Last updated: September 20, 2010 10:20 pm

Sweden confronts political uncertainty

Fredrik Reinfeldt©AFP

Fredrik Reinfeldt greets supporters. He has shifted his rightwing party into the centre

Sweden is facing a period of uncertainty after a general election that has shifted the country’s political spectrum towards the right and highlighted the decline of left-leaning parties across much of Europe in the wake of the financial crisis.

Fredrik Reinfeldt, the prime minister, looked sure to remain in power for a second term after his centre-right Alliance inflicted a crushing defeat on the opposition Red-Green coalition, whose main party, the Social Democrats, received its lowest support for nearly a century.

But a breakthrough by the far-right Sweden Democrats left Mr Reinfeldt three seats short of a majority and a party rooted in the neo-Nazi movement holding the balance of power.

The government faces an unattractive choice between relying on the far right for help in passing legislation – something Mr Reinfeldt has vowed not to do – or instead turning to opposition parties for support.

Mr Reinfeldt said on Monday he would seek talks with the Green party in search of a working majority. That met with a cool response from Green leaders, indicating that Sweden could face days and possibly weeks of inter-party bargaining.

While it was unclear how the new political landscape would unfold, there seemed little doubt the re-election of a centre-right leader for the first time in modern Swedish history coupled with the entry of a far-right party into parliament represented a shift in tectonic plates.

Chart: Sweden election results

“The Alliance’s victory marks the end of the Social Democrats’ long dominance of Swedish politics,” said the Dagens Nyheter newspaper, referring to the party that has ruled for all but 13 of the past 78 years.

Defeat for the Social Democrats showed how Eur­ope’s left has struggled to capitalise on global economic turmoil, with the Lab­our party ousted from power recently in the UK and Germany’s Social Democrats suffering the worst result in their history.

The spectre of a far-right party holding the balance of power in traditionally liberal Sweden, meanwhile, provided a vivid symbol of rising far-right influence in Europe after advances by similar parties in Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark and elsewhere.

Folke Johansson, political scientist at the University of Gothenburg, says the breakthrough is punishment for mainstream parties’ failure to address concerns over immigration after a large influx from countries such as Iraq, Syria and Somalia that has strained social cohesion.

The number of Swedish residents born outside western Europe rose 51 per cent in the past decade, increasing to 10 per cent of Sweden’s 9.3m-strong population from 7 per cent in 2000. More than 100,000 immigrants arrived in each of the past two years alone.

“The same ideas and views [about immigration] exist in Sweden as elsewhere but they have been silenced by a political establishment that made it taboo to talk about the issue,” says Mr Johansson.

Sweden’s shift to the right represents a challenge to the model of liberal multiculturalism and universal welfare espoused by the Social Democrats. Analysts say the rise of anti-immigrant sentiment raises questions of whether it is possible to sustain a high-tax welfare state without the social solidarity that traditionally underpinned it.

Carl Melin, director of United Minds, a polling company, said support for the far right came mostly from young, working-class men, while middle-class voters had shifted from the Social Democrats to Mr Reinfeldt’s Alliance.

“This was very much a personal victory for Fredrik Reinfeldt,” Mr Melin says. “Even if people didn’t like him, they trusted him more than Mona Sahlin [the Social Democratic leader] to run the government.”

A mild-mannered 45-year-old, Mr Reinfeldt has moved his rightwing party towards the centre ground and persuaded voters that he wants to refine rather than dismantle the welfare system.

Nicholas Aylott, a political scientist at Sodertorn University near Stockholm, says Social Democrats can find consolation in the ex­tent to which Mr Reinfeldt is committed to the status quo. “The Social Democrats’ greatest triumph was to persuade the Moderates that it was impossible to win elections in Sweden if you are perceived as threatening the welfare state.”

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