An Icon of Scandinavian Social Democracy Eyes a Historic Slump
(Bloomberg) -- The party that has embodied Scandinavian social democracy for decades risks a historic beating.
With just nine weeks of political campaigning left, latest polls estimate the level of support for Sweden’s Social Democrats at about 25 percent. If confirmed in the Sept. 9 general election, it would be the party’s worst result on record.
Like its sister parties across Europe, the group has been wrong-footed by rising opposition to immigration across the continent. Under its leadership, Sweden has seen an influx of about 400,000 immigrants since the Syrian refugee crisis of 2015 -- a massive number for a country of 10 million people. Migration has dominated the campaign, which has seen the nationalist Sweden Democrats shoot up in the polls. The government has since tacked toward a more restrictive migration policy, but voters remain unconvinced.
“The agenda in Sweden has been very much about migration, and crime and punishment," said one of the party’s leading figures, Finance Minister Magdalena Andersson. "These are issues where we don’t enjoy as high a level confidence from voters as on other issues,” she said during the country’s annual political festival in Almedalen, on the island of Gotland in the Baltic.
The Social Democrats were the dominant force in Sweden for almost seven decades and at one point enjoyed as much as 54 percent of the national vote. But that support has been shrinking since the start of the millennium, and had dropped to around 31 percent by the time the last election was held.
Sweden’s powerful LO confederation of trade unions, a traditional supporter, is struggling to persuade its members not to switch to the anti-immigration Sweden Democrats, whose support is estimated by combined polls from Novus, Kantar Sifo and Ipsos at 20 percent, up from 13 percent four years ago.
“This spring has been awful in many ways. There has been too much focus on one issue, migration,” said Karl-Petter Thorwaldsson, the LO president.
His comments were echoed by Ylva Bendelin, a 48-year-old election worker for LO , who noted that many union members are now sympathizing with the Sweden Democrats.
“It’s regrettable in many ways,” she said. “One has to keep the history of the working class in mind," she said as she handed out flyers to passers-by.
One voter who has left the Social Democrats for the Sweden Democrats is Peter Wallmark, a 55-year-old former mason. He says he stopped voting for the Social Democrats in the 1990s.
"The Social Democrats have transformed into something else than the old Social Democrats, who stood up for the welfare state and for taking care of everyone," said Wallmark, who is now a local politician for the Sweden Democrats in Stockholm. “A lot of foreign entrepreneurs have come in and killed the market for us Swedes, and working conditions have deteriorated.”
Wallmark argues that the Social Democrats have lost the plot when it comes to safeguarding the weaker members of society. He says the Sweden Democrats offer the best chance of going back to “something we had before, for example stronger workers’ rights.”
The Social Democrats have been hemorrhaging support despite improved fundamentals (the economy is in its 19th quarter of growth, budget deficits have been turned into surpluses and public debt has been lowered to its lowest level since 1977). Even its decision to toughen up its migration policy, for instance by no longer issuing permanent residency permits to refugees, appears not to be working.
Trying to gain back support, the party is now offering bigger pensions and calling the election a referendum on the welfare state, but it’s also being hurt by growing health care queues.
Crime has also taken center-stage in the run-up to the election, after official statistics showed a steady increase in reported rapes and cases of deadly violence over the past three years. But voters have also expressed deep concern over the future of health care and education.
Andersson, the finance minister, is optimistic the party can shift the focus. “I don’t think that the battle will be about migration policy in the election,” she said. “It will be about welfare.”
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