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Sweden sours? Will the far right make further inroads in Scandinavian social democracy?

September 9th, 2018

For the last 100 years, the Social Democrats have dominated Swedish politics.  They have been in government for all bar 22 of those years.  It used its hegemonic status to establish a social democratic culture that worked with the country’s Lutheran ethos and with business, and for a long time managed to preside over a successful and distinctive blend of high taxation supporting a strong social safety net and a dynamic economy.

Their grip has been loosening for a generation.  For over fifty years the Social Democrats tallied more than 40% at successive general elections (a mighty achievement under a system of proportional representation), but they have not hit that mark since 1994 and they have barely scraped 30% at the last two elections.

Sweden goes to the polls again today and that decline looks set to continue.  No poll has shown the Social Democrats getting anything like 30%: they are averaging just under the 25% mark.  The Europe-wide crisis on the centre left looks set to intensify.

This is not the tale that most outside observers are telling of the Swedish election.  All the journalism has focussed on the rise in the polls of the Sweden Democrats, a socially conservative party whose USP is an opposition to multiculturalism and immigration.  Certainly the Sweden Democrats are performing considerably better than at the last election in 2014, scoring in the high teens with most pollsters (and higher with YouGov and Sentio).  This seems, however, to be part of a wider fragmentation of the Swedish vote. 

The Left party looks set to almost double its share from 5.7%.  The Centre Party, the Liberals and the Christian Democrats all look set to see an uptick in their support too.  At the last election the Social Democrats and the Moderates took over 54% of the vote between them (in 1994 they got a combined share of over two thirds of the vote).  This time they look set to get between 40% and 45% combined.  The Social Democrats got a larger vote share on their own in 1994.

This fragmentation, of course, is not unique to Sweden.  Germany, Spain, Ireland and the Netherlands have all seen the same phenomenon.  This has led to a string of fragile governments, unable to take strong action because they lack the stable majorities to do so.  Sweden looks set to join them.

Sweden’s electoral system is essentially one of proportional representation.  There are 349 seats.  Voting takes place in 29 constituencies and 310 seats are allocated internally within those constituencies on a proportionate basis (the constituencies do not have equal numbers of MPs). 

The threshold within a constituency for eligibility for a seat is a 12% vote share.  The remaining 39 seats are allocated to correct deviations from the national vote share that have arisen: the threshold for eligibility for a seat on this basis is a 4% national vote share.  The end result has historically been highly proportional. 

A month ago, when I last looked at this contest, the Sweden Democrats were odds-on favourites to take most seats.  This was surprising, given they had been ahead in few polls.  Since then, the Sweden Democrats have drifted in most polls and so has their price on Betfair.  However, they still hold a slender lead with the same two pollsters who had found them to be in the lead a month ago (though they are well adrift with other pollsters and sometimes in third behind the Moderates).  It is not impossible that they finish top.

Impossible is not the same as likely.  Chris Hanretty has nailed his colours to the mast and estimated their chance of finishing top as being between 0.1% and 12.5%, depending on how you approach the problem.  (I think he was unaware of YouGov finding the Sweden Democrats in the lead, which would up the second figure to 25%.) 

At the time of writing, they were last traded on Betfair for most seats at 3, giving in implied probability of 1/3 that they will finish top. There is therefore still substantial value in laying them, and, conversely, still value in backing the Social Democrats to finish top at the 1.4 mark where they currently sit.

Whatever happens, is almost certain that all the headlines afterwards will be about the Sweden Democrats. The bigger story of fragmentation and the consequent enfeebling of government is likely to be missed. Sweden looks set to join the lengthening list of European countries consumed by introspection.

Alastair Meeks