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?There will be Green ministers?

James Savage · 22 May 2006, 17:38

Published: 22 May 2006 17:38 GMT+02:00

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This might sound like a bit of a raw deal for the Greens. The party, which won 4.6 percent of the vote in the 2002 election and has 17 seats in parliament, supports the Social Democrat government, but gets no ministerial posts in return.

But the party’s spokesman Peter Eriksson (the Green’s are too egalitarian to have a leader) says that four years of support for Persson’s government have borne fruit:

“The Green Party in Sweden has managed to make a difference – more than most of the Green Parties in Europe have,” he says as he clears a space in the the room he shares with assistant Marie Utter in the Riksdag office building.

The sofa in the room is piled with campaign banners and pamphlets pointing to the party’s achievements in the current parliament. The Stockholm congestion charge, the spread of renewable fuels, defence cuts and the ‘free year’ sabbatical year programme are all, at least to some extent, down to the influence of the Greens.

“It’s been a very tough period for us. Hard negotiations, a constant fight, but in the end we have managed to turn most of the the things we set out in our common programme with the Social Democrats and the Left Party into reality.”

But Eriksson insists that the Greens will demand more if their share of the vote holds up in September’s general election:

“If we have a good election and get a majority for the left wing, there will be Green ministers,” he says.

Indeed, if the Greens play their cards right, a victorious Persson may have no choice but to give into their demands, despite his current insistence that he is fighting for a clear Social Democrat majority.

But ministerial jobs or not, the Greens under Eriksson and fellow spokesperson Maria Wetterstrand have turned their 4.6 percent vote share in 2002 into real influence in the corridors of power in the past four years of semi-formal cooperation with the Social Democratic government – something that Eriksson admits is not universally popular.

“If you asked the average Swede they would probably say we have too much power rather than too little power,” Eriksson laughs.

It’s not just average Swedes who are resistant to the Greens. Many Social Democrats are suspicious, or evenly openly hostile to their partner party: a recent SVT poll of 171 local Social Democratic officials confirmed this. Of the 101 who replied, only one said they wanted the party to share power with both the Left Party and the Greens at the national level. None of them wanted Persson to govern alone with the Greens.

Why this hostility?

“Partly because we have been a tough party for them. We have not been satisfied to let the Social Democratic government do as they please.

“We have also made agreements with the right-wing opposition, reducing taxes and rules for small companies.”

Another key to the difference between the Greens and the Social Democratic Party is the somewhat incestuous relationship between the latter and the trade unions. Wanja Lundby-Wedin, head of trade union confederation LO, has accused Eriksson, Wetterstrand and company of impeding their demands for legislation on workers’ rights.

Eriksson counters that the unions’ strong roots in heavy industry make them – and by extension the Social Democrats – feel threatened by green policies:

“We live in an age now when things have changed, and the part of the economy occupied by the industrial base industries is diminishing all over the globe, and they have to realise that this creates a demand for more modern policies, policies where you focus more on services and the modern economy.”

In fact, while the Greens do seem to fit pretty naturally on the left of the political scale – policies such as a 35-hour working week see to that – they occasionally cooperate with the parties on the right. Is there anything about the Moderates Eriksson sees as praiseworthy?

“They see the individual rather than the collective, and I think that is a more modern way to focus on politics, even though their solutions are very focused on those who already have a lot of influence and money.”

Reducing taxes on employment is another part of the Green agenda that seems to chime with some of the Alliance’s aims. The party wants to reduce payroll tax and make up the shortfall with taxes on polluters. The party makes much of the need to help small businesses – Eriksson says he would like to emulate American universities’ successes in encouraging entrepreneurship.

So far, so capitalist, yet the Greens also plan to tackle Sweden’s jobs shortage by creating 40,000 positions in the public sector at the expense of AMS, the employment service, which runs a number of job market schemes.

“Right now we put a lot of money into AMS – this money is not effective.”

“[Creating public sector jobs] is a better way to spead that money. There are a lot of things to be done. These are real jobs, not ‘curtain hanging’ jobs,” he says, in reference to Göran Persson’s promise that jobs could be created ‘to help old people hang curtains’.

A job market measure that the Greens have already pushed through is the sabbatical year scheme, in which a worker takes a year out on 70 percent pay while an unemployed person comes in to take their place and gain work experience.

“Instead of having programmes for unemployed people that don’t make a difference, we say you can take a year off and we give you 60-70 percent of your salary. You can study, start a company, or just take it easy.”

“Instead of you working, your company gets an unemployed person instead, and they get real work. Very often this person gets a chance to stay on. The unemployed get jobs, the workers get a chance to fulfil their dreams,” Eriksson explains.

As for plans for a thirty-five hour working week, he insists that he’s not proposing something compulsory like in France:

“The 35-hour week would give a stronger hand to unions that want to make this a reality. We are not demanding legislation that gives everyone 35 hours a week.”

Shorter working weeks have long been a Green aim, but as befits an environmentalist, the subject that really gets Eriksson enthusiastic is alternative fuels. He cites the changes in transport policy as the major achievement of his cooperation with the Social Democrats.

Legislation has forced oil companies to sell biofuels in major gas stations, and incentives have been introduced to encourage companies to buy biofuel cars.

“We are the first country in Europe to make a real difference in biocars and biofuels. That is quite a complex thing to achieve in reality: nobody wants to buy a car if there are no alternative fuels, and no-one will sell the alternative fuel unless there are cars.”

“We’ve started a journey away from oil dependency with this. That is a big achievement both environmentally and economically.”

Still, far from everyone is able to get a green car – including, it turns out, the Green Party’s own spokesman.

“Well, I’m trying to,” says Eriksson, “But where I live, quite far out in northern Sweden, we still have no stations that sell ethanol or biogas.

“I now have one of the more modern diesel cars that takes only half a litre every ten kilometres, so it’s quite OK I think.”

Eriksson thinks Sweden could still improve its performance on biofuels.

Story continues below…

“I was in Brazil a few months ago and saw that they have gone further than us in the biofuel area.”

Brazil isn’t the only country Eriksson thinks Sweden learn from – he’s interested in Denmark and Britain’s success in keeping unemployment low, for example. But what about America – the Green movement in Europe can be pretty anti-American at times?

“Well, if you say it’s anti-American to be against the Iraq war, then yes, but I would say they [European Greens] are more anti-conservative and against a strong religious approach.”

Anti-conservative, and anti-military too, both in the rest of Europe and in Sweden. The Greens have proposed halving the military’s budget:

“We believe that there are no threats against Sweden, and the reason for having a military have gone. The Riksdag has now made a decision that the reason Sweden has an army is to help the UN.”

So isn’t helping the UN a good reason to keep a sizeable army?

“I don’t see why Sweden should do all the UN’s work. Sure, we could do more, but we don’t need to spend 40 billion kronor a year on it.”

How much of this would actually become reality if the left wins the election will depend largely on the results of negotiations between the three parties, and their relative strengths. But Eriksson is convinced that his party can forge a fruitful partnership with Persson.

“Last time, the Social Democrats weren’t ready. But now they’ve got to know us better, and know that we stand by our agreements.”

But might it not be healthy for the other side to get in - can a change of government be good for its own sake?

“There can be a virtue in a change of power for its own sake. If you’re in power for a long time you can get corrupted. But if we got into government, that would be a change.”

Discuss this topic!

James Savage (james.savage@thelocal.se)

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