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Scandinavia’s reputation as a bastion of social democracy has taken a beating from voters in the past two decades — but the triumph of Norway’s Labour party in elections on Monday has helped to change the picture.
The result means that for the first time since 2001 all three countries of the region, including Denmark and Sweden, will have social democrat prime ministers. This resurgence of the centre-left also has its leaders eyeing a bigger potential prize: the German chancellorship, where Social Democrat candidate Olaf Scholz is topping the polls ahead of voting on September 26.
“Sweden, Denmark, Finland and now us. There’s something happening — and we need to see what happens in Berlin in two weeks. I think in the corona pandemic people are asking for a common solution for welfare. We have seen that social differences have increased . . . across Europe,” Anniken Huitfeldt, a Labour MP who is favourite to become foreign minister, told the Financial Times.
SPD strategists in Berlin have long pointed to Scandinavia as a harbinger of what is possible in Germany. But the reality of the social democrats’ comeback in northern Europe is more nuanced.
In Norway, Labour came first — as it has in every election since 1924. But it had its second-worst score in those 97 years, gaining just 26.4 per cent of the votes. That was marginally worse even than in 2017 — when Jonas Gahr Store, the Labour leader now set to become prime minister, called the result “a big disappointment”.
Similarly, in Sweden’s last elections in 2018 the social democrats suffered their worst showing since 1908 but held on to power.
The reason is simple. The political landscape of both Scandinavia and the rest of Europe is becoming more fragmented. Norway’s parliament will have 10 parties in it.
Labour regained power largely on the back of a strong showing by other supporting parties. It is likely to try to govern in a three-group coalition with the rural Centre party and Socialist Left. Altogether, parties to the left of Labour won 24 of the centre-left’s 100 seats.
“The general trend is that the social democrats used to be much stronger but now overall there is fragmentation and there are no longer large political parties. Look at the German elections. They used to be dominated by the two Volksparteien, the Social and Christian Democrats, who used to both get 40s [per cent] and now are competing in the low 20s,” said former Swedish centre-right prime minister Carl Bildt.
He argued that fragmentation was a “reflection of societies being more diverse” meaning that “the class-based politics of the past don’t really work any more”.
The pressure on the Scandinavian social democrats has been accentuated by the rise of populist rightwing parties, which have lured voters from the left in Denmark and Sweden particularly. But in Norway the populist Progress party suffered its worst election result since 1993.
In Denmark Mette Frederiksen, centre-left prime minister since 2019, has made the social democrats markedly more immigration-sceptical to neuter the threat from the populist Danish People’s party.
She told the FT before her election: “What I think is the most important thing about being a social democrat party is actually being relevant. Are you able to find the answers to the problems that people are facing?”
Store told Labour supporters that “it will finally be the turn of normal people in this country” as he aims to reverse increases in inequality in Norway.
But he faces a tough task to form a coherent government. Labour’s preferred coalition would have a majority in parliament but there would be considerable disagreement among its three parties on everything from the future of the oil industry — Norway is western Europe’s biggest petroleum producer — to the country’s role in Europe.
The negotiations would be even more difficult if Store needed the support of more radical parties to the left — the communist Red, and Greens — but he will still have to deal with the populist Centre party, the biggest winners of Monday.
“Fragmentation makes governance a more difficult task. Jonas will have to deal with the Centre party — good luck to him,” said Bildt.
For all the resurgence of the Scandinavian social democrats, there is also a sense in the region that the centre-right will return as serious challengers in the next elections.
Current centre-right prime minister Erna Solberg told the FT this year that the centre and right had been in power just as much as the left since 1980. As recently as 2015-17, there was only one social democrat in power among the five Nordic countries.
“This is our moment in the sun,” said one Swedish official in the current centre-left. “But anybody who thinks this will last for ever is mistaken.”