The Vanishing Swedish Exception?

For the past two years, Western Europe's voters have been turning rightward. In Denmark, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, and Portugal, concerns about immigration, chronic unemployment, high taxes, and deteriorating public services have fuelled this trend. But as Europe's most recent parliamentary election shows, Sweden's Social Democrats--in power for 61 of the past 70 years--remain relatively immune to serious challenges from the right.

Opinion polls just a few months ago gave the Social Democrats 44% popular support. Together with the former Communists and the Greens, the left held a comfortable 12-15% lead over the four non-socialist parties. This margin shrank dramatically during the campaign, and the left retained power by the skin of its teeth, but the lead ultimately proved insurmountable.

Why has Sweden held out against the right-wing tide sweeping so much of Western Europe? The immediate reason for Social Democracy's enduring appeal is foreign policy. In early 2001, Sweden held the EU presidency, giving Prime Minister Göran Persson, the country's dominant politician, a bright spotlight in which to shine. The Social Democrats also benefited by supporting the US after the September 11 th terrorist attacks--a popular position that thus pre-empted the non-socialist opposition.

Persson exudes competence and authority. He bolstered his image considerably after winning the 1994 election by tightening government finances and eliminating a huge fiscal deficit. But he has done nothing remarkable since winning again in 1998. Sweden's economy rose and fell with the IT bubble, reflected in telecoms giant Ericsson's troubles today. Persson's main advantages entering this year's campaign were that he was unencumbered by new promises and was well equipped to run a presidential-style contest based on his personal appeal.