Swedish Social Democracy in Crisis

At 15.00 today, Håkan Juholt resigned.

He was the leader of Sweden’s largest and oldest political party – SAP – Swedish Social Democratic Workers’ Party, currently in opposition. After a series of scandals, he decided today that it was too much. With his resigning, he has become historic as the Social Democratic party leader that has sat the shortest period. He sat only for 10 months, but in the end his own behaviour, the general public’s lack of support and the media’s witch hunt became too much for him.

Not only is his resignation historic but also symptomatic of the biggest crisis that the party has ever gone through. The SAP is losing voters faster than the Costa Concordia cruise liner lost its captain. And this reduction in popularity begs a question – is the SAP a party that can understand and represent the needs of modern-day Swedes, or are they stuck in the past? Are they resting on past glories? Are they, in other words, irrelevant?

But first back to origins – how did the SAP party begin? Well, founded in 1889, the party sprang out of the well-organized working class and peasant movements which promoted working class emancipation, temperance, religious observance and modesty. These movements believed in human equality and protested against the unequal spread of wealth and privelege. All of this in a backdrop of a Sweden divided by class and with wide-spread poverty, starvation and disease. These movements were so strong that they successfully penetrated the parliament early on and paved the way for Swedish electoral politics. The Social Democratic Party’s position has a theoretical base within Marxistic socialism: “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”

And their ideology has been very successful in Sweden through the last 125 years. The party has held power of office for a majority of terms after its founding. This means that the ideology and policies of SAP have had strong influence on Swedish politics – even on those of the opposing parties. The current ruling government, the rightwing Moderate party, believe in socialised healthcare, free education for all and supportive benefits for parents, for the unemployed and the sick. Compared to other right-wing parties around the world, the Swedish right-wing appear like humanistic pussy cats.

But what about today then? Has the SAP run its course? Are their core questions relevant for a modern Sweden? Is there no longer inequality to challenge? Is there no social injustice worth fighting against? Is there no class divide between the privileged and the poor?

Of course there is.

Like most developed countries in Europe, Sweden is a very segregated society – segregated by education, money and ethnicity.

It might very well be, however, that the majority of Swedish voters simply don’t care about this anymore. Not enough to finance bridging this divide with increased taxes anyway. Very many Swedes have a good standard of living – comfortable. Nice home, good job, foreign holidays twice a year, modern clothes, gym card, summer house, flat screen tv. Sweden today is not that country of 1889 riddled with poverty, starvation and disease.

Whether or not Swedes see the party as irrelevant remains to be seen. First the party must elect a new leader. To succeed, this leader must repair the damage experienced by the party and convince the electorate that the party is modern, forward-thinking and progressive. He or she must convince the people that the social questions they believe in are still important today. The people must be convinced enough to move out of their comfort zones and believe that voting for the SAP can make a difference.

In 2014, during the next general election, we’ll see if he or she has succeeded.

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