In order to break the long-standing Social Democratic domination of Swedish politics, the four non-socialist parties – the conservative party, the liberal party, the Christian democratic party and the agrarian party – joined forces in the Alliance for Sweden two years before the general election in 2006. Here the leaders; Jan Björklund, Maud Olofsson, Göran Hägglund and Fredrik Reinfeldt. Photo: Johan Jeppson

Election The Swedish General Election 2010. – The end of one-party domination

The outcome of the 2010 election Late Sunday evening on the 19th of September, it appeared as if the general […]

Published on on oktober 5, 2010

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The outcome of the 2010 election

Late Sunday evening on the 19th of September, it appeared as if the general election in Sweden had failed to produce a clear outcome. Both of the two coalitions vying for power – the center-right Alliance for Sweden and the left-wing, red-green coalition – ended up short of their own majority. The unclear result was due to the entry of a new party in the Swedish Riksdag – the anti-immigration party the Sweden Democrats (Sverigedemokraterna).

Turnout, traditionally high in Swedish general elections, increased from 82.0 to 84.6 percent. The change can be explained by the relatively close race and the success of the Sweden Democrats in mobilizing their supporters, as well as an attendant increase in the motivation of their opponents.

Although they failed to win an outright majority, thus losing their previous parliamentary majority, the ruling four-party Alliance, led by Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, increased their total share of the votes and ended up the larger of the two government alternatives. Due to their increased support and lack of other alternatives, the incumbent Alliance was considered the winner of the election. For the first time during the postwar period, it seems likely that a center-right wing coalition will serve two consecutive terms.

The largest party of the Alliance, Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt’s conservative party (Moderaterna), was the most prosperous party of the election. The party received 30.0 percent of the votes, an increase of 3.8 percentages from the previous election. The party has almost doubled its support since the general election of 2002 and is now on a par with the social democratic party (Socialdemokraterna), which traditionally has dominated the Swedish political stage. The other three parties in the Alliance for Sweden – the liberal party (Folkpartiet), the Christian democratic party (Kristdemokraterna) and the agrarian party (Centerpartiet) – all faced small setbacks.

The newly formed red-green coalition was defeated by a relatively large margin (5.7%). This significant loss was mainly the result of the disastrous performance of the Social Democratic Party, whose leader Mona Sahlin was the candidate for Prime Minister of the coalition. The Social Democrats only received 30.8 percent of the votes (-4.3%), its lowest result since universal suffrage was introduced in 1921. It thus appears as if the long standing tradition of the Social Democrats as the responsible and ruling power of Swedish politics has by this election come to an end. For the second largest party of the red-green coalition, the green party (Miljöpartiet), the election was considered as a success (+2.1%). The left-wing socialist party (Vänsterpartiet) faced a small loss (-0.2%).

The Swedish proportional electoral system, with 29 electoral districts, 310 constituency-bound seats and 39 compensation seats – thought to work well with six parties – was, in this election, with one new party entering Parliament, as well as a relatively close race, stretched to the limit. The final seat distribution was in the end determined by only a few votes in some of the constituencies. The outcome in terms of seat distribution was not settled until the 23rd of September, when it became clear that Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt’s four-party alliance dropped to 173 seats in the 349-seat legislature, only two seats short of a parliamentary majority. The Social Democratic–led opposition in turn won 156 seats, and the newcomer in the parliament – the Sweden Democrats – received 20 seats and holds the balance of power between the two blocs. Due to the predominance of men in the Sweden Democrats elected to Parliament, the share of women in Swedish parliament decreased for the first time in almost 20 years to 45 percent.

All the old established parties had already ruled out cooperation with the Sweden Democrats during the campaign, which created an unclear political situation. In order to form a stable government supported by a majority of the Riksdag, some kind of cooperation across the political divide between the two coalitions is necessary. This was recognized by Fredrik Reinfeldt, who reached out to Mijöpartiet on election night. The party dismissed the invitation at first. A week later, however, they declared a willingness to support the Alliance in issues related to immigration and human rights. At the moment, it appears as if the Alliance will continue to rule, but that they will be forced to look for support from different parties, depending on the issue at hand.

The set-up of the election

Although Swedish politics has a long-standing tradition of a clear dividing line between the left and right party blocs, this was the first election where two coalitions, each with joined platforms, were running against each other, competing to win an absolute majority. In previous elections parties have usually fought elections alone, leaving the issue of government formation until after the election. And due to the historically strong position of the Social Democrats, along with the difficulties the non-socialist parties have had cooperating, the result has most often been Social Democratic minority governments.

The Alliance for Sweden

In order to break the long-standing Social Democratic domination of Swedish politics, the four non-socialist parties – the conservative party, the liberal party, the Christian democratic party and the agrarian party – joined forces in the Alliance for Sweden two years before the general election in 2006. The strategy was successful and resulted in a victory in the 2006 general election.

During the Alliance’s first years in power – years during which they pushed through a great deal of their election promises – opinion turned sharply against them. It appeared as if Sweden was not ready for the change offered by the Alliance, which involved a move towards lower taxes and cuts in welfare benefits. A common interpretation was that they had won the 2006 election not because of the popularity of their policies, but because they offered an alternative to the then unpopular leader of the Social Democrats, Göran Persson.

When the global finance crisis hit Sweden, the outcome of the 2010 election appeared settled. The polls looked grim for the incumbent government, and the reigning economic hardship was not likely to increase their appeal. However, after some turbulence during the first months in power, the cooperation in the Alliance has worked more smoothly than most expected. And their actions during the economic downturn proved to be exemplary on the international stage. 

The Social Democratic Party and the red-green coalition

On the night of the election in 2006, the leader of the Social Democrats – Göran Persson – announced he was stepping down. The party faced what was labeled a catastrophic result. The support for the party dropped nearly five percentage points and the party ended up at 35 percent, which at that time was the worse result since 1914. But since the person who had been the obvious successor, Anna Lind, had tragically been murdered a few days before the referendum on the Euro three years earlier, the party was faced with an unclear situation. It was generally held that it was time for the party to elect a female leader but one candidate after another declared their lack of interest, with the exception of Mona Sahlin. Sahlin, who had been considered the natural choice for the job in the mid 1990s, but who had withdrawn from the competition after accusations that she used a state credit card for private purchases, was now given a new opportunity. She was elected the first female leader of the Social Democratic Party in 2007 and was generally thought to be in line to become the first female Prime Minister of Sweden after the election in 2010.

After her appointment, Mona Sahlin declared that major reforms were necessary. In order to meet the challenge from the center-right wing Alliance, she decided to formalize the cooperation with the green party in 2008. The two parties declared that they would form a red-green coalition, but after strong internal critic in the Social Democratic Party, Sahlin was pressured into inviting the left-wing socialist party (Vänsterpartiet) into the coalition as well. Only half a year before the election, polls put the red-green coalition in the lead and they appeared to be heading for a comfortable victory. However, the poll ratings began to turn in late spring and the red-green coalition continued to lose ground until Election Day, ending with a resounding loss.

The Sweden Democrats

Yet another factor that made this election stand out was the increased support for the Sweden Democrats, a party that threatened to puncture the two-coalition set-up, if they proved successful in overcoming the four-percent threshold that allows a party to enter the Swedish Riksdag. While many other European countries, for example neighboring Denmark and Norway, have experienced successful populist and anti-immigrant parties for years, Sweden has been regarded as a tolerant country, with a culture that does not provide a breeding ground for these types of movements.

However, the closer the election approached the more obvious it became that the Sweden Democrats had a real chance of exceeding the electoral threshold. The party, which was founded in the late 1980s, has over the years slowly built up a more professional organization and relatively strong support in local elections in southern Sweden. During the last elections, the party has experienced a gradual increase in overall support, and when they received 3.3 percent in the 2009 election to the European Parliament it was generally held that they had a good chance of entering the Riksdag in 2010. In order to avoid increasing the support for the Sweden Democrats, the party was excluded from the official debates. All of the established parties avoided debating issues of immigration and presented a more or less united pro-immigrant front during the campaign. Apart from anti-immigrant policies which dominate the party’s agenda, the Sweden Democrats stress the concern for older generations and promote stronger crime legislation.

Why another victory for the Alliance?

According an exit poll by the Swedish broadcasting network SVT, economic issues, such as unemployment and the general state of Swedish economy, were, together with issues related to education, the most important for voters’ choice of party. The same poll revealed that the Alliance was considered to have the best economic policies. The poll offers a very good description of the debate during the election campaign, a debate that deviated slightly from the regular outlook of a Swedish election campaign. While the three salient issues in general are education, health care, and welfare benefits, this election was more focused on economic development, and which coalition, and more specifically which of the leaders of the two coalitions, was considered the most able to rule Sweden during the next four years.

The government’s management of the recession has been described as very successful compared to many other European countries, which created a reputation that was a trump card for the Alliance during the campaign. Sweden’s export-driven economy is expected to grow by more than four percent this year and the 2010 budget deficit is likely to be one of the smallest in the European Union. Under the economic leadership of the popular finance minister Anders Borg (Moderaterna), the Alliance has succeeded in overcoming the notion of non-socialist governments as irresponsible and unstable, a factor that appears to have been decisive in the election.

During the campaign, the red-green coalition did, on the other hand, contend that the Alliance – via their tax cuts and reduced welfare benefits – had created a divided Sweden with lower welfare, and that the government had failed to deal with high unemployment among young Swedes. The Alliance successfully countered with what they labeled their “work line”, proclaiming that it has to be worth it to take a job. It was not until the last few days before the election that the red-green coalition managed to set the agenda and begin to turn the tide of opinion.

On a more overarching level, the campaign turned out to focus on trust in the leader and prime minister candidates of the two coalitions. In this race, the incumbent prime minister Fredrik Reinfeldt had a great advantage over the challenger Mona Sahlin from the Social Democrats, who has struggled with low trust scores and a great deal of negative publicity.

Apart from the criticized leadership skills of Mona Sahlin, the Social Democrats, and the red-green coalition, faced problems with the third party that entered the cooperation, the left-wing socialist party. Although the party, which previously was communist, accepted the strict economic frame forced by the Social Democrats and the green party when it entered the coalition, it was perceived by many as a less trustworthy coalition partner and a burden in collaborative work.

Immigration can be described as a non-issue in the campaign that turned out to be decisive for the outcome of the election. The non-issue epithet refers to the reluctance of the established parties to debate the question of immigration. Instead of meeting the arguments and opinions presented by the populist and anti-immigrant party the Sweden Democrats, they presented a united front in favor of the existing political direction. The success of the Sweden Democrats shows that this strategy was not very effective. The party – headed by 32-year-old Jimmy Åkesson – presented their political agenda as an alternative to the existing pro-immigrant consensus, involving cuts in immigration and describing Islam as a national security threat. The program appealed to close to six percent of the Swedish voters, among which younger, male, and unemployed voters were overrepresented.

Four interesting years ahead

The new political term that begins on the fifth of October will certainly bring about some interesting questions in Swedish politics. Among these, the most significant is the matter of whether and how the Alliance will be able to govern without a stable majority. From what party or parties will they be able to find support for their policies, and even more interestingly, how will this affect the cooperation of the red-green coalition?                                                                              

Another issue that will influence the debate in the coming years is the role of the Sweden Democrats. The matter of how the established parties treat the Sweden Democrats in the work of Parliament as well as in the public sphere – and the possible spillover effects on immigration policy from the Sweden Democrats to other parties – will be closely followed by the media as well as the research community.

Last but not least, the internal renewal of the Social Democratic Party, to attempt to put an end to the recent negative trend, is likely to characterize the next four years. Since election night, Mona Sahlin has declared on several occasions that she will not resign from the position as party leader, and that her mandate to reform the party is stronger now than when she took over in 2007. Only time will tell whether she will succeed in putting the Social Democratic Party back on its feet by the next general election in 2014, and whether the two coalition partners, the left-wing socialist and the green party will be willing to give the cooperation another try.

Results in the election to the Swedish Riksdag 19th of September 2010
    %   Change (2006) Seats Change (2006)
Alliance for Sweden conservative party – Moderaterna 30.1   +3.8 107 +10
liberal party – Folkpartiet 7.1   -0.5 24 -4
agrarian party – Centerpartiet 6.6   -1.3 23 -7
Christian democratic party – Kristdemokraterna 5.6   -1.0 19 -5
    Alliance total 49.3 +1.0 173 -5
Red-green coalition social democratic party – Socialdemokraterna 30.7   -4.3 112 -18
green party – Miljöpartiet 7.3   +2.1 25 +6
left-wing party – Vänsterpartiet 5.6   -0.2 19 -3
    Red-green total 43.6 -2.4 156 -15
Others anti-immigrant party – Sverigedemokraterna 5.7   +2.8 20 +20
Others 1.4   -1.3
Total   99.8   349
Turnout   84.6   +2.6    
  • by Åsa Bengtsson

    Åsa Bengtsson (Pol.dr, Docent) is an Academy Researcher at Åbo Akademi University in Finland. She specializes in public opinion and electoral research.

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