Dramatic election set to make Swedish history

With polls showing Swedish voters ready to re-elect a centre-right government for the first time in nearly a century and the far-right possibly holding the balance of power, Sweden's September 19th election has no shortage of drama, explains the AFP's Nina Larson.

Dramatic election set to make Swedish history
Reinfeldt (Moderaterna); Sahlin (Riksdagen); Åkesson (Sweden Democrats)

For the first time in Sweden, where the Social Democrats have largely dominated the political scene since the 1920s, the September 19th vote is pitting two coalition blocs against each other in an election campaign focused largely on the economy and the country’s famous womb-to-tomb welfare state.

On one side, there is the governing alliance, made up of Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt’s Moderate Party and the Centre, Liberal and Christian Democrat party, who have tirelessly trumpeted the country’s sound economic performance in their re-election bid.

The tactic appears to be working. While opinion polls showed voters shunning the government at the peak of the financial crisis at the end of 2008 as the Swedish economy slumped, its support has swelled in step with the recovery and in recent months has clearly surpassed the leftwing opposition.

The Social Democrats, whose leader Mona Sahlin is angling to become Sweden’s first woman prime minister, have meanwhile been forced for the first time to join forces with other left-wing parties, the Greens and the formerly communist Left Party, to stand a fighting chance in Sunday’s polls.

As late as in June, many observers were predicting a win for the left, which has criticised the government on pensions, education and for watering down the welfare state by cutting taxes.

But since then the opposition has hit a downward slope, something analysts say could be because voters do not recognise the dire picture it has painted of the government’s economic and job policies at a time when Sweden is boasting slipping unemployment and soaring economic growth.

Adding more spice to this year’s vote, is a likely monumental surge by the small far-right, anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats, who are expected to make it into the Riksdag for the first time and could easily land in the position of kingmaker.

In a poll published Wednesday, the party scored a record 7.5 percent of voter intentions — well above the four-percent limit for entering parliament and more than double the 2.9 percent it won in the 2006 elections.

If neither of the main political blocs manages to win a clear parliamentary majority, the far-right party led by Jimmi Åkesson, 31, could be in a position to determine the outcome of the election.

While both Reinfeldt and Sahlin have said they will never cooperate with the party, its presence in parliament could force them to forge alliances they otherwise would have avoided.

If that happens, the parliamentary situation could get “messy,” even prompting “new elections, which would also be completely new for Sweden in modern history,” says Jenny Madestam, a political scientist at Stockholm University.

This year’s election could be historic in other ways too.

“A rightwing government could possibly be re-elected, which is completely unique in modern Swedish politics,” Madestam says.

“On the other hand, in the less likely scenario the left wins, it would definitely be unique if we end up with our first woman prime minister,” she adds.

Wednesday’s poll handed the ruling alliance 49.8 percent of voter intentions, compared to just 40.9 percent for the leftwing opposition.

That would give the current government a parliamentary majority of 177 out of 349 seats.

“2010 looks like it will be the election when the long Social Democratic domination of Swedish politics was finally broken,” Peter Wolodarski, the lead political columnist with daily Dagens Nyheter, wrote earlier this week.

Peter Santesson-Wilson, a political scientist at the Ratio research institute, agrees.

“If they lose, it will be very dramatic for the Social Democrats to be kept away from power for so long,” he tells AFP.

If it suffers a bad loss, the party that has ruled Sweden for 63 of the past 80 years and is considered the caretaker of the welfare state, will likely be forced “to rethink the entire party,” he says.

Swedes will also vote in regional and municipal elections Sunday.

However, it could take a while before the outcome is clear, with the final results expected as late as the middle of next week.

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Bishop’s sermon at the opening of the Riksdag

Stockholm bishop Eva Brunne's sermon addressing racism at the opening of Sweden's parliament, the Riksdag, on Tuesday has been the topic of intense discussion. Here is the full text of her words in English.

Bishop's sermon at the opening of the Riksdag

Editor’s Note: The speech was delivered to the assembled members of parliament, the King, Queen and other dignitaries in Stockholm Cathedral on Tuesday, October 5th.

During the speech, the leader of the far-right Sweden Democrats and his 19 parliamentary colleagues stood up and left the church in protest at the subject matter addressed by the bishop.

Åkesson later apologised to the King, but claimed that Brunne’s reference to anti-racism demonstrations held across Sweden the night before left the Sweden Democrats with no choice but to leave.

Brunne later explained that the speech was not specifically directed against any particular party but reflected an interpretation of modern events and developments using the gospel.

Here is the speech, translated in full:

(Texts: The Wisdom of Solomon 7:15-22, I Thessalonians 5:16-24 , Luke 19:37-40)

Congratulations on your mandate. Congratulations to you who have been chosen with confidence. Almost 85 percent, or slightly more than six million people, consider you to be the best equipped to shape a positive present and sound future for us all. It is a great thing to be carried by such a confidence. And the task is given to you collectively. Not for each and every individual. Once chosen you are part of a context where your combined efforts are worth more than the will of each and every individual. After all, is that not how democracy works? It is about raising your gaze from your own interests and put to the public good. To take in Bastuträsk, Tomelilla, Göteborg, Grästorp, Husum and Visby. Politics, in one sense, is taken to mean living together in a city. Then it is also about raising one’s gaze still further, because we do not live only within ourselves. Our task and our responsibility is greater than the borders of the nation. There is a world which needs us – our solidarity, our money and not least our eyes and our voices.

There is much that is demanded of you, but do not lose heart. We are behind you, we who have given you your mandate, to speak on our behalf. Because is that not how democracy works?

We have to listen to the gospel. It was not the Swedish Riksdag that Paul was adressing, but a group of people in the city of Thessaloniki. To them he said: We exhort you to value those who have the heaviest burden among you, those at the fore. Show them respect and appreciation. And he continued with the advice: Don’t quench the Spirit, test all things, and hold firmly to that which is good. These are words also for all of us who have voted, and for all you who have been elected with trust.

Salomon in his wisdom neither wrote of the Swedish Riksdag, but the words could also be addressed to you: God is the guide of wisdom. God leads us on the correct path. For both we and our words are in his hands, as are all understanding and professional skill. Wisdom – she who with her craft has shaped everything. Words of mercy more than of demand. Everything does not rest on myself, nor my party.

When Jesus approached Jerusalem and the disciples allowed their happiness to be heard, a group of farisees asked if Jesus could silence his disciples. One wonders why they could not address the disciples directly. They were, after all, adult human beings. And the answer they received was thus: if these remain silent, the stones will cry out.

What was it that they had experienced on their way. Yes, among other things, a blind man was cured and could live his life fully and whole. And then the meeting with the despised tax collector Zachaeus. He who climbed the tree to be able to see, but perhaps also to hide. To the blind man, Jesus said: What do you want me to do for you? To Zachaeus he said: Come down from the tree, I want to visit your home. The meeting, face to face and eye to eye, in conversation, which made a lifelong impact on the the blind man and Zachaeus. This was what the disciples had experienced. The massive change for the two people. This was why they could not keep their joy to themselves. And if they had been silenced, then the stones would have cried out over the importance of this great change. The transformation which literally became of decisive importance.

It is these changes for people which are a large part of your mission. And in that you should never move far away from us who gave you your mandate that we are unable to you meet face to face, that you never cease from calling someone down from the tree and saying: I want to talk with you. To hear someone’s cry and say: What do you want me to do for you?

We who believe in people’s dignity and equal value, regardless of the country in which we are born, regardless of which gender or age we have, regardless of how our sexuality is expressed, we believe and hope that you continue to have the ability to say: I want to talk to you, and the enduring desire to ask the question: What can I do for you? And feel the great pleasure in the change that this can achieve.

Yesterday evening thousands of people gathered in Stockholm and in various parts of the country to make their voices heard. To call out their disgust at that which divides people. The racism which says that you don’t have as much worth as I do; that you shouldn’t have the same rights as me; aren’t worthy of living in freedom, and that is the only reason – that we happen to born in different parts of our world – that is not worthy of a democracy like ours to differentiate between people. It is not possible for people of faith to differentiate between people. Here it is not sufficient to give a couple of hundred people a mandate to speak on our behalf. Here we have a joint mission. And if anyone remains quiet or is silenced in the fight for human value, then we have to see to it that the stones also cry out. We do this with the help of God.

We have much to do. Cunning, courage and care are required. Feel joy in the mission. Feel the gravity of the mission. Feel the mandate from us. Test all things, and hold firmly to that which is good. Don’t differentiate between people. Feel the grace to rest in the God who created us.

With that in mind, we continue the present, towards the future.

Eva Brunne

Bishop in the diocese of Stockholm

Translation by The Local