Persson finally pushes Swedish defence cuts through

Big changes are afoot for the Swedish military after Prime Minister Göran Persson’s government won parliamentary support for cutting the defence budget by 3 billion kronor. Persson secured the support he needed from Lars Ohly’s Left Party after weeks of wrangling and ultimatums, and the defence bill passed on Thursday evening.

In practice, the bill means the military will be downsized by a third and the army transformed from a conscription-based to volunteer-based force. The government also claims the changes will make the armed forces more suitable for their role in the European Union’s rapid reaction force.

The Left Party (Vänsterpartiet), part of the red-green coalition, had held out from giving its blessing to the proposals. The party was concerned about job losses caused by military shutdowns in its northern strongholds. After long negotiations, the party agreed to support the government in return for assurances that the base in Arvidsjaur, in Norbotten, would remain open.

The bill does not mean that conscription is disappearing altogether, but reduced manpower in Sweden’s army will mean that, in practice, few people will be forced to do armed service. In the coming years the number of conscripts will be reduced to 8,300 amounting to one in seven 19-year-olds. Today the number stands at 13,500.

Starting in January 2006, military duty for conscripts will be 11 months long for all posts. Many of these posts will perform military maneuvers or be stationed abroad.

With so few places to fill and more attractive assignments, the government expects the positions to be filled more by volunteers and less by conscripts.

Hugo Hökerberg, responsible for new conscripts at the military academy said, “We have physical and psychological basic requirements for each conscription posting. If there are two or more who fulfill the requirements we will choose the one who is enthusiastic to perform these duties, especially if they are eager to serve abroad.”

The bill has its critics, with many commentators voicing their disapproval of the negotiations between the government and the Left Party.

Lena Mellin in Aftonbladet called these concessions bribery. But the Social Democrats needed the Left Party to back the decision to restructure the military. The Left Party has scored a victory in its political wrangling despite the current political weakness of party leader, Lars Ohly.

Ohly has been under the microscope for several weeks regarding his political history and his admission that he considers himself a communist. Another blow came when former party leader, Gudrun Schyman, resigned from the party last week.The party’s poll ratings have been in free fall, and many Social Democrats have been rushing to distance themselves from both the Left Party and its leader. Göran Persson was therefore under pressure from some quarters not to concede to the Left Party on the defence proposition, but in practice he needed their votes to get the bill passed.

The changes forced onto the government by the Left Party have been attacked by opposition parties for not being properly costed.

“It’s simply good manners to work out the cost of a proposal before you ask MPs to vote on it,” Eskil Erlandsson, Centre Party MP and chairman of the Riksdag’s defence committee was quoted as saying in Dagens Nyheter. Yet attempts by the opposition to get a vote on the matter postponed came to nothing.

Göran Persson may be feeling satisfied that he got his bill through parliament, but in doing so he appears to have used up a lot of his political capital. Lena Mellin in Aftonbladet summed up the disillusion among observers: “It’s probably a good thing that the parliament starts its Christmas holiday on Saturday. Many believe there’s a need for time for reflection.”

Sources: Dagens Nyheter, Svenska Dagbladet, Aftonbladet