September 19, 2006   

Analyzing the Swedish Elections

The social democratic party has been as much of a hegemonic power in Swedish politics for the last century as the United States has been in post-World War II international politics. Even though the social democratic power sequence was interrupted twice by center-right coalition governments, the Thorbjorn Falldin and Ola Ullsten governments in 1976-1981 and the Carl Bildt government in 1991-1994, the defeat of September 17 is historic. The social democrats have led Sweden for all but 10 of the past 89 years.
      The defeat is historic since the popular support for the social democratic party is the worst ever, which has caused the chairman and prime minister for ten years, Goran Persson, to resign. It is also historic because the social democratic party was defeated during an economic boom, and because the social democrats were defeated by a center-right alliance unique in its combined efforts calling for voters’ support with a shared political program and cooperate election campaigns.
      Judging from the news reports, the political importance of the September 17 elections is quite enormous. As The Independent reports, the elections were “a verdict on Sweden’s much-praised social model.” The result of the elections, and thus the defeat of the social democrats, is called a “political earthquake” and the AFP calls it “a major political shake-up.” And Goran Persson made clear that the social democrats lost the election, but they are “not a beaten party.” The BBC reports Persson stated that they “will never accept the right’s change of system.”
      But the effects of this change of government should not be exaggerated. Mr. Reinfeldt, the leader of the largest of the four center-right alliance parties, has gained support for his moderate party through impelling a major change in the party’s image and politics. The party, while leading the 1991-1994 government under Carl Bildt, sought popular support for creating an alternative to the welfare state. Reinfeldt’s “new moderates” have ironed out the differences between the social democrats and the opposition.
      The moderate party has, under Reinfeldt’s leadership, changed radically and now embraces many of the core values and functions of the social democratic welfare state. Whereas Bildt’s moderate party pushed a systems change through privatizations, lower taxes, and reduced public sector undertakings, Reinfeldt’s new moderates promise to fulfill the failed promises of the welfare state rather than change it.
      Many of the much debated authorities in the Swedish welfare state, such as the central authority for the labor market, will be kept intact. In the shared political program of the alliance no real change is advertised. On the contrary, Reinfeldt has publicly announced that he will not make any changes of the welfare system. As a matter of fact, many high income earners may have to face increased taxes as a result of the alliance’s political agenda.
      The systems change is thus on the margin rather than being a “major shake-up.” Reinfeldt has sought mandate to administer the existing system, not to change it.
      It is interesting to note that this historic defeat of the social democrats has resulted from one of the greatest conversions of a party throughout Swedish democratic history. Reinfeldt and his new moderates have consciously and purposefully tried to get as close as possible to the social democratic party’s politics in order to gain power. The election campaign was lined with a number of public announcements of the moderate party reconsidering core points of its earlier critique of the social democratic welfare state.
      The defeat of Goran Persson is not a defeat of the Swedish welfare state model, even though Persson claims the alliance government will effectuate a systems change. It rather seems to be a defeat of the old and seemingly tired social democratic party and the win of a new, in many respects identical, social democratic party: the new moderates.
      Even though the social democratic party suffers its greatest loss ever, it should be noted that it still enjoys support of 35% of voters and the support for the welfare state it has created is unanimous in the Swedish Riksdag parliament. Of the represented seven parties there are none offering or advocating an alternative view. As The Independent states, Reinfeldt was throughout the election campaign “careful not to challenge the fundamentals of the welfare state.”
      The interesting point in this election has, it would seem, nothing to do with a systems change. What is interesting is that the formerly clear-cut opposition party has reconsidered and now fully embraces the welfare state system, which has caused the middle ground in Swedish politics to quite radically shift to the left. When the moderate party shifted to the left, passing a couple of its collaboration parties in the alliance while doing so, and attracted voters in the political middle grounds, the center consequently shifted leftwards forcing the social democrats further left.
      Despite this dramatic change for a political party and Swedish party politics, the result is only a marginal win for the center-right alliance. The result of the election is in effect close to an ideological status quo as the September 17 win of the alliance provides a majority for the four parties of only seven seats out of the parliament’s total of 349. It would seem voters had no interest in a change of system or even changing the system, but merely called for a change of people in government. Perhaps this can be explained by the left appearing to be more left after the shift of the right towards the left?
      Sweden will now and for the following four years be governed by a four-party center-right alliance led by the moderate party’s Fredrik Reinfeldt. But one should not wish for a real change in politics.

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