Sweden's new workers' party on the cusp of power
Published: 22 Aug 2006 17:53 GMT+02:00
Updated: 22 Aug 2006 17:53 GMT+02:00
With less than a month to go before the election, there’s an unmistakable spring in the step of workers for the four Alliance parties. It’s hard to miss the sense of cautious optimism that twelve years in the political wilderness could soon come to an end for the Swedish right.
Given that poll after poll suggests that the Moderates and their three allies have a lead over the government of between four and seven percentage points, the palpable sense of expectancy is perhaps unsurprising. This is a party that clearly feels it is on the cusp of something big:
“What we’re trying to do with the Moderate Party is something you’re also seeing in Canada, in Finland and with David Cameron in the UK. In a sense we’re Conservative 2.0,” says party secretary Sven Otto Littorin.
Littorin is widely seen as one of the leading modernisers in the Moderate Party. He has been a key ally of leader Fredrik Reinfeldt in trying to make the party more electable after it gained only 15 percent of the vote in a disastrous election in 2002. This has meant shifting the focus onto tax cuts for low earners, and toning down criticism of the welfare state.
The 40-year old, who gained an MBA from Fairfax University in the United States and who co-founded a venture capitalist firm, is not afraid of talking about big ideas:
“After the Thatcher generation there was over a decade during which people were trying to find out what the new mission was, but now that’s getting momentum.”
That the Alliance has made headway in the polls confounds the received political wisdom that a good economy will reflect in the polls; Sweden’s economy grew by 5.5 percent in the second quarter, something the ruling Social Democrats are quick to claim credit for.
But Littorin says the positive growth figures mask the real problem in Sweden – the number of people out of work.
Though the official unemployment rate is just over 6 percent, Littorin says that in reality one in five Swedes of working age is outside the regular labour market, and one out of every four people under 25 is jobless.
“This is a huge loss for those who are outside: they’re not part of a working environment, they have no salary to live on, and they have no way of using their dreams and hopes and turning them into reality.”
“Then, of course, there’s a direct cost – about a billion kronor a day,” Littorin adds.
Fixing this problem will be, the Moderates say, their number one priority if they get elected.
Rather cheekily borrowing a moniker from the Social Democratic Workers’ Party (as the governing party is officially known), the Moderates have started referring to themselves in campaign posters as ‘Sweden’s new Workers’ Party’. “This is in contrast to the Social Democrats – the Swedish unemployment benefit party,” as Littorin puts it.
As for the solutions to unemployment, the Alliance wants to cut both benefits and the taxes on working.
According to the opposition’s plans, people who have been unemployed for over 200 days will have their unemployment benefit reduced to 70 percent of their former salary, as opposed to 80 percent today. The party also aims to cut taxes for people in low-paid jobs.
Talk of cutting benefits has predictably brought condemnation from the left, who accuse the Alliance of wanting to take money from the worst off, but Littorin protests:
“We don’t want people to be on 75 percent or 80 percent unemployment benefit, we want them to be on 100 percent of a pay cheque.”
Jobs might be dominating debate, but perhaps the most remarkable thing about the current election is the apparent unity of the four centre-right parties, which were once notorious for bickering among themselves. The parties have generally presented a disciplined, united front to the media. Littorin says he has been surprised by how well disciplined everyone has been.
“We have a history of not being in agreement with each other, so I thought we’d see much more of people going out and accusing each other of not being in alignment with previous agreements,” he insists.
Yet despite the generally united front, there have still been occasional press reports of splits in the Alliance. The latest example of this was after Moderate leader Fredrik Reinfeldt said he would consider financing the abolition of property tax through a reduction in mortgage interest tax relief. The other parties immediately set about distancing themselves from the proposal, although within days they had come to an agreement.
While Littorin and his colleagues might have seen this as a bit of friendly disagreement, the media portrayed it as a crack in the facade.
"We have to live with our own history. If the history tells us that we've been in disagreement, it's not surprising that the media tries to find examples of disagreements. I might not like it, but I understand."
Littorin makes the point that the four parties have not merged, and that each still has distinctive policies on many issues. For him, the difference now is that they agree to disagree in a climate of respect. As for their vision for the future of Sweden, he says the four groupings are “one hundred percent in alignment”. Indeed, throughout the interview, he rarely talks of the Moderate Party’s own policies, focusing instead on what the Alliance has agreed.
This unity is a big advantage over the left-wing bloc, Littorin argues:
“It shows the weaknesses of the left in a much starker light. Göran Persson’s main theme in 2002 was that these non-socialist guys are not fit to run the country – they can’t even agree on a brochure,” he says, adding that the situation now is “quite the opposite – it’s so obvious that Göran Persson has great problems with the Greens and the Communists.”
One issue that has cropped up very little during the campaign is foreign and security policy. Littorin says that any changes under the Alliance would be changes of tone and focus, rather than major changes of direction:
“This means being more active in the enlargement of the European Union, and it has to do with the effectiveness of the union itself. We have to be much more active, and much more a part of where things are happening.”
He also says that the Social Democrats have “neglected the transatlantic relationship a bit.”
“We need to be more active in building relationships,” he says, but readily admits that the Bush administration is not hugely popular in Sweden:
“We may not like everything that the current US administration is saying or doing, but we like the US and we like Americans, so lets make sure that we can distinguish between these, and make sure we have direct lines of communication open.”
As for joining Nato, which has long been Moderate Party policy, “it’s never been as undramatic an issue as it is now, but politically it’s perhaps more of an issue.”
He says that one option could be to approach joining together with Finland, if political developments there allow.
As for the other big security issue, the threat of terrorism, Littorin admits that the problem still feels a bit distant in Sweden:
“I think we all in Sweden have a somewhat naive general outlook on this subject, in the sense that we’ve been blessed with a position in the far north, and haven’t faced these issues before.”
“On the other hand we have a very strong commitment to civil liberties and freedom of speech, and we all have reason to think twice when it comes to questions of what is OK and not OK when it comes to fighting terrorism. It’s a real conflict of interest, but I’m not all that happy with phones being tapped and all kinds of other anti-terror actions, as they have the potential to pass the line of what is acceptable in terms of civil liberties.”
Surely that’s easy to say in Stockholm, when any terrorists based here are more likely to blow things up in London, Madrid or New York?
“Of course it is, but this is where we are. It’s not a simple issue, but then where are the limits of how we tap people’s phones or read their emails?”
If terrorism is an aspect of globalization that touches Sweden less than other countries, there are other aspects of globalization that are already having a big effect. Littorin talks animatedly about the prospects for Sweden to take advantage.
“We should not be afraid of globalization – it’s a fantastic thing. The whole growth of Sweden in the 1900s was the result of Sweden being a small, open market economy. We’ve done this before, and we can do it again, but we have to make it simpler and cheaper to start and run companies in Sweden, and to hire people.”
Another liberalizing policy that the Moderates have long espoused is the privatization of state-owned companies. The Alliance has agreed to sell the state’s stake in companies including Telia, Nordea, and stock-exchange owner OMX. The proceeds would be used to pay off some of the national debt, and Littorin insists that the sale policy “is less ideological than it used to be.”
One firm not up for sale – whoever wins the election – is alcohol sales monopoly Systembolaget. Nonetheless, the Moderates would love to get rid of it:
“It’s not a modern way of doing things,” says Littorin.
“We have an exception from the EU to run Systembolaget the way it’s run today. We, of course, are not interested in keeping it as a state monopoly in the long term, but there’s no agreement within the Alliance on how to tackle this.”
Still, if that’s one area where the Alliance has not come to an agreement, there’s no doubt that the right of Swedish politics is generally more united than for many years. Would this unity outlast a defeat?
“That situation’s not plausible,” – he laughs, but still looks like he believes it.
“We’re going to win.”