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Swedish election marks end of an era

In a shocked reaction, thousands of people have taken to the streets of Stockholm and Gothenburg to protest against the electoral gains of the far-right Sweden Democrats party in the country’s general election. The party, headed by 31-old Jimmie Akeson, won 5.7% of the votes, giving them a parliamentary foothold of 20 seats.

The result, as in the British and Australian general elections, is a hung parliament. Centre-right leader Fredrik Reinfeldt’s four-party ruling alliance, which won 172 out of 349 seats, failed to gain an overall majority. The election was an historic second defeat in a row for the Social Democrats – who previously had held power for over 60 of the last 80 years.

But the sudden emergence of a far-right party into the political mainstream will not be a huge surprise to fans of writer Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo mllennium trilogy or of the Wallander police detective series by Henning Mankell. These artists, as Andrew Anthony has pointed out, “are avowedly left wing and in their different ways they tell the tale of a dream betrayed, and an outcome in which the most vulnerable citizens are abandoned to a ruthless system. It's also notable that all three employ the archetype of the abused prostitute as the prime symbol of capitalist exploitation.”

Sweden was until recently seen as an example of what “state socialism” could achieve. High taxation produced a good quality of life for many people, albeit in an intrusive authoritarian state, in which access to services is heavily controlled. But the results of Sunday’s election mark a sea change. It is a country wracked by the effects of globalisation, changes in the world economy and above all, the legacy of a monolithic state.

Despite its low population density of only 21 people per square kilometre (in England there are 383), rich mineral resources plus a skilled and literate population, Sweden’s high-tech, affluent and liberal façade has worn increasingly thin as globalisation shifted industrial production to the Pacific rim and China.

Most of the population and jobs are in the rich south of the country, whilst vast swathes in the far north have seen industrial decline on a huge scale. National pride took a big hit when world famous car maker Saab was taken over by General Motors in 1990 and then Volvo by Ford in 1999. Ford has now sold Volvo to a Chinese corporation. A story of globalisation if there every was one.

Only 24 per cent of the population now works in industry, while 74 per cent are in the service sector. Unemployment was up to 9% earlier this year. Sweden suffered hugely from the banking crisis of 2008-9, especially due to exposure to the Baltic economies.

Behind the utopian images there is a dark reality, not only for poor Swedes and trafficked women, but for immigrant workers. Only a few weeks ago a Red Cross coordinator discovered that 138 Bangladeshi berry pickers were crammed into four squalid houses in Bracke, in central Sweden. The accommodation lacked functioning toilets and the workers had inadequate clothing, shoes and blankets for night temperatures, just above freezing, according to reports.

In the past voters saw the Social Democrats as the guardians of their welfare state. But, like New Labour, the Social Democrats’ support for corporate globalisation and cuts in public services have alienated many of their supporters. In a bizarre role reversal, Reinfeldt’s Moderate party are now seen as the defenders of the welfare system. In their election campaign, the Moderates, hitherto viewed as the party of the rich elite, campaigned under the slogan of “Sweden’s only workers’ party”.

Corinna Lotz
A World to Win secretary
21 September 2010

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