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Prime ministers as presidents: A problem for Sweden?

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Obama and Reinfeldt during the president's Stockholm visit last year. Photo: AP
07:30 CEST+02:00
Sweden's leaders are becoming too similar to the presidents of the US and it poses at least three major problems for Swedish politics, argues Steven Schier, Fulbright Professor at Uppsala University.
 
Should Swedes be worried that their leaders are too presidential? The electoral and governing behaviour of Swedish prime ministers increasingly resembles that of American presidents. This has come to pass during the prime ministerships of Göran Persson and Fredrik Reinfeldt. It is not a good trend for the nation, for three reasons.
 
First, the more citizens focus on the person of the prime minister, the less they are likely to hold parties collectively accountable for what happens in government. And the Swedish political system is designed for collective party accountability, not personal rule by a president elected individually as in the US.
 
How does a politics based on personal appeal operate? America has such politics. Virtually all US elections involve a choice between two major party candidates for office and in such a one-on-one competition, personal qualities come to the fore.
 
The Swedish system in contrast involves multiple parties, proportional representation and vote for party lists. Voting behaviour remains largely party oriented. It's a system in which the personal appeal of candidates should play a minimal role in elections.
 
But nevertheless two Swedish prime ministers have pioneered the use of personal appeals in campaigns. Göran Persson’s energetic “alpha male” personality contributed to this trend, for he was certain to garner attention in any public forum. Fredrik Reinfeldt’s lower-key persona has also benefitted by campaign personalism.
 
The marketing of Reinfeldt’s personality has been a staple of Alliance campaigns in 2006 and 2010. Reinfeldt, who in the polls is consistently more popular than his party, has demonstrated the contemporary political benefits of personal campaigning. Personal campaigning likely will remain a more important tactic employed by party leaders in Swedish national elections than it was in decades past. The American style may be here to stay.
 
A second reason for Swedes to worry about the arrival of presidential leadership is illustrated by the fate of US presidents. Most of them suffer from steadily falling support and leave office highly unpopular. Why? One reason is that they build personal cults of leadership by making big promises. Inevitably, reality bites and many important presidential promises remain unfulfilled. 
 
This “expectations gap” had contributed to low public trust in US government. A system with low public trust doesn’t function well. Sweden, the nation whose citizens led the world in their high trust in government in a recent international Gallup poll, should not head down this road.
 

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A third reason why Swedes should worry about the presidentialization of their politics is because issue discussions and policymaking can become clouded behind a barrage of personal appeals and attacks. A “food fight” between personalities seldom clarifies or settles issues. In the US, such fights are currently ongoing and any progress on national policy is meager.
 
To preserve collective party accountability in government, reasonable expectations of political leaders, and issues-centered discussions in government, Swedes need to reject presidential styles of politics and governance. Government in Sweden in a team sport of the parties and that serves the nation better than the free-for-all of personal rivalries that is American politics. 
 
Steven Schier is currently Fulbright Professor of American Studies at Uppsala University and is a professor of political science at Carleton College in Minnesota.
 

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