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Will schools lead to a split in the Alliance?

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15:23 CET+01:00
As pupils return to school after the winter holidays, liberal commentator Nima Sanandaji explains why the debate about the future of education in Sweden may signal a rift in the centre-right Alliance government.

The Christmas and New Year holidays are understandingly some of the calmest days in the Swedish political landscape. So too are the first few days in January before most people have returned to work. Still, even these quiet days have seen a buildup to the “super election” year of 2014.

Take the debate about falling school results as an example. Retired professor Kjell-Åke Forsgren recently wrote that it is no coincidence that today’s school system underperforms in comparison to the system that existed in mid-20th century Sweden. Previously, the goal was to encourage students to aim high. Forsgren argues that today schools are organized based on the notion that all students should reach the same goals. How can this be achieved other than by lowering expectations to that of the average student?

Perhaps most interesting is what the Moderate Party is saying about state control over schools. In 1989, Social Democrat Göran Persson (who seven years later became prime minister) was the newly appointed education minister. His key reform was transferring authority over schools from the state to municipalities. Still today, many discuss whether this move was a good one or a bad one. The National Union of Teachers (Lärarnas Riksförbund) supports re-strengthening state control over schools. As does the Swedish Liberal Party (Folkpartiet). But the main center-right party, the Moderates – the party of Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt – have argued that they are against increased state control.

On its surface, this doesn’t seem particularly dramatic, or even interesting. But one should remember the formation of the four-party center-right “Alliance” in 2004 significantly changed Swedish politics. For much of the 20th century, Sweden was almost seen as a one-party, social democratic state. The Social Democrats formed their own governments, sometimes with support from smaller parties on the left or right, and sometimes based on own majorities. The center-right parties were too fractured by in-fighting to be seen as a viable alternative. The creation of the Alliance, coupled with reduced voter support for the Social Democrats, changed the dynamic. Suddenly, the center-right parties offered the most stable government formation, whilst the parties on the left had difficulties formulating common goals and strategies.

The opposition of the Moderates to state control over schools can be seen as significant in the light of the Alliance and its attempt to win what would be an unprecedented third election victory in a row. In effect, the Moderates oppose a central part of the educations policies of Liberals – one of the core issues for the latter. In some ways, the Moderates stance could be seen ti signal their belief that the failure to stop the slide of the Swedish school system (one of the reasons the center-right were voted into power) is the fault of the Folkpartiet, whose leader Jan Björklund is education minister.

Of course, this subtle form of in-fighting (the Moderates do not explicitly write anything negative about the Liberals) is to be expected within the frame of a political alliance. But we live in a time when both the governing parties and the opposition are hard pressed by an upcoming European parliamentary election this spring, followed a few months later by a national election – and by the rising popularity of the far-right, nationalist Sweden Democrats.

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Is the Alliance, in its tenth year of existence, beginning to crumble? It will be interesting to see if the four Alliance parties stick together, or begin relying more on individual ideas, even challenging policies of their own center-right coalition partners. When it comes to the European elections in May, having common policies is not as important – since the parties do not necessarily collaborate in the same party groups in the European Parliament. But the internal friction within the Alliance, as well as the challenges facing the opposition parties, will almost certainly be one of the main issues in Sweden's 2014 parliamentary election in September. 

Dr. Nima Sanandaji, a Swedish writer of Kurdish origin, has written numerous books and reports about policy issues in Sweden. He is a regular contributor to The Local.

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