Monday, 20 September 2010

The Moderate Party - the missing link

Having watched the news about yesterday's general election (the results can be seen here), it's clear that a blame-game is already starting, firstly, concerning the bad result for the Social Democrats (the lowest in 96 years) and, secondly, concerning the rise of the Sweden Democrats, a rightist populist party with neo-nazi roots which managed to enter parliament for the first time ever.

To the first question, two often repeated replies are: 1) the Social Democrats suffered from the party's "red-green" alliance with the (formerly Communist) Left Party and the Green Party which alienated traditional Social Democratic voters, and 2) the personal lack of popularity for the Social Democratic party leader Mona Sahlin, especially compared to the prime minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, party leader of the Moderate (conservative) Party.

However, consider a few facts. Firstly, even without the "red-green" alliance the Social Democrats would have had to cooperate with the Left party and the Greens if they had been given the mandate to govern. Just a year ago the Social Democrats seems to have a large and secure lead over the rightwing coalition, at a time when Sahlin led the party and the "red-green" alliance was in place. Clearly, the question about the Social Democrat failure is more complex than the most popular answers suggest.

Answers to the second question - about the success of the Sweden Democrats - range from simply acknowledging the failure of the "integration policy" to blaming the market oriented economic policy of the government for having generated anxiety and discontent that is discharged on scapegoats like the immigrants.

There may be some truth in these answers, but there is one additional, obvious answer which is not heard so often, namely the Moderate Party's ideological march into the political center, which has opened up a vacuum on the right which the Sweden Democrats have been able to exploit.

That this ideological move is the key to the strenght of Fredrik Reinfeldt's "new moderates" is something we have grown used to hearing ever since their first electoral success in 2006, when they toppled the Social Democratic government of Göran Persson. Abandoning many of the overt signs of conservatism, profiling itself as close to the concerns of common wage-earners and even going so far as to call itself Sweden's "only Labour Party", the Moderate Party has had considerable success in outcompeting the Social Democrats on the own turf. Disguising neo-liberal tax cuts a a reform for making it "profitable to work" and redefining the shrinking of the social safety net into a responsible policy for "guarding the core of the welfare" has helped the them gain support of many voters in the political middle regions, especially those who benefit from the tax cuts and have been lucky enough to keep their jobs.

It turns out, therefore, that the two big questions concerning the difficulties of the Social Democrats and the growth of the Sweden Democrats are linked. And the name of that link is the "new moderates".

But if that's true, what explains the weak support in public opinion polls for the Moderate-led coalition just a year ago? Well, my guess is that continent factors have played a large roll. The main effect of the Moderate march into the political centre has been to create a more advantageous terrain for them in challenging the Social Democrats, but it hasn't automatically guaranteed that the challenge would succeed. As far as I can see, the fall in public support had much to do with self-inflicted wounds such as the truly catastrophic reform of the unemployemnt insurance, which triggered a flight from the insurance system just before the onset of the worldwide economic crisis, the heated debate about the FRA law (the impopularity of which helped catapult the Pirate Party to the EU parliament) and the many glaring mistakes that were made when the Health Insurance system was reformed. The best explanation of why public opinion turned since last year is the strong economic recovery after the crisis that started with the Lehman shock in 2008 which has contributed to the high levels of trust and confidence people feel for Reinfeldt and his finance minister, Borg. All the previous fiaskos are forgotten.

Yes, contingent factors - which means that the importance of factors like Sahlin's personal popularity or the "red-green" alliance are probably a bit exaggerated.

A third question much discussed in news programs is how Reinfeldt will be able to govern without making himself dependent on the support of the Sweden Democrats. A solution favored by many political commentators is for Reinfeldt to reach out "across the bloc border", preferably towards the Greens but perhaps also to the Social Democrats, in order to secure a majority. So far, however, the Greens seem intent on declining such overtures. Since cooperating with the Sweden Democrats has been ruled out, the most likely alternative seems to be for the government to reply on "jumping majorities", i.e. provisional arrangements from issue to issue.

The Greens should not be faulted for declining Reinfeldt's invitations. To do so is not at all irresponsible, as some commentators seem to be suggesting. To actually cooperate with Reinfeldt would mean granting him and his Moderates a comfortable seat near the political center, which would make it very difficult for a Social Democratic or Leftist government to challenge him. The only one benefitting from such an arrangement, apart from the Moderates, would be the Sweden Democrats, who would be free to thrive and expand in the vacuum created on the right.

Predictions are risky, but let me venture one nevertheless. I predict that the results of the election - in combination with the Green refusal to cooperate with Reinfeldt - will prod the Moderates to move back towards the right-hand end of the political spectrum. That will give the opportunity to the Social Democrats to recover some ground in the center.

PS (added 22/9): It seems we're headed for instability and jumping majorities. That's fine. For each party to demonstrate its separate identity and to emphasize the conflicts and differences that separates it from other parties is surely preferable to a situation in which established parties huddle together in an indifferent mass in the center. Such cooperation would kill polititcs in all areas except one, that of "integration", which would be elevated into the axis mundi of politics - which is exactly what the Sweden Democrats want.

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