September 1998


Sweden's Politcal Spectrum

AT THE START of the current century, the labour movement and the political party it created were beginning to gather strength within the shelter of an increasingly democratic nation-state. As it comes to a close, they are struggling to adapt to the challenges posed by global neo-liberalism, which has little to do with democracy. In the years between, Swedish politics has been dominated to an extraordinary degree by the Social Democratic Party (SDP); with election results just over or slightly under fifty percent, it has been able to govern alone or with the support of one other party during most of the past half-century.

The SDP's continued dominance is partly the result of a divided opposition.

The SDP's continued dominance is partly the result of a divided opposition, consisting principally of the Conservative, Liberal, Centre and Christian Democratic parties. In addition to their policy differences, which are substantial, they suffer from a chronic dilemma: In order to attract voters, they must present political profiles distinctly independent of each other, while at the same demonstrating that they share enough in common to justify belief in the feasibility of a coalition government.

This is made all the more difficult during the present campaign by the memory of their most recent attempt, the coalition government headed by Conservative Carl Bildt during 1991-94, which was an indisputable disaster. As the Social Democrats are fond of observing, it is very difficult for such coalitions to settle on a workable economic policy. Another source of strain is the growing strength of the Conservatives, which has been gained largely at the expense of the other three "bourgeois" parties.

The jokers in the deck are the Left and Green parties, which will probably join forces with the SDP.

The two, and probably deciding, jokers in the deck are the Left and Green parties. The Left can probably be relied upon to continue its informal and often prickly alliance with the SDP. The Greens have in the past found neither polarity of Swedish politics especially attractive; but during the current campaign they have indicated a tentative preference for the Social Democrats.

There are 349 seats in the Swedish parliament ("Riksdag"), where the usual minimum requirement for representation is four percent of the popular vote. There are no new parties that stand a chance of overcoming that threshold, but the Greens have been hovering near the danger zone in recent opinion polls. The seven parliamentary parties are briefly sketched below. In parentheses: number of seats in Riksdag, followed by rough average of several opinion poll rankings at beginning of September.

The majority of the SDP is devoted to the Nordic model, and has therefore become increasingly alienated from the leadership.

  Social Democratic Party
Sveriges Socialdemokratiska Arbetarparti
(161 seats; ca. 38% as of September 1, 1998)

The SDP was formerly a grassroots organization with close ties to the labour movement from which it emerged. But there is a widening gap between a majority of followers still committed to traditional values and principles, and a minority in leadership which argues that it is necessary to adapt those principles to the challenge of global neo-liberalism, by learning to manoeuvre within its basic framework (see "Major Issues").

Caught in a bind of its own devisement between The Market it fears and a constituency it fears less-- the leadership has responded by submitting to the demands of the former, and tossing bones of traditional rhetoric to the latter. Naturally, the bones become bigger and juicier at election time. For its troubles, the SDP government has been rewarded with unrelenting abuse from the principal beneficiaries of its policies, i.e. SAF and the multi-nationals.

Since the net result has been to weaken the Nordic model of society, the majority of the SDP which is devoted to that model has become increasingly alienated, as evidenced by defections to the Left Party and a decline in voting frequency. The leadership has responded with a growing reliance on manipulative techniques-- most notably during the EU referendum campaign in late 1994-- and has sought inspiration in the media magic of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair.

Incredibly, SDP leaders have chosen to interpret the election successes of both gentlemen as signs of a global trend toward social democracy. The truth, of course, is something quite different, as President Clinton has lamented to his advisors: "Roosevelt tried to help people. But here we sit and help the stock market, and hurt the people who voted for us." It is a political epitaph that could as well apply to the social democratic governments of Ingvar Carlsson and Göran Persson.

The SDP has usually been able to rely on the support of the Left, and that is likely to remain the case in the foreseeable future.

Left Party, Vänsterpartiet (22 seats; ca. 11%)

The collapse of the Soviet Empire made it both necessary and desirable for the former Communist Party of Sweden to change its name and its basic politics. It now represents something very like traditional social democracy, which has not gone unnoticed by the former SDP voters who account for nearly the entire increase in the Left's opinion poll rankings, nearly double the level of its 1994 election result.

In addition to full restoration of the general welfare system and full employment, the Left has emphasised gender equality issues and opposition to the European Union, from which it would prefer Sweden to withdraw. In the past, the SDP has usually been able to rely on the support of the Left in parliament, and that is likely to remain the case in the foreseeable future. In purely ideological terms, the Left may now be regarded as the left wing of the social democratic movement, and it would not be surprising if it continued to draw voters away from the increasingly mainstream SDP in the years ahead.

With a leadership divided between two "spokespersons", the left hand does not always not know what the right hand is doing.

Green Party, Miljöpartiet de gröna (18 seats; ca. 5%)

The Green Environmental Party, as it is called in Swedish, still has the sharpest environmental profile. It is the only party to consistently challenge the fundamental premises of industrial society, including the assumption of continual economic growth, but many of its ideas have been co-opted by the more established parties. Much of its current support is based on its strong opposition to the European Union.

Founded in the early 1980s primarily in protest against nuclear energy, it has slowly and somewhat painfully developed a broader set of policies. But its general profile has often been difficult for voters to discern, especially since it insists on a form of leadership divided between two "spokespersons", one male and one female. The left hand does not always not know what the right hand is doing, and one half of the current duo is considerably more articulate than the other. This may help to explain why the party's opinion ratings have been slipping steadily since the 1995 EU parliamentary election, when it achieved its best results ever with a promise to work for Sweden's withdrawal from the union.

The Conservatives tend to soften their generally harsh criticism of the Nordic model at election time, since the vast majority of the population favours its retention.

Conservative Party
Moderata samlingspartiet (80 seats; ca. 25%)

The party of the economic elite and philosophical conservatives is said to include a large number of "social conservatives" who support the notion of a lean welfare state. However, such interests have not been much in evidence during recent years, as the party leadership has adopted a doctrinaire neo-liberal policy in tune with the anti-social spirit of the times.

Its steadily increasing dominance in the bourgeois bloc has been assisted by the trend toward polarisation noted under "Major Issues", and from the heavy long-term investment made in party leader Carl Bildt by political and media supporters at home and abroad.

Bildt's popularity received a large boost when he was appointed as the EU's representative in Bosnia, thanks largely to the influence of conservative allies such as Germany's Helmut Kohl and England's John Major. He has since been compared with Dag Hammarskjöld and Olof Palme, as the latest in a long line of Swedish peace-makers. Nothing could be further from the truth: For most of his political career, Bildt has opposed Swedish efforts to mediate peace, promote disarmament and defend the interests of the Third World (for a detailed discussion of this subject, see A Cold Warrior's Transfiguration).

The Conservatives tend to soften their generally harsh criticism of the Nordic model at election time, since they are aware that the vast majority of the population favours its retention. But it is clear that they would prefer to live in a society that more resembled the United States than Sweden.

The Liberals' doctrinaire individualism conflicts with the logic of the general welfare system which they also support.
Liberal Party, Folkpartiet liberalerna (26 seats; ca. 6%)

The Liberal Party draws its main support from the educated elite, including a large proportion of upper-middle-class professionals. It is committed to the ideals of the Nordic model, but argues that it is possible to attain them by more individualistic means. This theoretical stance tends to cause some difficulty in practice, since the general welfare system is based on social insurance and similar collective solutions to human problems.

The party has lost much of its former support to the Conservatives, and recent difficulties in finding an effective leader have not made things any easier. Among other things, the party favours intensifying Sweden's involvement in the EU and, along with the Conservatives, membership in NATO. Despite its many differences with the Conservatives, especially with regard to social policy, the Liberals have committed themselves to a new bourgeois coalition.

The CDP's support is contingent almost entirely on the popularity of a leader is blessed with the voice and demeanour of a benevolent Jehovah.

Christian Democratic Party
(15 seats; ca 8%)

The third component of what now constitutes the core of the bourgeois bloc, the Christian Democrats emerged some 25 years ago from Sweden's tiny Baptist revival movement. It has since toned down its religious origins and broadened its political message to include something that might be called neo-liberalism with a human face.

Its support is contingent almost entirely on the popularity of party leader Alf Svensson, who is blessed with the voice and demeanour of a benevolent Jehovah. The party's opinion figures have improved steadily during 1998, due largely to defections from the Conservatives.

As a member of the Bildt government coalition during 1991-94, Svensson stood quietly by while the Conservatives and Liberals tossed out Christian Democratic commitments to improve social services, especially for the elderly. But Svensson promises that it will be different the next time.

Centre's previous alliance with the SDP appears to have cost it a sizeable portion of its support.

Centre Party, Centerpartiet (27 seats; ca. 6%)

Formerly the political home of Sweden's farmers, Centre has expanded its base to include urban environmentalists such as the recently elected leader, Lennart Daléus. Its popularity has steadily declined from a high point near the 25 level in the mid-1970s, after its then-leader reneged on a solemn vow to oppose nuclear power.

Centre withdrew from the bourgeois coalition a few months prior to the 1994 election, and entered an alliance with the Social Democrats afterward. That co-operation, justified on the grounds that it was necessary in order to clean up the Bildt government's economic mess, appears to have cost the party a sizeable portion of its support. Daléus has distanced himself from the SDP during the current campaign, but has also expressed extreme displeasure with Conservative politics. The party's likely behaviour after the election is therefore somewhat uncertain.

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