Both Sweden’s political blocks managed to put up a united front in a televised party leader debate on Sunday, but clear differences between the government and the centre-right opposition over benefits and unemployment led to a robust debate in which most commentators handed victory to the opposition.
There may still be a year left to the election, but the themes of the campaign already seem to have been laid out.
The opposition, who cemented their unity last week in a meeting at Christian Democrat leader Göran Hägglund’s house in Småland, repeatedly attacked the government for not doing enough to tackle unemployment.
In return, Prime Minister Göran Persson and his coalition partners attacked the opposition’s proposed benefit cuts for the long-term unemployed. The opposition, said Persson, were proposing an “American programme ”.
“New jobs won’t be created by making the unemployed live on 5,000 kronor after tax,” he said.
Centre Party leader Maud Olofsson attacked the government for lacking a plan to help the 1.5 million people who the opposition say are not in work. She accused Persson, Left Party leader Lars Ohly and Green spokeswoman Maria Wetterstrand of preferring to discuss benefit levels than how new jobs would be created.
“I can’t hear any joint proposals from the divided left-wing cartel,” she said.
The governing coaltion had failed to come to an agreement over the budget in advance of Sunday night’s programme, although they put up a united front in the debate.
Speaking after the programme, Persson and Moderate Party leader Fredrik Reinfeldt agreed that the debate had shown the differences between the parties.
“It is now clear for even more people that the policies that the Right stands for are mainly directed against the unemployed,” said Persson.
Reinfeldt, wearing an orange tie to match the alliance’s signature colour, thought that the debate showed it was clear that his alliance was more united than the governing coalition. “The debate has shown the difference. We have a joint proposition on jobs to lean on,” he said. “They have just referred back to their own ideas.”
One aspect of Persson’s performance that has provoked criticism was when he turned his back on Maud Olofsson while she was criticising the government on unemployment.
Persson defended himself afterwards in an interview, saying he was just stretching his legs.
“It’s hard to stay still for a whole hour at my age,” he said.
But according to Expressen’s Per Wendell, his behaviour only “strengthens the picture of a self-important Persson.”
“The image of a party leader can be decisive in next year’s election.”
Picking through the bones of the debate, it was the unity of the two blocks that struck most commentators.
“Block loyalty was little short of total,” wrote Göran Eriksson in Svenska Dagbladet “despite the fact that for the Right a lot of questions remain unresolved, and on the government’s side they are fighting in the ongoing budget negotiations.”
Henrik Brors in Dagens Nyheter also thought the blocks seemed united. “It appeared as though there were only two parties standing against each other in next year’s election,” he wrote, but he thought that Göran Persson was “unusually defensive” and that it looked as though the prime minister “felt like he was standing without any policies.”
A poll taken directly after the debate handed victory to Fredrik Reinfeldt. Of the 1000 people called by pollsters Sifo, only 283 responded. But of those who did answer, Fredrik Reinfeldt got an average of 3.5 out of 5. Persson scored 2.8.