amongst the middle class, maintaining their overall vote share.

The Social Democrats have been out of government for only very short periods since the 1930s, a situation unique in Western Europe. This has created a political atmosphere in which a huge majority is in favour of high taxes to provide for the general social welfare of all citizens. Tax cuts are feared by many. The flipside of this is that a political class of well paid Social Democratic politicians has been created - and they know very little about the life of the low paid or unemployed, whose rate of electoral participation is low.

The Social Democratic victory is no mystery. In recent years the economy has done well in Sweden and the large middle class felt satisfied with their situation, and that is why the Social Democrats did well.

Jan Å Johansson is a policy adviser to the Swedish Left Party at the European Parliament.