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Sweden: New Star Rising Despite Vote For Continuity

Swedes have voted for continuity by supporting in large numbers the ruling Social Democrats in the weekend general elections. It appears the left will remain in power, confirming Sweden's traditional role as a high-tax, high-welfare country. But the spectacular rise in support for the Liberals, with their focus on integrating immigrants, shows the electorate is seeking new ways of doing things.

Prague, 16 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The Social Democrats of Prime Minister Goeran Persson have confirmed their position as Sweden's leading political entity. In yesterday's general election, the party, which has ruled the country for much of the last century, managed to increase its share of the vote.

The Social Democrats took about 40 percent of the vote, compared with 36.4 percent in the 1998 election. This means they can continue in power for the next four years as a minority government, supported in parliament by the former-communist Left Party and the Greens, as in the previous term.

The center-right opposition parties, which had hoped to topple the left, mostly made a disappointing showing, with the main opposition Moderates losing almost 30 seats.

Anders Junsson, a political analyst at the Stockholm daily "Svenska Dagbladet," said the result means "business as usual" for Sweden domestically and internationally. He noted the first reaction in financial markets was positive, with the Swedish crown rising slightly.

Junsson sees Sweden's strong support for European Union expansion and pan-Nordic cooperation as continuing. "Sweden is very much in favor of [expansion] and it will go on. Nothing will change in that respect," Junsson said.

And he said Persson's re-election will probably smooth the way to Swedish adoption of the European Union's common currency, the euro. It is not that the Social Democrats are so warm to the idea of the common currency -- much of the right is more enthusiastic but it's a matter of numbers. The euro question will be put to a referendum probably next spring. "The experience in Sweden is that if you are going to have a majority of the people say 'yes' to EU [issues] or the monetary union, then you have to have the Social Democrats in power -- they are such a big party," Junsson said.

The major surprise of the elections was the gains made by the small Liberal Party under Lars Leijonborg. Their support almost tripled to make them the third-largest parliamentary party.

The political commentator from the Swedish TT news agency, Lillemor Idling, said the Liberals had taken a moderate but firm line on the divisive question of immigration and crime. "Their main issues during the campaign were law and order in schools, better education, and much increased integration, in that they want guaranteed jobs for all those [allowed in] as refugees," Idling said.

Another of their proposals was to make immigrants pass a Swedish-language test before granting them citizenship.

Party spokesman Joakim Bergstrom described the Liberals as pro-immigration, and also pro-integration. And he agreed with analysts who say the moderate program of the Liberals help divert voters from supporting the far right, with its anti-immigration platform. The rightist Sweden Democrats, for instance, did not win enough votes to enter parliament. "We are very happy that they did not make it into parliament, the extreme right. Unfortunately, the far right did make some gains in local elections, and we are not very pleased with that," Bergstrom said.

However, though they gained many extra votes, as a center-right party, the Liberals are unlikely to join any governing constellation led by Persson.

In any event, the effective re-election of Persson and the left runs counter to a recent trend in European politics to move to the right.

The prime minister expressed hope that in light of events in Sweden, Germany will follow a similar path in elections next week. In Berlin, Social Democratic Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder faces a strong challenge from conservative Edmund Stoiber. Junsson said Persson may try to help Schroeder. "If he has time, I would not be surprised if [Persson] goes [to Germany] for some days, just to help Schroeder, just as [British Labour Prime Minster] Tony Blair was here in Sweden to help Mr. Persson," Junsson said.