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State of the Left: Sweden shows northern Europe’s political volatility

12 December 2014
State of the Left: Sweden shows northern Europe’s political volatility

Next year voters in Britain, Denmark, Canada, Sweden, Finland and – depending on the outcome of a parliamentary vote on 29 December – Greece will go to the polls.

In none of these countries is a victory for the centre-left a certainty; a reflection less of the strength of traditional centre-right opponents, but more of the shifting electoral landscapes – apparent in the rise of populist parties and the decline of traditional attachments – in each of them and, indeed, many other democracies.  And, as the reports in this month’s State of the Left demonstrate, while the likes of Podemos and Syriza attract considerable media attention, political volatility is not simply the preserve of southern Europe.

That was most dramatically shown earlier this month in Sweden. From there, Katrine Marçal details the collapse after only two months in office of its Social Democratic government, the result, in part, of the substantial gains made by the xenophobic Sweden Democrats in September’s general election. A defeat over his budget found the normally patient and cautious Stefan Löfven calling a snap election for March following political chaos the likes of which has not been seen in the country since 1958.

As John McTernan suggests, Britain’s general election in May resembles “a game of four-dimensional chess” as populist parties of the right and left – the UK Independence party, Greens and Scottish National party – threaten to deny either Labour or the Conservatives, both stuck way below 40 per cent in the opinion polls, a parliamentary majority. That those chess pieces are in constant motion is evident in Italy where, as Mattia Guidi argues, the principal challenge to the still-popular Matteo Renzi comes not from the previously headline-grabbing Five Star Movement of Beppe Grillo, but the new Northern League leader, Matteo Salvini, who was the star guest at the recent French National Front conference.

Both of Finland’s governing parties – the Social Democrats and the centre-right National Coalition party – have experienced “internal turmoil and soul-searching”, reports Mikko Majander. But it is not the populist True Finns – whose strong third-place finish in 2011 forced the two parties into an uneasy coalition government – who have been the beneficiary, but the centrist Agrarian party. This somewhat unusual development stands in stark contrast to Greece, where, finds Yannis Palaiologos, the prospects of a general election in late January or early February producing a government led by the left-populist Syriza party remain strong.

There is better news from Denmark where, after three years languishing in the polls, Denmark’s Social Democrats at last have something to cheer, says Kristian Weise: signs of an economic recovery and a “red budget” which has united the sometimes fractious centre-left parties which make-up Helle Thorning-Schmidt’s government.

As we look to the new year, the one certainty is that these elections will continue to provide plenty of evidence that long-familiar party systems are now in a deep state of flux – and that Greece will be back with a vengeance.

This month's State of the Left features critical analysis on Australia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Netherlands, Sweden, and the United Kingdom.

Our political observers

   Beware conservative complacency

After two decades of economic good times, Australia’s prosperity is under threat while Tony Abbott’s government pursues pet ideological projects

David Hetherington

   Canada's Conservatives change the rules of the game

Progressives face a tough fight in next year’s Canadian election. Even as their support outstrips the Conservatives’, the Harper government’s changes to the electoral rules will likely suppress voter turnout and leave the door open to more electoral fraud

Claudia Chwalisz


   Hope at last for the Danish left

A ‘red budget’ and signs of economic recovery give the Social Democrats a spring in their step for the first time since they came to power – but will it be enough to secure re-election?

Kristian Weise

   Finland's populists on the back foot

Ahead of next April’s elections, Finland’s left-right coalition government is struggling in the polls. But, unlike elsewhere in Europe, populists are not benefiting from its woes

Mikko Majander


   The French left's untapped strength

The French Socialist party has announced ambitious plans to boost its membership. But it is failing to mobilise its potential support in the unions and civil society

Joël Gombin

   Germany's political pendulum is swinging

Beneath a quiescent surface, elections at a state level and the emergence of a populist challenge suggests German politics is in flux 

Marcel Lewandowsky


   The Greek problem is back with a vengeance

Amid partisan rancour, threats of an early election, and riots in the streets, the Greek government is desperately trying to hold back the rise of Syriza but its creditors are not playing ball

Yannis Palaiologos

   Ireland's rootless politics

The decline of old attachments and a populist challenge from the left open up the possibility of dramatic change in 2016

Eoin O’Malley


   Renzi's autumn of discontent

Strikes, discontent in his party’s left wing, and a corruption scandal in Rome make for a difficult few weeks for the Italian prime minister

Mattia Guidi 

   How rainbow-coloured became the new black

A heated debate around a centuries-old children’s festival throws a light on the complexities of integration and how the left should respond

Michiel van Hulten


   Stefan Löfven runs out of patience

Defeated by the xenophobic Sweden Democrats on a vote on his budget, Sweden’s cautious prime minister has taken a gamble and called a snap election

Katrine Marçal

   A game of four-dimensional chess

Labour may eke out a win in Britain next May but the shape of it, and the contours of the electoral battlefield, remain obscure

John McTernan

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