The Nordic Voter: Myths of Exceptionalism

Examining similarities and differences in political behavior between five Nordic countries (Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden), The Nordic Voter makes a valuable contribution for the field of comparative politics. It clearly demonstrates that despite being treated often as a unitary block in international comparisons, a closer look at Nordic countries actually reveals a multitude of variation across them, both in in terms of political institutions and voter behavior. This becomes particularly evident once each country is considered separately among a larger set of industrialized democracies. Instead of constituting one group by default, the ranking of each Nordic country can substantially differ from one another, depending on the indicator under investigation. In fact, we can draw a conclusion that Nordic countries per se offer an ideal setting for a comparative study. They are homogeneous enough to fit into most similar cases research design, but at the same time different to the extent that they make such a comparison meaningful.

All five Nordic countries are much alike in terms of their societal structure, sharing many historical and cultural characteristics. Evangelic-Lutheran church has a strong standing in each of these stable representative democracies with multi-party systems where well-established welfare states are characterized by relatively high taxation and large proportion of union members in the workforce. Common features in political culture include consensual decision-making procedures and wide representation of various societal groups, corporatism, fairly high turnout, active membership in social organizations and remarkable level of both institutional and social trust. The authors aptly refer to Herbert Tingsten who already in 1966 described Nordic countries as ‘happy democracies’.

In line with the framework presented in the end of the book, at least three dimensions for between-country comparisons can be put forth: political institutions, trends and individual-level behavior. At the level of political institutions in general and electoral system in particular, the differences in ballot structure are especially noteworthy. Whereas proportional representation (PR) system is utilized in each country, the choice available for voters differs remarkably. In Norway, a vote choice is limited to selection between closed lists set by political parties. In principle, a voter may remove one or several candidates from the list but in order to make a difference, a majority of voters is needed. This is yet to happen since this opportunity was first launched in 1920. Although the Icelandic voters have an additional possibility to change the order of candidates besides removing them, in practice this has not influenced the electoral results.

In Denmark, parties themselves can decide whether to employ closed or open lists. In the latter, the order of candidates is based on their share of personal votes. Preferential voting is also permitted when closed lists are used, but its effect is considerably milder. The popularity of open lists has doubled during the last decade compared to situation in the 1970s (44% vs. 88%). On the other hand, the share of voters casting a preferential vote has remained rather steady, fluctuating between 40 and 50 percent. Since 1998, Swedish voters have been entitled to cross the selected candidates from a party list. If eight percent (from 2010, 5%) of party voters in constituency has cast a preferential vote for the same candidate, it overrides the order set by a party and the candidate is located in the top of the party list. However, the Swedish voters have exploited this option with declining numbers. In the 2010 national elections, a quarter of voters indicated their preferred candidate and only eight seats of 349 were filled in order other than the one set by a party. Finland is, in turn, located on the other end of closed–open-list continuum with mandatory preferential vote, meaning that voters must directly cast their votes for a candidate from a party list. According to the prevailing practice, candidates are placed in alphabetical order in the party lists, although this is not regulated in the electoral law.

This detailed description of the electoral legislation clearly illustrates that wide range of practices can be found even inside assumingly uniform group of Nordic countries. Recognition of such deviations is necessary when interpreting Nordic peculiarities, including a high level of female representation. Contrary to general perception, gender quotas in party lists have never been utilized in the Finnish context. Instead, the proportion of female voters engaged in same-gender voting has increased over the years (Giger et al. 2014). The fact that even close neighbors can differ so much, albeit with similar outcomes, underlines the challenges embedded in a comparative approach.

Another intriguing institutional-level difference with noteworthy implications is the role of election results for the government formation. Again, Finland is a deviant case since in other Nordic countries coalition building has taken place along with traditional left-right dimension. Parties have traditionally supported either left- or right-leaning candidate for a prime minister, thus constituting the left-wing bloc and the conservative (non-socialist) bloc. In addition, it is explicitly indicated in parties’ electoral platforms which bloc they will support after the elections. In Finland, government formation has been much more pragmatic. Bloc politics has mostly been hampered by parties’ reluctance to reveal their preferred coalition partners during their election campaigns. From the 1980s onwards, Finland has also been characterized by oversized coalitions which often include parties from the both ends of ideological spectrum. Expectedly, such a tendency has influenced negatively on voters’ perceptions of the role of elections, contributing to lower levels of turnout compared to its Nordic neighbors.

The Nordic party system has been formed in alignment with central sub-groups in society and thus is to a large extent similar between the five countries. The structure of Nordic party systems has remained significantly stable, so much so that Lipset and Rokkan (1967) have defined them as ‘frozen’. The most noteworthy changes include the establishment of Christian parties in Finland and Sweden during the 1960s (in Norway already in 1933) and the 1970s in Denmark, followed by the emergence of populist right-wing parties during the 1970s and green parties a decade later in Finland, Norway and Sweden. In terms of the current structure of the party system, only Iceland differs from other Nordic countries.

When moving forward to trends in political behavior, same type of development can be found in all Nordic countries. Class voting has decreased in each country, although it is still high in Sweden from a comparative perspective. The same applies to the degree of party identification, also apparent in the growing proportion of late-deciders and party shifters. Turnout has declined in every Nordic country with the exception of Denmark and the share of public expenditures in GDP has grown. Yet, as the authors remark, today the distance between the Nordic countries are greater than ever before. Several factors may account for this development, such as Europeanization, globalization and Americanization. Such changes can be traced in very concrete issues, as in the structure of broadcasting. While Nordic citizens were few decades ago often able to follow television programs from neighboring countries, that is seldom possible anymore. Correspondingly, English has become more common language for communication in Nordic exchange among younger generations.

Differing implications of mutual trends can be easily detected from the ways in which the 2008 financial crisis influenced government support in each country. In both Norway and Sweden, the popularity of the government coalition increased substantially during the economic downturn, reflecting successful resuscitation attempts and a dispersion of the opposition parties. Danish and Finnish voters, in turn, reacted in line with common expectation in economic voting, namely punishing the incumbent government coalition during the economic downturn. The electoral loss of leading government party was largest in Iceland, which was also most severely affected by the recession.

Finally, the book reveals many differences at the level of individual voters in Nordic countries. These are examined on the basis of national election studies, using the same design for analyses from one chapter to another. While such systematic approach is well-motivated in terms of the clarity of overall structure, conducting analyses for five countries separately produce an abundance of results. Thus, formation of a more comprehensive picture is occasionally challenging. The authors, however, do a terrific job in summarizing their key findings. In interpreting the results, inferences are often made to institutional-level factors. Since multi-level modeling strategy is not exploited, more specific cross-level hypotheses cannot be empirically tested. Given the small number of country-level cases included in the study, authors’ solution to stick with the country-specific analyses is obviously justified. In some occasions, however, it could have been interesting to expand the comparative scope into a wider set of industrialized democracies. Such approach might have provided additional information when some of the suggested mechanisms had been tested in a setting that included more cases with a similar institutional-level feature, such as open list ballot.

The Nordic voteris based on collaboration between five leading country experts in electoral studies. It is an excellent overview of a political context which turned out to be much more multi-faceted than what was expected even by the authors themselves. It is highly useful handbook for anyone interested in comparative studies in political science and politics in Nordic countries. In addition, as illustrated by the gamutof issues covered, a study of electoral behavior is actually a study of society as a whole. Voting is by no means a single act but tightly connected to various aspects of individual’s life as well as the characteristics of surrounding political context.

The book is dedicated to the memory of professor Hanne Marthe Narud (1958–2012) who represented Norway in the research team.


Lipset Martin Seymour and Rokkan, Stein. 1967. Party systems and voter alignments: Cross-national perspectives. Toronto: The Free Press.

Giger, Nathalie, Holli, Anne Maria, Lefkofridi, Zoe and Wass, Hanna. 2014. The gender gap in same-gender voting: the role of context. Electoral Studies (forthcoming).





Article image: Kihyuck Kim / Pixabay

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