No clear winner in Swedish party leader debate

Göran Persson faced his chief rival for their first live televised debate on Tuesday night, in a discussion that revolved almost exclusively around tax and unemployment.

Fredrik Reinfeldt used the debate to attack Persson repeatedly for the high number of Swedes who do not go to work, whether due to unemployment, sick leave or early retirement. The Moderate Party leader claimed that Persson’s government was “satisfied that so many people are living on welfare, but has dropped the idea that work is the basis for welfare.”

Reinfeldt claimed that a government led by him would give people influence over their own lives, and make getting a job more worthwhile for “the 1.5 million people who are currently excluded.”

Persson responded that Moderates wanted to “drastically reduce benefits for the sick and unemployed to 60 or 65 percent [of their final salary], in order to pay for tax cuts.”

“But how do you get more jobs by cutting unemployment benefits, and how does a sick person become well if his or her financial situation is made worse,” Persson asked.

Reinfeldt hit back at Persson, saying that he was “always bashing the old right-wing bogeyman, as he learned to do in the SSU,” referring to Persson’s time in the Social Democrats’ scandal-hit youth movement.

The Moderate leader said that the Social Democrats had taken benefits for the early-retired down to 64 percent of final salary. He also claimed that Persson had “given himself a tax cut of over 100,000k kronor.” Persson replied that this was the result of a reversal of tax rises that he had always intended to be temporary.

The debate rarely ventured out of the areas of tax, welfare and unemployment. Persson’s attempt to question the unity of the centre-right alliance appeared to backfire when Reinfeldt attacked the Social Democrats’ reliance on a loose alliance with the Greens and “a Left Party whose leader calls himself a communist”.

Reinfeldt also brought up the question of Persson’s future as the leader of the Social Democrats. At the end of the debate, in an apparent aim to scare the floating voter, Reinfeldt asked whether a vote for Göran Persson was really a vote for Göran Persson, “or is there a risk that we’ll wake up with Pär Nuder?”

The debate came about after much American-style posturing by the parties, which had argued about whether the leaders should sit or stand (they stood), and whether the programme should be led by a man or a woman (both parties requested a female presenter, but SVT refused, and gave the job to seasoned presenter Lars Adaktusson).

Yet after all the fuss, it was hard to see that the debate had made much difference for either side. A poll released just after the debate showed that viewers were split almost equally in their views of the two men. When Sifo asked 1,000 people who they thought had won the debate, 24 percent said Reinfeldt, 23 percent Persson.