Hard left and right set for gains in Sweden's EU vote
By Ylva Nilsson
The political temperature is feverish in Sweden. Fresh opinion polls arrive every two weeks and are commented upon at length. Every new incident involving a politician is scrutinised in light of the upcoming elections. And adding to the excitement is that it looks very much like an open race.
But it's not the May European elections that are causing the kerfuffle.
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As in a number of EU countries they tend not to be a big deal in Sweden. Last time turnout was extremely low by Swedish standards, just 45 percent.
The lack of interest could be due to poor media coverage of EU affairs. Once candidates have been voted in, they seem to disappear completely, only to be heard of five years later for the next EU vote.
But no, the reason for the political fever is because 2014 is a 'super election year' with parliamentary, regional and local elections to follow in September.
Two parties dominate
Sweden's political landscape is currently dominated by two parties.
On one side are the centre-right Moderates who have achieved the previously unheard of feat, in Sweden at least, of running a non-Socialist government for two consecutive mandates.
The party is losing in the polls, recently clocking under 25 percent. And all three of their coalition partners currently look unlikely to achieve the threshold for a parliamentary seat. So things look bleak for a renewed conservative mandate.
However, six months ahead of the elections last time around, opinion polls put the Moderates in a similarly bad position and they still ended up winners.
Also, Prime Minster Fredrik Reinfeldt has a much higher confidence rating than any opposition leader. He is not a figure loved by Swedes but he is regarded as steadfast and trustworthy.
On the other side is Sweden's traditional governor, the Social Democratic Party, which has spent the last decade in inner turmoil.
The current party leader, Stefan Lofven, with his working class background and decades spent as a Union leader, is of the traditional Social Democrat mold.
The question is, will he convince Swedes to return to their once so trusted party?
Lofven rates far below the Prime Minister in confidence ratings, still being something of an unknown quantity, but his rating is steadily climbing. More importantly, his party claims 30-35 percent of the votes in opinion polls, thus leading the race.
Education, welfare and economy
So what will decide their fate? There are a number of possible issues.
Among them are education (Sweden fared very badly in the PISA international student assessment rankings and the debate is about who is to blame) and welfare (unemployment benefits and sick leave).
The Social Democrats accuse the Moderates of wanting to cut taxes. In Sweden, this translates as wanting to cut welfare and is generally not well received.
In the end, it may well come down to the economy. Growth has been sluggish – sometimes outright negative –and unemployment has doubled to 8.6 percent.
The Moderates are running with the message that thanks to their handling of the economy, Sweden has come through the crisis much better than most EU countries.
The unknown quantity: the Sweden Democrats
Much attention this time however, is being directed towards another unknown quantity. Climbing in the polls are the Sweden Democrats (SD), promoting a radical end to Sweden's generous immigration policy, in place since the 1950s.
Drawing a veil over their neo-Nazi roots, the Sweden Democrats took a lesson from their Danish counterpart, the Danish People's Party, and thoroughly cleaned up their act ahead of the last election.
Any openly racist remark will now get a member excluded. This new political persona won them 20 seats in the current parliament (5.7 percent).
The party still has a hard time imposing its political agenda as Swedish debate tends not to address problems in terms of ethnicity but in terms of their social framework.
Therefore, when riots broke out in Stockholm's suburbs last year, the debate that followed centred not on where the young people or their parents were born but on how they fared with unemployment and hard times.
In the Parliament, all other parties shun the SD and refuse to make any deals involving it.
For the upcoming elections, the SD is trying hard to convince voters that it cares about other issues too, like the elderly and welfare.
Their campaign has so far yielded nearly 10 percent in opinion polls, which could potentially give them an important swing vote in the next Parliament.
Before that, however, come the May European elections. Once again they will not be about Europe, but about national politics.
The debate around these elections is so far nonexistent.
Swedish political parties, with few exceptions, have decided to rerun the same candidates as last time.
Their campaign messages are rather vague with "Welfare" and "Putting things in order" from the Social Democrats; "A thinner but sharper EU" from the liberal Centre Party; and "Economy and the Environment" from the Moderates.
No pollsters have yet asked Swedish voters how they plan to vote in the European elections but on the last two occasions voters to a large extent snubbed their traditional favorites and opted for new parties, expressing, it was thought, a weariness with traditional politics and the political establishment.
In the 2004 vote, eurosceptic party, The June List, benefitted from this trend and took three seats (14.7 percent) in the European Parliament.
In the 2009 vote, it was the brand new Pirate Party, campaigning on Internet issues, which won two seats or almost 15 percent of the overall vote.
The Pirate party has been somewhat successful in the European Parliament but since few Swedish voters are aware of their work – due to a lack of media coverage – it is generally believed they will lose their seats.
Protest votes – for the far-left and the far-right
This time round, most bets are on the two extremes of the political spectrum picking up the protest vote.
While the Sweden Democrats are polling at 10 percent, the far-left Left Party, headed up by former MEP Jonas Sjostedt, is polling at around 8 percent.
Sjostedt is one of the rare politicians to return from Brussels to make a successful career at home. His party, which currently has one seat in the EP, campaigns against the euro and against austerity measures to solve the economic crisis.
The far-left and the far-right parties are the only ones set to make gains among voters when compared to the last general election. So expect a few upsets for the traditional parties come May.
Swedish voters will elect 20 MEPs to the 751-strong European Parliament on 25 May.