Political Earthquake Shakes Up Sweden
By STEPHEN CASTLESTOCKHOLM — Worthy, high-minded and often utterly predictable, Swedish politics has rarely offered much by way of excitement. Now an electoral earthquake seems to have changed all that.
Elections on Sunday gave an anti-immigration party its first parliamentary seats and deprived the governing coalition of its majority, plunging the country into rare political instability.
Meanwhile the Social Democrats, architects of the modern Swedish state and one of Europe’s most successful political parties, recorded their worst performance since World War I.
Behind the upheaval lie structural changes in Swedish politics and a battle over how to preserve the cradle-to-grave welfare system.
Though the success of the center-right suggests a long-term shift in politics, analysts say Swedes remain deeply attached to their welfare system and want change to be gradual, not radical.
Despite failing to secure a majority, the prime minister, Fredrik Reinfeldt, is likely to become the first center-right leader to win two consecutive terms.
He pleaded Monday for time to let the election result “sink in” and promised to have a government, which could well be a minority one, in place by Oct. 4. He appeared to be courting the Greens, who campaigned against him, and their initial response proved negative.
Mr. Reinfeldt’s options are limited, because he pledged not to work with the anti-immigration party, Sweden Democrats, whose leader, Jimmie Akesson, described Muslim population growth as the biggest external threat to his country since World War II.
Doing a deal with Mr. Akesson would, in any event, not be logical for Mr. Reinfeldt, whose success has been built on moving to the center ground. Only in that way has he managed to tame the Social Democrats, who for most of the last century had one of the most effective vote-winning political machines in Western Europe. Their political philosophy forged a nation with high taxes and a generous social safety net.
“There used to be a maxim in Swedish politics that you never won elections by offering to lower taxes,” said Martin Adahl, director of Fores, a center-right research institute. “That was because people would suspect that you were going to cut the welfare state. There has been a change, but people still believe in the welfare system.”
This much was evident during a campaign in which even rightist populists presented themselves as defenders of the welfare system, albeit in their case for white Swedes rather than immigrants. A television advertisement, initially banned by one broadcaster on the ground of racism, portrayed a stampede of Muslim women in burqas defeating a white retiree in a race for welfare payments.
The mainstream center-right parties, including Mr. Reinfeldt’s, the Moderates, acknowledged the importance of welfare, too. The Moderate Party, which once modeled itself after Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, is now careful to stress its centrist credentials.
Though Mr. Reinfeldt’s government curbed some benefits, most notably for those claiming to be too sick to work, he was careful not to present himself as a radical reformer. During the campaign, Mona Sahlin, leader of the Social Democrats, was at her most effective when health care became a central issue.
Ursula Berge, political director of a white-collar Swedish trade union, Akademikerforbundet SSR, said that the message from the Moderates to the electorate has been that they “want to keep the welfare state the way it is, just to change some small things like cheating by people who claim they are sick but are able to work.”
While Mr. Reinfeldt moved to the center, he was also helped by a weakening of traditional allegiances among Swedish voters.
“There used to be a middle class that voted very solidly for the Social Democrats but there is now a rather large part of the middle class that is outward oriented, mainly employed in the services sector, that is not prepared to take for granted that the Social Democrats represent them anymore,” Mr. Adahl said.
But other factors aided the center-right, too. During testing times for the Swedish economy, Mr. Reinfeldt’s government coped well. That allowed it to steal the clothes of the Social Democrats, who were once regarded as the safest guardians of the economy.
For their part, the Social Democrats failed to react partly because, throughout much of the past four years, they were ahead in opinion polls — something that reduced their incentive to change.
“The Social Democratic Party has not renewed their politics,” Ms. Berge said. “They were comfortable with their level of support and they didn’t have the courage to change policy.”
With the two main parties battling on similar terrain and with ideological dividing lines blurred, that left an opening for the Sweden Democrats, who have capitalized on tensions raised by the loss of industrial jobs and the rise in immigration.
“If you are an angry young man, you had to choose between a cuddly conservative and an urbane, politically correct woman,” Mr. Adahl said. It was, he added, little surprise that some opted instead for Mr. Akesson.
But the mainstream politicians remain committed to the traditional social model, albeit a slightly less generous one. Here in Sweden, when people come to vote, welfare remains more important than their wealth.
Assuming he can form a government, Mr. Reinfeldt will limit himself to reforms that underline that there is a “greater moral and economic difference between being on welfare and being in work,” Mr. Adahl said. “It’s not a revolution; it’s definitely an evolution.”