An Exercise in National Introversion
The Swedish Elections 2002 Leave a Sour Taste
The Swedish parliamentary elections on September 15 made perfect sense. As soon as you scrape a bit beneath the surface, you discover an unpleasant congruence between the campaign, the results and the follow-up to the election. Voter turnout was lower than ever, the “middle parties” (Liberals, Christian Democrats, and Center) scored a major triumph, and the Social Democrats have retained power with the support of the Left and Green parties. An invisible red thread – or perhaps a very visible blue and yellow Swedish flag – runs through the whole thing. The election was an exercise in national introversion during which all things Swedish took center stage.
While Sweden has no big racist party like Pia Kjaersgaard’s Danish Folkeparti or Jean-Marie Le Pen’s Front National, it is squarely in the European vanguard when it comes to xenophobia and collective self-righteousness. Both the campaign and the election results served as irrefutable evidence that the country and its politicians are out to defend the welfare state at the expense of everyone and everything else. International solidarity in general and European cooperation in particular were conspicuous by their absence. Meanwhile, the parties that exploited code words to accentuate the mood of us (native Swedes) vs. them (immigrants and their children) were rewarded handsomely.
Glancing over at the far right, the unabashedly racist Sweden Democrats went from a total of 8 to 39 seats in 20 of Sweden’s municipal councils. While they may still be a fringe party with little actual influence, the election results suggest that they are gaining respectability at an alarming rate.
The Conservative Party, whose share of the popular vote fell drastically from 23 per cent to 15 per cent since the 1998 election, had radically overhauled its immigration policies during that time. Departing from many of its rightwing counterparts on the Continent, the party has become one of Sweden’s foremost advocates of a multicultural – if stratified – society under the impetus of its younger activists. That progressive trend was obscured by the fact that a TV reporter caught a fewer older Conservative politicians on “candid camera” during the last week of the election and managed to elicit some grossly racist remarks. And sure enough, one-third of traditional Conservative voters switched to the Liberal Party (the election’s biggest beneficiary), which is heading in the opposite direction.
It’s the same Liberal Party that was so eager to stress European cooperation and international solidarity during the 1998 campaign. In particular, young women politicians spoke on TV and at rallies in favor of a federalist EU that could revitalize democracy and pave the way for a progressive global order. The remaining parties were forced to take a stand as well, and concern for the welfare of “others” was far from ignored. This year was a different story. Neither European unity nor the progressive young women were anywhere to be seen. Instead, the Liberals played the race card for all it was worth. In mid-August, they proposed stricter requirements for immigrants, including a test in Swedish before becoming citizens. The move should have sent shivers down the spines of all true liberals and brought to mind the dark days before World War II. The party’s strategists admitted unblushingly to the daily Svenska Dagbladet on September 3 that the ploy was tactical in nature. Meanwhile, the party’s full-page ads flirted shamelessly with xenophobia – what might be called “Kjaersgaard Light.” And it worked. With fierce rhetoric in defense of “Swedish” values and equally fierce silence about the future of the EU, the Liberals almost tripled their parliamentary standing and gleefully seized the baton among the non-Socialists parties.
The whole things leaves a sour taste in your mouth. Every photo of Lars Lejonborg, the victorious Liberal leader, is sullied by the all-too painful awareness of the character of the constituency that put him over the top. If the 2006 campaign is close enough, the tactic will rear its ugly ahead once again – perhaps in the guise of the Social Democrats. The mere prospect is horrifying.
The Social Democrats, the other big beneficiaries of the election, will continue to rule with the support of one or two parties whose platforms call for Sweden to withdraw from the EU. What’s more, half of Social Democratic voters agree. Not only has opposition to the EU remained unswerving, but Sweden is unique in that the left wing is leading the charge. Those of us whose watchwords are international solidarity and European cooperation as a counterweight to U.S. world dominion have every reason to be discouraged. And not for the first time. On the one hand, the Left Party and the Greens (whose parliamentary position will now allow them to tip the scale on key votes) both harbor the chauvinistic notion that Sweden should be some kind of utopian oasis. On the other hand, the Social Democrats have devoted the past seven years to implementing nearly all the restrictions on immigration that the xenophobic New Democracy fringe party proposed back in the early 1990s. It’s not a pretty sight. Social Democratic spokespeople have actually alluded to their racist supporters in defense of these policies. In other words, the anti-immigrant proposals set forth by the Liberals during the campaign have an excellent chance under the Social Democrats as well.
Social Democrats have been losing elections in one European country after another since the autumn of 1999. The success of Göran Persson’s party in Sweden may have helped Gerhard Schröder squeak out a narrow victory in the September 22 election. While the conservatives in other countries have benefited from major advances by racist parties at the national level, Persson has not had to deal with that kind of headache up to this point.
Two groups of Swedish citizens came out as the big losers in an election that had little significance in terms of overall parliamentary alignment. The first group consists of immigrants and their children, who endure the daily humiliation of the paralyzing “us vs. them” dichotomy promulgated by the political elite. As Ali Esbati, president of the Left Party’s Youth League said on the night of the election, “This campaign has widened the gap between native Swedes and the rest of us for a long time to come. It’s a hard pill to swallow.” Distrust, frustration, disinclination to vote – that’s what we can expect for the foreseeable future.
The other group consists of progressive internationalists. Just when a cosmopolitan perspective and democratic global structures are more crucial than ever, such issues have been overshadowed by an obsession with national identity, citizenship and culture. The leftist parties are increasingly popular among youth – 60 per cent of all first-time voters opted for the Social Democrats, Left or Greens. And those are the very people for whom international solidarity is demonstrably a major concern. The problem is that this increasingly vocal generation of activists draws the wrong conclusion from its eminently justified criticism of the EU’s undemocratic tendencies. According to election surveys, EMU and the EU were far down on the list of priorities among first-time voters. Instead of banding together to form pan-European parties and labor unions – or demanding that the EU draw up a proper constitution – they are for either Swedish withdrawal or abandonment of the enterprise altogether.
Persson finds himself in the eye of the storm. Even during this past term of office, he took embarrassingly little initiative when it came to promoting a vision of Europe’s future. Now as he tries to gauge which way the wind is blowing, he will doubtlessly conclude that the election was largely an endorsement of a nationalist agenda. Sweden is assailed by the same forces as the rest of Europe. While an aging, right-leaning generation is insisting on harsher treatment of an undefined group of people that it calls “the immigrants,” a young left-leaning generation wants to trash the EU. Observing it all is a prime minister who is tough as nails on the outside but a true coward when push comes to shove, a man who would rather be remembered as a national patriarch than try to make the world a better place. Things aren’t looking good.