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Have Sweden's politicians totally lost their sense of direction?

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Do we really do live in a time when it's hard to distinguish right from left? File photo: Monica Arellano-Ongpin
15:50 CET+01:00
With Sweden's election year of politicking picking up speed following the holidays, liberal commentator Nima Sanandaji looks at whether the country's politicians have forgotten the difference between right and left.

Jonas Sjöstedt, leader of Sweden's Left Party (Vänsterpartiet), recently said that his party knows “the difference between right and left”. This remark, made during the opening speech of the party’s convention, was clearly aimed at Social Democrat leader Stefan Löfven who a few months ago proclaimed: "I find the concept of right and left so difficult; I don’t think anybody can define what is right and what is left."

No one doubts that the Left Party, which evolved out of Sweden's own Communist party, knows the difference between right and left. After all, the party's programme still explains that as “socialism realizes the human right to control one’s own work, the ownership of means of production will be repealed altogether”. In virtually all issues, the Left Party stays true to its name, taking stands to the left of all other parliamentary parties in Sweden.

Sjöstedt is, quite cleverly, trying to ride on the left-wing wave in Swedish politics by attracting left-leaning Social Democrat voters. Löfven, on the other hand, knows too well that one of the main obstacles for him to becoming Sweden's prime minister after the September elections is that many centrist voters are repelled by the radical ideas of the Left Party. With that in mind, the Social Democrat party leader is attempting to move his party to the center of the Swedish political spectrum. Löfven is signaling that he would like to co-operate with center-right parties like the Liberal Party (Folkpartiet) rather than the Left Party.

The quotes by Sjöstedt and Löfven are interesting because they tell us much about how the parties are maneuvering in hopes of optimizing future electoral success. But the quotes are also a sign of how it's becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish left from right in Sweden's political landscape today – at least when it comes to slimming down the size of central government administration.

Recently, the Social Democrats promised to cut the scope of the Swedish central government by 10 billion kronor ($1.5 billion). This move is smart, since it is about giving voters what they desire.

Public opinion surveys conducted in 1997, 2002, and 2010 paint a clear picture of Swedes' attitudes toward government and municipal administration. Six out of ten voters want to reduce the tax money aimed at these parts of the public sector, whilst merely three percent want to see an increase. It is also smart since it attracts the attention of voters with liberal, free-market sympathies who are particularly sceptical of government waste. Sweden's Social Democrats can, for example, point to the fact that their party colleagues, the Danish Social Democrats, are already working to slim Danish government agencies.

Of course, cutting down the size of government was a promise made by the parties of Sweden's governing centre-right Alliance coalition way back in 2006. And as liberal author Henrik RS Olsson has shown in a book published in late 2012, the government has indeed cut the number of agencies somewhat since coming to power.

But the government has also created new agencies, and expanded existing ones. The end result is that Sweden's central government has actually expanded both in terms of the number of employees and operating costs. As the newspaper Barometern recently wrote, today Sweden has anywhere between 245 to 468 government agencies, depending on how you count.

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By promising to slim down central government, the Social Democrats are blurring out what is right and left on the Swedish spectrum. And the centre-right Moderates find it difficult to react to Löfven's new move. Moderate MP Anna Kindberg Batra, head of the Riksdag's Committee on Finance, criticized the idea by saying: “Ten billion is a lot of money. It can have consequences for thousands, maybe tens of thousands of public employees and lead to some agencies having to shut down”.

So, the leading left-leaning party aims for reducing the scope of government bureaucracy, whilst the leading right-leaning party opposes the same idea. We really do live in a time when right is difficult to distinguish from left. 

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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