Monday

9th Dec 2019

Nordic Social Democrat parties are losing their historic power

The Swedish election on Sunday was the worst electoral outcome for the Social Democrat party in nearly a century. The poor result is just one in many across the Nordic region, where social democrat parties have experienced a steady decline in support over the last two decades. They are scrambling to hold on to, or to regain, power but where are they heading?

With the recent election in Sweden, the Swedish Social Democrat Party (SAP) will face another four years in opposition. Since the 1930s the party has been in power for the vast majority of the time, but their voter support in Sunday's Swedish election, with only 30.9 percent of the votes, was their lowest since 1914.

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Apart from Sweden, the national Social Democrat parties in Denmark and Finland have also been in opposition for the last nine and three years respectively.

During the 2001 general elections in Denmark, the Social Democrat Party lost its historic position as the country's biggest party since the end of the Second World War.

In Finland, the Social Democrat Party (SDP) has been nicknamed 'Riksforestandarpartiet' (the party leading Finland) because the party has held the presidential post since 1982. But if the SDP fails to win the country's general elections next year, it will be – like in Sweden – the longest period ever with conservative and centre-right parties governing Finland.

New image

The Social Democrat Parties' historical defeats have led to much internal discussion and search for renewal. While in opposition, the Danish, Finnish and Swedish Social Democrat parties have all chosen relatively unknown and young women leaders in an attempt to bring a new image to their respective party.

Helle Thorning-Schmidt in Denmark, Jutta Urpilainen in Finland and Mona Sahlin in Sweden, are all the first women ever to lead their respective centre-left parties. Social democrat party members were looking for a new face on the top post to take their party back on track in the opinion polls and to keep a lid on harmful internal discussions.

The situation is somewhat different in Iceland and in Norway where the Social Democrats are in power. In Norway, the Labour party has been in power since 2005 in a coalition with the Socialist Left Party and the Centre Party in a so-called red-green government alliance.

Indeed, the Norwegian Labour Party has historically had a superior position in the country's politics and is still seen as the only party that can be trusted to govern Norway on its own.

In Iceland, on the other hand, there has never been a tradition of a big Social Democratic party as in the other Nordic countries. It was only in 1999 that different left-wing parties came together as the Social Democratic Alliance, which in turn became big enough to compete with the conservative Independence Party.

The Independence Party had since Iceland's independence in 1944 been the leading political power. However, the conservative party came to pay the price for the role it played during Iceland's economic collapse in 2008.

The Social Democratic Alliance, led by Prime Minister Johanna Sigurdardottir, became the largest party on Iceland after the 2009 general election and now forms a coalition government with the Left-Green Movement. The Alliance's win meant an end to the Independence party's 17 successive years of governing Iceland.

The welfare state

The Nordic Social Democrat parties, most of which were founded over a hundred years ago, have historically played an important role in the foundations of the Nordic countries' systems and are considered the caretakers of the Nordic region's famous cradle-to-grave welfare states.

The early labour movement in Finland, for example, set up ambitious political goals at the beginning of the 20th century that are now the cornerstones of the Finnish welfare state.

However, now there is historically low support for the left in most of the Nordic countries. The reason for this is in great part due to the disappearance of the social democrat parties' voter base and of the arrival of a new kind of populism.

The economic storms of the mid-1980s seriously tested the Nordic welfare model, which made the Social Democratic parties embrace the liberal market economy model.

The traditional working class has been reduced in the last 30 years, as heavy industries moved abroad and Nordic people moved into other types of profession, where the individual rather than the collective workforce plays the greater role.

Regular voters are getting older and it is becoming harder to attract younger ones. In addition, the formerly strong Nordic trade union culture started fading as the factory disappeared. Voters' old love affair with the social democrats parties has simply gone.

As the ideological differences between the main parties in the Nordic countries grow fainter, the parties have become broad parties fishing in the same pond. At the same time, populist parties are gaining support in the areas where industry has gone and offer easy answers to complex solutions on issues of jobs and security – something that the Social Democrats used to be able to offer.

Adapting to change or not

The Norwegian Labour party managed to change with the times. One of Prime Minister Stoltenberg's successes, experts say, is that he believes in small compromises instead of grand ideas. And his political standpoints vary a lot according to the situation. For example, just 10 years ago his party weakened its ties with the labour unions, now with the economic crisis causing high unemployment, those ties are being reinforced again.

Before the summer, the Danish Social Democrat Party stood high in the opinion polls and Ms Thorning-Schmidt was expected to become Denmark's first female prime minister in the next general elections set to be held next year.

Most of all, voters seems to be disappointed with Denmark's current Prime Minister Lars Lokkegaard Rasmussen, who took over from the now Nato chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen in Spring 2009.

However, Ms Thorning-Schmidt had to cut her holiday short to answer to criticism over her and her husband, UK citizen Stephen Kinnock's, information to the tax authorities. The Danish tax authorities last week cleared them of any charges.

Whether or not Ms Thorning-Schmidt's image, as well as the Danish Social Democrat Party's image, have been tarnished only time will show. But it might well have damaged her possibility to continue to use tax policies as a weapon against the current liberal government.

In Sweden, voters complain that Social Democrat principles have been let down by the party's leaders as there has been a rise in unemployment, segregation and inequality.

SAP has failed to grasp the opportunities given by the integration debate and the financial crisis to speak up and stand out, critics say. They have been unable to stand up as the leader of the opposition. Instead the Swedish far-right party Sweden Democrats has focussed on the immigration debate.

Further up north, Iceland is a welfare state very similar to the other Nordic countries, but despite this, Reykjavík has for the last two decades taken insight from the liberalism in the United Kingdom. The Independence party was inspired by former UK Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher while the left-wing parties got inspiration from New Labour.

This has changed following the island's economic crash. Now all parties, including the Social Democratic Alliance and the Independence Party are looking towards Iceland's Nordic neighbours for inspiration for the future as the Icelandic people are now demanding more social policies.

However, despite its recent rise in popularity, the Icelandic Social Democratic Alliance is seen as being weak because it has not stood up to the demands of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which is closely cooperating with the Icelandic authorities on the country's economic recovery.

The future

The changing face of the Nordic welfare society has been a test for the social democrat parties, both internally and externally towards their voters. They have also lost out as the ideological differences between the traditional parties have become blurred – the Nordic conservatives sometimes speak of social models while the social democrats at times speak of market competition.

New campaigns with more involvement of the people have been seen as open and closer to the citizens. But critics say the campaigns also make it look as if the Nordic social democrat parties lack clear ideas for the future. A strong will to stay in power or to regain power is by itself not enough to gain more votes.

Only time will show whether the social democrat parties can find their way back into the hearts of the voters or if the downturn of the left-wing parties is just another step in an international trend.

This analysis is based on articles from the Nordic Council/Nordic Council of Ministers' online news magazine, Analys Norden

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