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Europe: Sweden's Social Democrats Suffer Setback

Copenhagen, 21 September 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Swedish Social Democratic Prime Minister Goeran Persson looks set to continue in his post despite his party's severe setback in the weekend (Sept. 20) general elections.

But in order to gather a working majority in the Riksdag, the Parliament in Stockholm, his government will need to look for support to the former Communists, now calling themselves the Left Party, as well as to the green Environmental Party.

The Social Democrats, who have ruled Sweden for 57 of the past 66 years, lost about 10 percent of their support in comparison to the last elections four years ago. This time they gained about 36 percent of the total vote, causing commentators in Scandinavia to term the elections as one of the most unsatisfactory for the Social Democratic Party since the First World War.

Fewer Swedes exercised their voting rights on Sunday. About 79 percent of the 6.7 million voters cast ballots, down from 86 percent four years ago. "Those who have traditionally voted for us stayed at home", Goeran Persson lamented said on Swedish television after the polls closed.

The conservative Moderate party led by the charismatic Carl Bildt also did badly in the elections. Pre-election opinion polls had positioned it side by side with the Social Democrats, but in fact it received just over 22 percent of the vote.

Observers are calling the overall result a protest by the Swedish public, reflecting the inability of the mainstream right and left-wing parties to take Sweden out of its current economic malaise characterized by high unemployment.

Two small parties emerged strengthened from the elections. These are the former Communists, who got an unprecedented 12 percent of the vote, and the centrist Christian Party, who scored nearly the same.

The setback for the Social Democrats can be seen as a result of the painful economic reforms the government undertook after its election in 1994. Its program was meant to tackle the aftermath of the 1992 crisis in Sweden when the national currency, the krona, had to be devaluated by 20 percent overnight, and the country came to face massive unemployment for the first time in living memory.

Over the past few years Prime Minister Persson, an economist and a former finance minister, did manage to eliminate the huge budget deficit. But that came at a price: namely the axing or reducing of a range of social benefits, particularly for families with children. It appears that as a consequence, Swedes this time turned away from the Social Democrats, despite their promises of an additional 1,200 million dollars in the social sector and guaranteed kindergarten prices for children of employed as well as unemployed parents.

In addition, membership of the European Union, which Sweden acquired in 1996 and which had been supported by the Social Democrats, has failed to deliver much to the man in the street. Prices, like taxes, have remained among the highest in the world. If there was an EU membership referendum now, Swedes would vote to stay out, opinion polls indicate.

A prospective new Social Democratic government will have to work with former Communists. The big party has ruled out the possibility of giving a ministerial seat to a former Communist, but it may have to unless it decides to rule as a minority government. This unstable situation has already provoked political observers to surmise that a fragile new government could collapse and that it may be just a year or two before new elections are called in Sweden.