Sweden, September 14

Sweden’s election resulted in a narrow victory for the “Red-Green coalition” led by the Social Democrats over the centre-right Alliance led by the Moderate Party (conservatives). However, this victory may prove short-lived, in part because the populist Sweden Democrats (SD) hold the balance of power, having come in third with just under 13 per cent.


Red-Green promised more funding for schools and welfare and accused the Alliance, which had introduced tax cuts and social welfare reforms, of making Sweden more unequal. Sweden’s economy has done well, but that failed to convince a sufficient number of voters to give the Alliance a third term. Many felt that Sweden could afford to spend more on welfare, health care and schools, and better tackle youth unemployment. But many other voters focused on Sweden’s extremely generous refugee policy, with close to 90,000 refugees accepted this year in a country of 9 million. Only SD opposed this policy, arguing that money should instead be spent on social welfare and humanitarian aid. SD’s effective leader, Jimmie Åkesson, was able to attract votes from conservative young people in the cities, above and beyond the party’s core of supporters in smaller communities in the north and south who feel marginalized in the postmodern world.

SD’s success could push outgoing Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt’s Moderate Party further to the right. Exit polls showed that nearly 30 per cent of SD voters supported the Moderates in 2010, something Reinfeldt’s successor will have to take into consideration when deciding whether to continue the policy of refusing to deal with SD. This choice will take place in the context of a parliament in which the Social Democrats and Greens together have only 38 per cent of the seats. To cement the support of the Left party for the coalition, Red-Green will have to adopt policies such as reducing state support for privately owned schools, hospitals and old-age care facilities. This would alienate the small middle-of-the-road parties in the centre-right Alliance, the Liberals and Centre, whose cooperation Social Democratic Leader Stefan Löfven may need. The Alliance threatened to present an alternative joint budget this autumn, which could defeat the government if SD supports it – but this is unlikely since it will include large increases in spending on asylum seekers. Nevertheless, for the first time in 30 years, an elected Swedish government might not survive the full four-year term.

How Swedes elect a government

Sweden has a parliamentary system like Canada, with fixed four-year terms, with the government formed and led by the leader of the largest party in parliament. Because it has a proportional electoral system, these are almost always coalition governments. Each party has a clear program emphasizing specific priorities, some of which are incorporated formally or informally into the joint program of the two potential ruling coalitions.

In Sweden, voters simultaneously select their local, regional and national representatives, from regional-district lists drawn up by each party. In the city of Stockholm, for example, there are six such regional districts electing between 10 and 20 representatives to the local and regional councils and the parliament. If in one of these a party wins, say, 15 per cent of the vote, and 20 seats are to be allocated, the top three names on its list are declared elected. Most of the lists alternate female and male candidates, assuring something close to parity in the composition of the assemblies.


Voters receive list/ballots (see photo) for each level from each of the parties in the mail and at the polling stations – and often from party campaigners outside the polling stations. They place the list/ballot of the chosen party for each of the three levels in the ballot box. They can affect which of their party’s candidates will be elected by placing a mark in the box next to one candidate they wish to move to the top of the list. They can also vote early, anywhere in the country and at consulates and embassies, with the option of changing their minds on election day.

At the national level, a party needs to win 4 per cent of the overall vote to gain entry to the parliament. The left-wing Feminist Initiative, with 3.1 per cent of the vote, was thus excluded. To ensure overall proportionality, a few extra seats are allocated in certain districts to parties whose total of combined seats from the district lists is below what they are entitled to on the basis of the overall total of votes received.

11_Sweden election results

Each of the eight parties represented in the Swedish parliament has its own program, in addition to the agreements that form the basis of the mandate sought by each potential coalition. There was no mistaking the different approaches of the two potential coalitions when it came to tax cuts and privatization. Because party programs are consistent at municipal, district and national levels, choices are clearer and more transparent than in Canada. Most impressive to me was the clear identification of each party with certain concrete issues that give expression to its underlying political views, as articulated in the numerous televised leader debates and in campaign literature. For example, the Christian Democrats, a small party within the Alliance, stressed making it possible for one parent (i.e. the mother) to take the entire 14 months of parental leave rather than, as now, two of the months being available only to the second parent (i.e. the father). This was not retained as part of the Alliance program, since the Liberals – who presented themselves as feminist but, unlike the Feminist Initiative, not socialist – opposed it.


On the other side, the Left party sought to abolish the provision brought in by the Alliance allowing tax deductions for money spent on domestic help, something to which the Social Democrats would not commit themselves, given the popularity of the program.

The ubiquitous posters stress the main themes of party programs, rather than the personalities of party leaders and candidates. Interested citizens can and do drop by the parties’ wooden huts (see photo) in the central square of Stockholm (as in every city and town), where parties distribute literature and their representatives take turns speaking, sometimes debating, from a temporary stage. These “election villages” are reminiscent of a unique Swedish political happening known as Almedalen (see box). On page 86, you will find the results of a recent poll, which dramatically illustrates the relative knowledgability of the Swedish electorate.


How much of this is applicable to Canada? We have already moved toward fixed election dates. On the other hand, our federal system is not compatible with aligning election dates and electoral boundaries at the three levels. Nevertheless, aligning provincial and local elections is certainly a possibility. This, combined with proportional representation, would go a long way toward promoting a more informed and engaged electorate – though I would prefer the German/Scottish version in which the outcome is proportional but there are individual districts as well as regional lists. Canadians have debated these matters before but, as a new and even less electorally engaged generation takes its place, we will surely have to debate them again.


Scotland, September 18

11_figure 1It was not until 5 a.m. that we had sufficient numbers of votes counted to be sure of the outcome. It turned out that the predictions based on the many surveys that had been conducted were accurate. As figure 1 (compiled by Claire Durand) reveals, the two sides came closer as the date of decision came nearer, largely because the Yes, as noted by most observers, ran an especially effective campaign. Nevertheless, the gap between the No (top line) and the Yes (bottom line) levelled off at roughly 10 per cent (In the chart, you can see the three “rogue” polls in early September which panicked the No side). Since no exit polls were conducted, our knowledge of just who voted Yes or No and why is limited. One thing we do know is that the group consistently against independence were Scots aged over 60 – a combination, we can assume, of fear of losing benefits and greater identification with things British. And we know that this is the group that most dependably turns out to vote.

During the last two weeks there were a couple of surveys that showed the Yes within the margin of error, and this got the attention of the media and the authorities in Westminster. The front pages printed a joint statement by Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, Labour Leader Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg, Leader of the Liberal Democrats, which contained a solemn promise to devolve greater powers to the Scottish Assembly. At the same time, former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, a proud Scot, emerged as key spokesperson for the No, a far more convincing public speaker than his successor (see photo).

11_Henry_Scotland_8Scotland also drew much international attention. The Canadian media were very much present, as were a fair number of interested Quebec politicians and political activists. One dimension of the comparison with Quebec lies in the content of the campaign. The No played on economic fears, especially loss of the British pound, while the Yes stressed social justice: that the welfare state was safer in an independent Scotland which elected few Conservatives than in a U.K. prone to be ruled by Tories.

The media in Scotland were especially keen to compare and contrast events there with the Quebec referendum of 1995, especially when it looked as if there might be a similar very close outcome. While the publicity surrounding the promise to devolve power and the emergence of Gordon Brown may have had some effect, I suspect that it was marginal and the Yes effectively peaked at 45 per cent. Thus the more apt comparison is 1980, when the newly elected Parti Québécois found itself committed to holding a referendum that it could not win.

11_Henry_Scotland_5When the Scottish Parliament was established in 1999, support for the Scottish National Party was around 20 per cent, never having exceeded 30 per cent. The electoral system chosen was based on the German model. Though not quite as proportional, it was believed to be proportional enough to ensure that the SNP could never win a majority and impose a referendum. In 2007, the SNP, having won one seat more than Labour (each at about 32 per cent), formed a minority government. There was no real talk of independence for the next four years. In 2011, for a number of reasons having much less to do with independence than with the unpopularity of policies in Westminster, the SNP won 45 per cent of the vote and, unexpectedly, a bare majority of seats. Despite fewer than one third of Scots favouring independence at the time, the SNP government announced that it planned to hold a referendum as promised. A meeting with the new British Prime Minister, David Cameron, was planned.

To the surprise of many observers, the meeting produced an agreement to hold a referendum on independence. Given the numbers at the time, Cameron must have felt that he had nothing to fear by recognizing Scottish self-determination in this way. There was no mention of a third option, more devolution without independence, which SNP leader Alex Salmond had apparently anticipated.

Without disparaging Salmond’s competence or the effectiveness of SNP deputy leader Nicola Sturgeon as a public speaker, the movement in Scotland in 2014 cannot be compared to that in Quebec in 1995. By 1995, a clear majority of the boomer generation among francophones favoured Quebec sovereignty, with a large number ready and able to mobilize publicly when the occasion presented itself. Their presence was unmistakable on Quebec’s streets in the weeks before the 1995 referendum.

Admittedly I was in Scotland for only ten days, but I couldn’t see anything comparable. In part this reflects differences in political culture when it comes to electoral campaigns, but there is more to it. Although I was not lacking in contacts on both sides and in the local media, I could find very few public manifestations on either side. Indeed, on the high streets of Edinburgh in mid-September, it was easier to find activities organized by secessionist movements from elsewhere. And the polling places I visited on voting day were rather quiet. By Scottish election standards, a turnout of 86 per cent was indeed high, but nothing like the over 93 per cent turnout in Quebec in 1995.

Will the loss in 2014 be followed, as in Quebec, by another such confrontation 15 years later, when the generation that voted No will have largely been replaced? We cannot rule out the possibility. A great deal will depend on what happens in the interval: whether the promised devolution to the Scottish Parliament in fact takes place. We would do well to remember that if the Meech Lake Accord had been ratified, and if Lucien Bouchard – who almost won the 1995 referendum for the Yes – had stayed in Brian Mulroney’s cabinet as a result, the second Quebec referendum probably would not have taken place.