The Right shows a united front

Normally, when opposition parties declare an aim to take power, it doesn’t merit much attention. But this is Sweden, where power changes hands roughly as often as it does in North Korea, and the Social Democrats have ruled for 65 of the last 74 years. So signs that the right wing opposition might be on the verge of providing a serious alternative government threatens to make Swedish politics, well, exciting.

Looking at the pictures of this week’s summit of Sweden’s centre-right party leaders, you would be hard pushed to guess that you were witnessing the beginnings of a possible realignment of Swedish politics. In fact, as Centre Party leader Maud Olofsson welcomed colleagues bearing gifts of pot plants and chocolate noisettes to her farmhouse in Högfors, northern Sweden, the scene of middle-class domesticity was more reminiscent of a university reunion or a wife-swapping convention such as might feature on Kanal 5.

Yet behind the welcome hugs and woolly jumpers, there was serious business to attend to. A whole two years before the next election, Sweden’s splintered right wing was determined to unite and show that they can kick the Social Democrats out. DN was quick to point out that the idea that the right wanted to win the election should hardly be news: political parties usually want to win. According to the paper, the big news was that the right was getting its act together two years before the elections, and was getting big media attention in the process.

The other big news, as the meeting wound up on Tuesday, was that the parties would stand on a joint manifesto in 2006. And they promised that everything on their manifesto would be fully costed. “We’ve nailed our colours to the mast, and we have high ambitions,” Liberal leader Lars Leijonborg was quoted as saying in Svenska Dagbladet.

Needless to say, this show of right-wing unity was met with derision by the Left. Pär Nuder, a minister in the office of the Prime Minister, accused the Right of just being interested in power for its own sake. Nuder, said to be Göran Persson’s anointed successor as premier, said that the Right’s get-together was “all about pictures and appearances, rather than about issues, substance and real ideas.”

This provoked an angry response in an editorial in DN, which cited a survey by academic Hans Zetterberg which claimed to show that “eighty percent of Sweden’s director generals, ambassadors, university vice-chancellors, bishops and heads of cultural institutions are Social Democrat sympathizers.” Figures like this, argued DN rather grandly, should prompt a little more humility in the likes of Nuder.

Meanwhile, while the right wing is putting up a united front in opposition, the governing left-wing coalition was showing the strain. Social Democratic Finance minister Bosse Ringholm had hoped substantially to reduce income tax for people on average to high incomes.

Unsurprisingly, this was not a policy destined to appeal to the former communists of the Left Party. Unfortunately for Ringholm, he needs their support to get his budget passed. The Greens were also disappointed that the move was blocked, as reduced income tax was to be accompanied by higher environment taxes.

According to DN, Ringholm’s failure to get his way means that it is the second year in a row that the government has failed to meet its target to reduce the number of people liable to pay income tax to the national government. If the right-wing thinks that coalition negotiations are hard work in opposition, then forming a government could bring some nasty shocks.