Sweden – EU Parliamentary Elections

Political Background

Sweden joined the EU in 1995, ending long years of Cold War neutrality for the country. It has so far stayed out of the Euro, with Swedes rejecting the single currency in a referendum in 2003.

Sweden has long been held up as a beacon of progressivism across the developed world.

As Sweden never had serfdom (largely an invention to deal with the damage from Viking attacks elsewhere in Europe), Sweden developed a particularly educated and politically powerful peasantry in the middle ages. When the industrial revolution and liberalism arrived, workers and peasants quickly formed trade unions and farmers movements, which formed the basis of social democratic and agrarian parties.

To this day Sweden has one of the highest trade union densities in the world at 67.5%. Only Finland and Denmark can claim higher density. While 67.5% is considerably down from the 80.6% of 1999, it still compares impressively with scores in other developed nations such as the United States (11.1%), the United Kingdom (25.8%), Germany (18.0%) or supposedly trade union dominated France (7.8%!).

Trade unions provide major benefits to their members and act as a safety net. The Swedish economy is actually not particularly regulated, with unions often providing minimum standards of care for workers instead. For instance there is no minimum wage law. Instead floors to pay are decided on an industry by industry basis via negotiation between employers and trade unions.

The largest trade union confederation is the LO which enjoys a close informal relationship with the Social Democrats and, until recently, owned the majority stake in Aftonbladet, Sweden’s most popular newspaper.

Recent years have seen Swedish trade unions become increasingly middle class, and the LO has declined relative to the other major trade union confederation, the more middle class and nonpartisan TCO.

The Swedish Social Democrats have been the largest political party in every election in Sweden since 1917. They were unable to form stable governments at first as liberal and conservative parties worked to keep them from power governing briefly in 1920, 1921-23,1924-26, before governing longer term from 1932-36, 1936-1976 (during which period Tage Erlander set the world record for time in office for a democratically elected head of government at 23 years, 9 days) from 1982-91 and, most recently, from 1994-2006.

The party hardly ever won an absolute majority, but still tended to form a single party government (in fact the Social Democrats have never gone into coalition). Sweden’s ‘negative’ parliamentary system in which parties do not vote their approval in a government but rather their disapproval creates a stable base for minority governments as parties can de facto support a government by arguing that they neither support nor oppose a government.

Hence, the Social Democrats could often rely on de facto support from the Communists, while working with the highly fragmented centre and centre-right on legislation.

Nonetheless recent years have seen parties coalesce into two blocs, the ‘socialist’ bloc, and the ‘bourgeois’ bloc. This reached its logically conclusion when, in 2006, the four ‘bourgeois’ parties ran on a joint manifesto as the ‘Alliance for Sweden’ (though they ran separately). The left attempted a similar bloc in 2010 called the ‘Red-Greens’, but has since broken this alliance, preferring more informal alliance.

The creation of the Alliance has weakened the Social Democrats who used to succeed partially due to the divisions of the centre-right. The Alliance has been in government since 2006, the longest ever term for a centre-right government in Sweden.

The Social Democrats have also been weakened by their attempted alliances. For instance, many of their traditional working class voters were put off by their alliance with the Greens, who they saw as anti-industry.

The Alliance has also proved problematic for the smaller members of the Alliance which has become increasingly dominated by Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt’s Moderate Party. As such the smaller parties have seen their support increasingly collapse as their own individual identities are eclipsed by the Moderates.

In addition to maintaining stability within its ranks, the Alliance has sought to maintain a moderate appeal, and has largely borrowed social democratic discourse and posturings. The ‘Swedish model’ has broadly continued under the Alliance.

Sweden is famously one of the most equal, if not the most equal, nations on Earth. The country ranks highly in just about every national performance metric. According to the World Happiness Report it is the fifth happiest country in the world, fourth in the Where-to-be-born Index, and fourth in the Legatum Prosperity Index.

Sweden is also a highly wealthy country. It is the seventh wealthiest country in the world by GDP per Capita (nominal) according to the IMF, putting it slightly ahead of the US. Largely due to economic adjustments due to a late 1980s recession, Sweden has largely escaped the financial crisis unscathed. The economy went into recession in 2009, with GDP falling by 5.0% but the economy grew by 6.6% in 2010, making up the difference.

Sweden has also traditionally kept a strong hand on its finances, especially after a major budget deficit in the 1990s led to big cuts. Hence Sweden actually ran a budget surplus in 2011. 2013’s deficit is the biggest in some time, at 1.1%, a number the vast majority of the remainder of the developed world would be over the moon with.

Unemployment is a problem, however. Unemployment peaked at 9.3% in 2010 and is now 8.7%. While this is low in comparison to many other EU member states, it is high by Swedish standards. Youth unemployment is a particular problem. This particularly rankles because the Alliance largely fought its first campaign on unemployment.

Immigration has also recently become a cause for concern. Rates of immigration into Sweden have historically been low, but have become higher in recent decades. Around 15% of the Swedish population is now foreign born, though around two thirds of this from within the EU.

For a long time Sweden was thought impervious to anti-immigration parties, but 2010 saw the ascendancy of the Sweden Democrats, who have polled fairly well since. Technically the Sweden Democrats are the kingmakers in the current parliament, but the Alliance runs a minority government and often negotiates with the opposition on legislation.

Sweden will go to the polls for its general election in September this year, hence the European elections will be viewed as a starting gun for that campaign.

Sweden is generally seen as a rather Eurosceptic country, like the other Nordic sister nations, (two of which, Norway and Iceland, have yet to join the EU). However, Swedes do seem to be becoming more pro-European, and show some of the higher levels of trust of the EU, perhaps because Swedes tend to trust government in general. Nonetheless, the Swedish are second only to the British in their general disdain for joining the single currency.

Electoral System

Sweden will elect 20 MEPs this year.

Sweden uses a semi-open list system to elect its MEPs. Voters vote for parties, who get seats broadly in proportion with their percentage of the vote. Seats are generally filled by the rankings of candidates on party lists, but voters have the option of casting a single preference vote for the candidate of their choice. Any candidate who receives more than 5% of their party’s vote goes to the top of the list.

Parties must win at least 4% of the vote to qualify for seats.

2009 Election Result

Party European Political Party Votes Seats
Social Democratic Worker’s Party of Sweden (SAP) Socialists and Democrats 24.4% 6
Moderate Party (M) European People’s Party 18.8% 4
Liberal People’s Party (FP) Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe 13.6% 3
Green Party (MP) European Green Party 11.0% 2
Pirate Party (PP) European Green Party 7.1% 2
Left Party (V) Nordic Green Left 5.7% 1
Centre Party (C) Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe 5.5% 1
Christian Democrats (KD) European People’s Party 4.7% 1
Sweden Democrats (SD) None 3.3% 0
Feminist Initiative (F!) None 2.2% 0

Likely results

The European election is likely to see a strong result for the left-of-centre parties, with the Social Democrats, Left Party and Greens all possible able to gain seats, or at least hold what they have. The Moderates and People’s Party will probably remain stable, but the Centre Party and Christian Democrats could lose their seats.

The Pirates may manage to hold one of their seats, and a seat for the Feminist Initiative cannot be ruled out.