• Sweden edition
 

The Social Democrats' dilemma

Published: 29 May 2006 10:14 GMT+02:00
Updated: 29 May 2006 10:14 GMT+02:00

The last few weeks have seen smiles returning to the faces of Social Democrats. For the first time in months, opinion polls have shown the ruling left-wing coalition ahead of the conservative-liberal Alliance.

But any celebrations on behalf of Sweden’s most powerful political party could be premature. The left wing coalition’s lead is less than one percent, prime minister Göran Persson is still less popular than his rival, Moderate Party leader Fredrik Reinfeldt, and according to one poll by Synovate Temo, Social Democrat voters tend to be less certain of their vote compared to voters for other parties.

This may seem a little odd given that things are going well for Social Democrat-ruled Sweden, on paper at least: the Swedish economy is growing faster than the economies of most comparable countries, and official unemployment figures, which had been stubbornly refusing to fall, have now given way slightly. At the same time, there is little sign that Swedes are aching to drop the country’s famously high taxes and generous social security.

The party has been paid the ultimate compliment by its opponents – Reinfeldt has consciously been trying to make the Moderates sound more like Social Democrats, emphasising the importance of public services and promising only modest tax cuts.

Still, an endless stream of bad news stories for the party, with the tsunami-related difficulties of former foreign minister Laila Freivalds and Lars Danielsson, Göran Persson’s closest aide, have dented the party’s image as the invulnerable titan of the political scene.

As a result of these difficulties the party has in the past two years frequently come across as a tired, old and corrupt political giant rather than a vibrant, successful force, as it would like to be seen . The Moderates, putting on a fairly united show with their three Alliance partners, appear to be a fresh, confident and promising alternative.

But do the Social Democrats’ current problems expose deeper issues within the party?

“Their position in Swedish politics has made it hard to develop. There has been no need to do so, and the consequence has been a party with ideas and policies which in some ways are not very up to date”, says Jenny Madestam, a political scientist at Stockholm University.

The party’s strong organizational base and the close relationship to the trade unions has been one of its main sources of power. Indeed, trade union sympathizers were among the party’s original members when it was founded in 1889.

It took decades for the party to rise to dominate the political scene, but when Per Albin Hansson won a landslide victory in the 1932 elections, he started the process of re-forming Sweden in the party’s image. This he did through the creation of the Swedish welfare state, the “folkhemmet” (home for the people), attempting to achieve full employment and redistributing wealth. He introduced sickness and unemployment benefits, retirement pensions, universal dental care, and public works to combat unemployment.

Hansson’s project was continued after the Second World War by his successor, Tage Erlander, who dubbed Social Democratic Sweden “the strong society”. The fifties and sixties were dominated by investment in education, health care and housing. Erlander was PM for 23 years and holds the record as the longest serving PM of any western democracy. After Erlander finally stepped down in 1969, Olof Palme took over and concentrated on labour market reforms, parental insurance and free public schools.

Palme was the first Social Democrat leader to lose an election for decades. A non-Socialist government was formed in 1976 and a period of political instability lasted until the Social Democrats returned to power in 1982. Palme, the winner, who became internationally famous for his deep involvement in foreign affairs, was murdered in 1986. Five years later the party lost another election. A government led by Carl Bildt of the Moderates was created.

Ingvar Carlsson, Palme’s successor as Social Democrat leader, won the 1994 election for the Social Democrats and was replaced by Göran Persson in 1996. Persson has been PM ever since and is now running for office again.

Having ruled Sweden four all but nine years since Hansson’s victory in 1932 (excluding the government of national unity during the Second World War), the party has a unique position in Swedish life. This position is in evidence well outside the narrow sphere of parliamentary politics.

“The Social Democratic Party is also a social movement, organized in local organizations, youth organizations, trade union clubs, etc.” says Lenita Freidenvall, a political scientist from Stockholm University, “It also has important co-operations with actors such as the Swedish Trade Union Confederation (LO) which together with its affiliated unions has two million members – a great part of the population and electorate”.

“The party has always had a good connection with ordinary Swedes” adds Klas Åmark.

“Leading figures like Gustav Möller, Social Minister from 1932-1951 and politician and ideologist Ernst Wigforss have created a system of full employment and stable economic life knowing what voters wanted and delivering it.”

Today, however, the party’s total dominance of national life has started to look increasingly like a handicap for the party, making accusations of corruption and cronyism easier to stick.

“Corruption accusations come from the party’s dominance and its possibility to put their people in important jobs,” argues Jenny Madestam.

The case of Anitra Steen’s pension is a prime example of this. Steen, a lifelong Social Democrat functionary, heads Systembolaget, the state-owned monopoly alcohol retailer. She is also Göran Persson’s wife. Little surprise then that newspaper columnists and opposition politicians cried foul when it emerged that her generous pension deal broke the government’s own guidelines.

The damage was compounded by court cases in which Systembolaget employees were found guilty of accepting bribes. As if all this wasn’t enough, a fresh scandal broke out when it was discovered that the company spent 14 million crowns on a party celebrating its 50 years anniversary.

Quite apart from suspicions of corruption, the government’s poor performance dealing with the 2004 tsunami in South Asia has led to the its competence and connection to reality being questioned.

The parliamentary inquiry into the tsunami exposed a hesitant and confused government response to the natural disaster that claimed hundreds of Swedish lives. The fact that former foreign minister, Laila Freivalds, went to the theatre on the day of the disaster, and health minister, Ylva Johansson, went on holiday shortly after, added to the impression of an arrogant and self-absorbed administration.

The real problems were, naturally, more serious – a lack of preparation and emergency drills and problems in information management, coordination and allocation of responsibilities to name just a few.

More recently, Lars Danielsson, Göran Persson’s most trusted advisor, has been forced to ‘take time out’, after being accused of giving misleading answers to the inquiry.

And while the Social Democrats could justifiably take the credit for the achievements of the Swedish welfare state, for providing the highest standards of living and life expectancies in the world and the lowest infant mortality rate, they are learning that they cannot expect to be rewarded eternally for it at the ballot box.

Many of these achievements are now seen as an obvious and natural quality of Nordic life, as are generous paid parental leave, free childcare, gender equality, good healthcare and pension systems and the highly regulated labour market. Young Swedes often associate these policies with Sweden itself and not with a specific party.

“Their long hold on power has affected Swedish society in a way that the party, its policies and its hold on power have come to be seen as natural, says Jenny Madestam.

“The whole society and its citizens can in some way be seen as social democratic and ‘social democrats’; their ideology has become something of an ‘over-ideology’ in Swedish society”.

Indeed, no serious political party proposes abolishing large parts of the Swedish welfare state. A key part of Reinfeldt’s success in revitalising the Moderates has been in reassuring voters that key areas of the welfare state will be maintained even without the Social Democrats in Rosenbad.

Quite how successful Reinfeldt has been will be shown on 17th September, in what currently looks set to be a knife-edge election. Persson now needs to persuade Swedes not only that Sweden should be social democratic, but also that they need social democracy run by Social Democrats. If he fails, his party runs a serious risk of losing its long-lasting grip on power.

David Stavrou

Paul Rapacioli (paul.rapacioli@thelocal.com)

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