The End of Swedish Exceptionalism

Why the Elections Mark a New Era for Politics

A polling station during general elections in Stockholm, September 19, 2010. Soren Andersson / Courtesy Reuters

This week’s election marked the end of eight years of center-conservative rule in Sweden. In a sense, the victory of a loose coalition of the Social Democrats, the Left Party, and the Green Party was surprising, not least because the ruling coalition, led by the Moderate Party, has been hailed for successfully navigating the 2007­–08 global financial crisis and then generating respectable economic growth over the last three years. Sweden’s public finances are among the healthiest in the OECD, and, although the government had to make some cuts to the country’s generous welfare system, it left its basic universal structure untouched. Even so, the leading party in the coalition, the Moderates, dropped from 30 to 23 percent.

But what was also surprising is that, although Sweden’s left-leaning parties will form the next government, they didn't do as well as many predicted. Even against a background of sharply increasing economic inequality and the Swedish population’s enduring support for their country’s social welfare programs, the Social Democrats reached only 31 percent. For a party that used to score above 40 percent, this is a dramatic change. The former Communist Party, now the Left Party, pulled in six percent, the same as in the previous election, in 2010, and the Green Party managed seven percent, a loss of half a percent from the previous election. The left was not helped by the fact that the Feminist Initiative, Sweden’s new radical feminist party, tallied three percent of the vote but will not be represented in parliament since there is a four percent threshold.

Making up for the lackluster results of the conservatives and the left was the strong performance of the Sweden Democrats, a populist anti-immigrant party, which won 13 percent of the vote, more than double its share in the 2010 election. Sweden Democrats is now the third-largest party in parliament, but the other seven parties refuse to enter into any political or budgetary negotiations with it. That will make politics all the more complicated

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