Sweden: Far-right gains cause political crisis; Beware of 'Swedish lessons'

Social Democratic PM-designate Stefan Lofven.
By Farooq Sulehria

September 25, 2014 -- International Viewpoint, submitted to Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal by the author -- Sweden went to elections on September 14 to elect a new government for the next four years. As expected, an informal red-green coalition gained outpolled (43.7% votes) its rival "bourgeois alliance" (39.3%). The red-green alliance includes the Social Democratic Party, the Left Party (the reformed Communist Party) and Greens. It has represented the ideological polarisation in Swedish electoral politics since the 1990s. It represents the mainstream Swedish left.

In contrast, the right-wing alliance, consisting of the Moderate Party (conservatives), Liberals, the Centre Party and Christian Democrats, was a formal block. It won the last two elections and during eight years of misrule, it managed to aggressively dismantle the famous Swedish welfare state. It will be news only for casual observers of Swedish developments that the country is now top among OECD lands where the class gulf has widened.

Feminist Initiative

The much talked about Feminist Initiative (F!) received 3.2%, short of the 4% threshold a party must reach to enter Riksdag (parliament). A few months ago, when elections for the EU Parliament were held, F! was able to bag almost 5% of the vote and one F! member secured a seat.

Founded in 2005, F!’s public face has been Gudrun Schyman, who was earlier chairperson of the Left Party. Described by Britain’s Sunday Times, as the "Dancing Queen" for her participation in the Swedish version of the popular internationally formatted TV show, Let's Dance, Schyman is not the only famous face available to F!. For instance, Benny Anderson, member of legendary Swedish band, ABBA, endorsed F! by generously donating a huge sum for F!’s election campaign.

Sweden can be proud of an enviable gender equality compared to any other country, even in the West. Therefore, the emergence of F! surprised Western commentators. However, the emergence of F! was possible only because Swedish women have won many rights. Not merely do they need to defend them, a feminisation of politics is important to fight discrimination and injustices women still face. Considered a left-wing formation, F! has helped bring an intersectionality perspective into the Swedish politics.

For instance, during the recently concluded canvassing, F!’s relative rise has highlighted the position of women in the structures of various political parties. It turned out that the Left Party, often claiming to be feminist and socialist, had an embarrassingly low representation of women in its top echelons. Likewise, to the amusement of many on the left, the Swedish Liberals’ (Folkpartiet) most widely propagated slogan was: Feminism utan socialism (Feminism without socialism).

Personally, I am not a huge fan of F! since I find it reduces every problem to gender and skips the class question, especially at a time when the welfare system in Sweden is under attack and class differences have began to grow. It is the piecemeal dismantling of Sweden’s enviable welfare system, since the 1990s, that has contributed to the rise of neo-facsist Swedish Democrats.

Rise of neo-fascists

Incidentally, F! also generated lot of enthusiasm in certain circles because, to its credit, it was viewed as a party that could block the Swedish Democrats’ (SD) entry to Riksdag. In the previous election, the SD received 5% to enter parliament. Many on the left voted F! in the hope of edging out the SD, which did not fare well in the pre-election opinion polls. For the last month, the far left was able to mobilise huge anti-fascist mobilisations. But bagging 12.9%, the Swedish Democrats emerged as the third-largest party.

Since outgoing conservative prime minister Fredrik Reinfeldt had announced ahead of polls that he would not to build a government in alliance with the SD, he had to go. Social Democratic Party leader Stefan Lofven will replace Reinfeldt as the next prime minister.

However, the Swedish Democrats’ huge vote (48 MPs in the next Riksdag) has already unsettled Swedish politics. It has delivered the end of the red-green alliance. The Social Democrats announced that it would form the next government without the Left Party. Social Democratic PM-designate Stefan Lofven instead wants to form a government in alliance with two right-wing parties, the Liberals and Centre Party. The right-wing alliance has also fallen apart. In other words, a right-wing alliance will be replaced by a "right-left" alliance.

The Social Democrats have refused to build a coalition government with the Left Party despite opinion polls showing a majority want Social Democrats to build a coalition government with the Left Party and Greens. The Left Party, which retained a 5.7%t vote, campaigned to fight privatisation of schools, hospitals and other institutions of welfare.

It seems a Social Democratic government in alliance with right-wing parties, in a position to invoke the fascist scare, is intent upon dismantling further the welfare system rather than reviving it. In other words, the very cause of neo-fascism’s growth will find favourable objective conditions to flourish.

Islamophobic and anti-immigrant, the Swedish Democrats now will also be able to influence an enviable Swedish immigration policy. Despite a right-wing government, Sweden opened its borders to Syrian immigrants after the break-out of civil war. A Syrian landing Sweden is granted permanent Swedish residence. Such has been the progressive nature of Swedish migration policy that an anti-immigrant party in neighbouring Denmark has been campaigning, of late, to close borders with Sweden "from where illegal immigrants" sneak into Denmark.

Far left remains marginal

The far left is a marginal force in the Swedish electoral arena. While far-left groups (anarchists included) were in the forefront, if not instrumental, in anti-fascist mobilisations that swept Sweden ahead of September 14 election, they were not able to translate the success of anti-racist activism into votes.

Notable among far-left groups are the Justice Socialist Party (an affiliate of the Committee for a Workers' International, CWI), the Socialist Party (Swedish section of the Fourth International) and the Communist Party (KP, a Stalinist party). These groups usually concentrate on the municipal elections, held the same day as the national election, and manage to retain half a dozen or so positions across Sweden. As encouraging as that may be, it remains insignificant. In the recent past, the Justice Socialist Party and Socialist Party built an election alliance that generated hopes for the far left. But it did not last long.

Swedish lessons? Interpreting the recent elections

By Francisco Louçã, Left Bloc, Portugal

September 23, 2014 -- Esquerda net, translated by Revolting Europe -- The Swedish elections produced a slim majority for a coalition between the Social Democratic Party and other forces of the centre, after eight years of right-wing government. The winning coalition is now trying to form a government, but lacks votes and seeks a partnership with right-wing parties, having refused an alliance with any sector of the left.

This game was naively hailed in Portugal, but the financial press, led by the Financial Times, understood it better, by recording the facts. Does this provide a good example for the Portuguese, who so much need to open a door to new solutions to its current economic and social crisis?

In fact, the first interesting question is why the political colour of the government changed. The economy of Sweden has been a case of stability: since 2006, GDP grew by 12.6%, it is close to a budget surplus, and sovereign debt is around 40% (let us remember that Sweden has its own currency and is not in the euro). Few countries in Europe have these indicators and few could produce such an economic record.

But these figures conceal a stark reality: growth was achieved with a marked shift of income (it is the OECD country where inequality has widened most since 1990) and the budget was a result of painful cuts in public services. The most obvious is education. School results in Sweden have deteriorated rapidly (according to PISA rankings used to measure student results in OECD countries) as a fifth of students are now in private schools, but public accounts improved because parents are paying more for the education of their children.

After all, education became a business. The privatisation of nursing homes has also become a subject of scandal when recently evidence was discovered of mismanagement. In both cases, education and protection of the elderly, polls show the vast majority of the population is hostile to these right-wing policies.

Thus, one lesson is related to political alternating in Sweden. The alternation [between two parties] is the cornerstone of European political regimes and where it works, the system is stable (but it is failing in Spain and France and this is one of the great problems of the future of the European Union). So, in Portugal at least, it is better not to take any Swedish lessons, because we’ve followed this path in Portugal and the history of the country these last 40 years is a mess.

The second lesson is that economic solutions must be assessed on their actual social effects. In the Swedish case, the conservative government of Fredrik Reinfeldt reduced taxes from 2007, by about 140 billion kroner (€15 billion). The financial system benefitted most (note that in Portugal there was only tax cuts on profits, but taxes on labour increased), and the impact was such that Sweden now has a lower tax burden than France (44.5% of GDP to 46%), contrary to what happened during the previous century. However, neither this reduction of business taxes nor a better budget position achieved with cuts convinced the voters.

Not only were they not convinced they demanded something else: according to a poll before the elections, 67% of Swedes accepted higher taxes since they paid for better services (82% among left voters and 50% among those on the right). Thus, the elections turned around the dispute between two different proposals for tax increases.

The right proposed to suppress tax deductions on retirement savings, increase taxes on alcohol and tobacco, and to increase social security payments for the employees of banking and insurance. On the other hand, Social Democratic Party leader Stefan Lofven promised a tax increase of 40 billion kroner (approximately 29 billion) through a bank levy, an increase in VAT [indirect tax on consumption, like the GST], the abolition of the previous reduction of employer social security levies for young people, but also a guarantee of lower taxes for pensioners, paid for with a tax increase on the income of those who earn more than the equivalent of 6500 [a month].

The lesson from this seems to me: to choose between different parties’ budgetary and tax policies, it is better to force the candidates to be specific. To decide on the criteria that the Swedes were able to use.

Finally, there was no difference between the two coalitions on fiscal orthodoxy and even in the concept of public services. The Economist says, emphatically, that the finance minister of the new government actually “wants to move into budget surplus faster” than the right and has no desire to reduce the weight of the private sector in education.

What this orthodoxy means in terms of the new government we’ll have to see, but what we know is that Swedish social democracy today is rejecting the moderately redistributive approach of the former Social Democrat PM Olaf Palme and is gradually adopting neoliberal policies that are friendly to corporations and the finance sector, a process it has pledged to continue.

So maybe it’s best not to imitate the Swedes, because after all it was these policies that have brought us down. It is difficult to conceive that those responsible for the crisis, implementing measures that created the crisis, are the answer. But this is not a Swedish lesson, its really a Portuguese lesson.