For Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, the end of his campaign for a second term in office was almost like to hacking one's way through a jungle only to wind up at the edge of a cliff. Of course, Reinfeldt's still has some room for maneuver, but only about as much as the cliff's ledge has to offer.
On Sunday, Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt's liberal-conservative coalition emerged as the winner of Sweden's parliamentary elections, making it likely that he will become the first center-right leader to win two consecutive terms in a country that, for decades, was so utterly dominated by the center left.
The only problem is that the coalition didn't hold on to its majority of seats in the 349-seat parliament: They captured 172 seats, while the leftist opposition -- in which the Green Party and the Left Party join the dominant Social Democrats -- won 154. Three more seats would tip the scales in the direction of Reinfeldt's coalition to secure a majority government and be able to push through its sought-after reforms. But, for the moment, getting hold of those votes looks very doubtful.
The natural place for Reinfeldt to go looking is somewhere in the middle. But the parties there are already anchored in solid coalitions. On Monday night, Reinfeldt tried to woo the Green Party out of the leftist bloc, but he got turned down. So, for now, that only leads to one potential partner: the Sweden Democrats -- the far-right party led by 31-year-old Jimmie Akesson, which points the finger straight at immigrants for the stresses the country's cherished cradle-to-grave welfare system has sustained. By winning 20 seats and almost 6 percent of the vote, the party has shocked a world so used to viewing Sweden as an open-doored bastion of tolerance.
Though it claims to not be racist and doesn't have the neo-Nazi affiliations that previous parties on Sweden's far right have had, Sweden Democrats is still too extreme for Reinfeldt, who can't risk the gains he's made in the middle by reaching too far out on the extremes.
In the next few weeks, Sweden will see whether one of its parties will shake free from its coalition (and potentially rattle both political alliances) or whether Reinfeldt will lead a minority government in the hopes of securing votes on particular bills. For now, though, the impasse will remain.
In Tuesday's newspapers, German commentators focus less on discussing the shock of the Sweden Democrats' rise and more on how the political landscape in Sweden is starting to look a lot more like it does in other Western European countries. Likewise, though they don't know what Reinfeldt can do to change the situation, many believe he only has himself to blame.
The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:
"In the moment of his greatest triumph, Reinfeldt has also experienced a great defeat. He has become the victim of his own winning strategy."
"This strategy was as simple as it was effective. In recent years, Reinfeldt purposefully divided up Sweden's party landscape in order to rule. In doing so, he succeeded in breaking the dominance of the Social Democrats. For a long time, they played their role as ruling party with the trump card of being the only power that could attract middle-class majorities from both sides. Thus, in decades past, they have worked not only with the Green Party and the Left Party, but also with the Liberal People's Party and the agrarian Center Party. By forging a solid voting alliance with the last two parties, Reinfeldt robbed the Social Democrats of this power play and forced them to form an alliance with the Green Party and the Left Party. In doing so, he fundamentally altered the rules of how Swedish politics are played -- and to his own advantage."
"But that has caused two major problems: First, having two big alliances fighting over the political middle ground fostered the rise of protest parties (such as the Pirate Party and the Sweden Democrats). ... For the time being, at least, chances are apparently still very slim that Akesson will be brought into negotiations to form a coalition government. For this reason, and for now, the second problem that Reinfeldt has created with his 'us-against-them' attitude gets all the more difficult. The bloc politics of recent years has created deep fissures in the Swedish party landscape that are hardly bridgeable at the moment. So, it's going to be hard to create a stable government."
"Last Sunday, Reinfeldt finally succeeded in shoving the Social Democrats out of their traditional position of power. But he has not managed to fill the vacuum he's created. In the end, he will only be allowed to feel like the winner once he has established his party as the new power in the middle and one that can form alliances with parties from all sides. It's high time for a change in strategy."
The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:
"The rise of the 'Sweden Democrats' cannot be attributed to the conservatives but, instead, is related to the historic weakness of the Social Democrats. For decades, their power was based on a combination of consensus and polarization. Both the government and society obeyed the model of the state-run cradle-to-grave welfare system in which both employers and the middle class could feel at home. Meanwhile, there was 'the right,' the conservatives, who assumed the role of voicing basic criticisms without allowing themselves to stray too far from the herd and, more than anything, without giving up their claim to belong to the country's elite."
"That all changed under the influence of three key developments: First, during the crisis, even the Social Democrats found themselves at a loss about what do about the chronically underfunded welfare state. Second, for the first time, the conservatives really turned their focus toward building consensus, abandoned their efforts at polarization and, following the example of Tony Blair, copied the more pragmatic of the Social Democrats' policies. And, third, in the 1990s, all of the parties woke up to a society that, on the one hand, had undergone radical change under the influence of immigration and unemployment and, on the other, had lost not only its folkhemmet (the so-called "Swedish Middle Way" introduced by the Social Democrats) but also its traditional home. All of these incisions fostered the rise of a party to the 'right' of the conservatives. At the same time, though, it all has less to do with political orientation than with sociology. Presumably just like all the voters of the same mindset in Europe, those who vote for the Sweden Democrats are just as conservative as conservatives are once again allowed to be and just as conservative as the Social Democrats have become themselves."
The left-leaning Die Tageszeitung writes:
"It's no fluke that the Social Democrats suffered a historic loss at this point in time. The barricades were already being slowly worn away and riddled with holes when they were leading the government. What's more, owing to the conservative-liberal coalition's four years in power, the effects of the disintegration of the social safety net and the privatization of public services have become all the more noticeable to Swedes in their everyday lives."
"Unfortunately, during the campaign, the opposition alliance led by the Social Democrats and including the Green Party and the Left Party did not react to these changes by offering a genuine alternative. ... In its efforts to not lose a single centrist voter, it didn't have the guts to counter the conservatives' rhetoric about being the real guardians of the welfare state with a clear alternative approach -- or to name its costs. Instead, they spent a lot of energy working on figuring out tax cuts down to the nth percent of a percent and debating whether kids should get their first grades after the seventh or eighth year in school."
The conservative Die Welt writes:
"Things aren't going so well for the progressive camp in Europe. Now, even the Swedes don't want to be social democratic anymore. ... When not even the solid welfare state Sweden can stunt the growth of a protest party like (the Sweden Democrats), the problems must be big. Anyone who knows their way around the multiethnic city of Mälmo, knows what the issue is. In Sweden, too, established parties have ignored or played down the conflicts for too long."