Swedish politics used to be like a long marriage with brief spells of infidelity.
Voters always returned to the long-governing Social Democrats — guardians of the Nordic country’s high-tax welfare state — after short-lived flirts with center-right coalitions.
That love story, it appears, may be coming to an end as Sweden heads into national elections on Sunday.
Most recent polls suggest Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, 45, can capitalize on the Swedish economy’s strong revival after the global slump to pull off what no center-right leader has done before: winning re-election after serving a full term.
Meanwhile, the Social Democrats have not enjoyed their habitual rebound after a 35 percent showing in the previous election four years ago, their worst result since universal suffrage was adopted in 1919. Only a last-hour surge can avert an even lower result on Sunday, and for the first time the Social Democrats have had to join up with environmentalists and former communists in a Red-Green alliance to have any chance of regaining power.
“I think we have shown, and we have won the confidence among the Swedish people, that we are able to govern,” Reinfeldt told foreign reporters on Tuesday last week.
Boosting his case are statistics showing Sweden’s economy is one of Europe’s strongest — it’s expected to grow by more than 4 percent this year — while this year’s budget deficit is on track to be the smallest in the 27-nation EU. His program of trimming taxes in a nation long accustomed to some of the highest tax rates in the world appears to have caught on with the public.
Still, it’s not a done deal for Reinfeldt. Polls show his four-party coalition is about 5 percentage points clear of the Red-Green alliance led by Social Democratic leader Mona Sahlin, but the gap typically narrows in the final days of Swedish election campaigns.
On the sidelines of that contest, Sweden could join the swelling ranks of European countries with a far-right, Islam-bashing party in parliament. If the Sweden Democrats clear the 4 percent bar — recent polls place them just above it — they could deny either bloc a majority and prompt messy coalition talks.
This political reality is new to a country accustomed to near-constant Social Democratic rule since the 1930s, either with an outright majority or with the backing of the smaller Left and Green parties. Legendary Social Democratic leaders include Tage Erlander, who was prime minister for 23 years following World War II, and Olof Palme, who was shot in Stockholm in 1986 in a still-unsolved murder.
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