Moderate Party politician Tobias Billström is a busy man these days. Sweden’s general election is slightly over a month away and beating the ruling Social Democrats, who have been in power for the best part of the last 70 years, will be no easy task.
This summer, while most Swedes have been on holiday, he has been on the campaign trail. But this time he and his party are not alone, they are a part of a centre-right wing coalition called “The Alliance for Sweden”.
The Alliance, which is attempting to end the rule of what it calls the “fragile left-wing cartel ruling Sweden” consists of the four ‘Borgerliga’ (literally ‘bourgeois’) parties, currently in opposition; it was formed in 2004 as an attempt to present a non-socialist alternative to the current Social Democratic government.
The decision to form the Alliance was taken in a meeting at the Norrland home of Centre Party leader Maud Olofsson. As the leaders posed in casual sweaters and jeans on Olofsson’s veranda, they issued joint declaration outlining the principles under which the founding parties will run their election campaign. Since then, party officials at all levels have met frequently to bridge differences and co-ordinate policies.
The Alliance consists of the Moderate Party led by Fredrik Reinfeldt, the Liberal People’s Party led by Lars Leijonborg, the Christian Democratic Party led by Göran Hägglund and the Centre Party led by Maud Olofsson. Although they each have separate agendas, they share an election manifesto and issue common policy statements – a notable achievement since the parties used to have a reputation for squabbling between themselves.
“The Alliance is tackling all the important questions that the present government either ignores or has shown itself incapable of dealing with,” says Billström, who is campaigning to be returned to parliament in the autumn.
“The fight to reduce unemployment and to make it more profitable for the common man to earn his wage through work rather than being dependent on public allowances, is doubtless the most important political battle in Sweden today”. He names education, crime, health care and the encouragement of free enterprise as the main components of the Alliance’s political programme of reform. In these subjects, he says, the Alliance differs from the present government “in methods, priorities and means”.
“The Alliance is important because the Social Democrats have been running this country for so long”, according to Jöran Hägglund, the Centre Party’s Secretary.
“For years we have experienced a lack of real opposition. This is one of the reasons why the Social Democrats keep getting re-elected. Now, we are showing the people that four parties with similar values and views of Sweden can govern this country in the future”.
The unemployment problem is cited by all the Alliance parties as one of the biggest issues of the election.
Christian Democrat deputy leader Maria Larsson underlines the importance of the issue:
“A new government’s most important mission is to help people that today are left out of society to get back in on the labor market or to be offered job training or education”.
“The first act will be to present a national budget offering tax cuts on income from work, primarily for those with low and average incomes. The budget will also include a program to raise the quality of schools and public healthcare and a proposal to abolish the so called Stop Law that prevents private and ‘third sector’ organizations from running hospitals and healthcare facilities”.
In its early days the Alliance took advantage of Social Democrat scandals and general negative sentiment towards the government and gained a clear lead in the polls. This lead didn’t last long, gradually withering away to become long-lasting tie.
A poll commissioned from Demoskop in July by TV4 and Expressen gave the Alliance a lead over the Social Democrats and their potential left-wing coalition partners, but neither bloc has managed to maintain a convincing lead over a long period:
“I have a feeling it will be incredibly close,” Moderate Party leader, Fredrik Reinfeldt, admitted recently. “Every small thing we do now can affect the results”. He is probably right: many voters are still undecided and the race is wide open. Reinfeldt also knows that the Alliance has to stand united in order to stand a chance.
Years of disputes between Sweden’s liberal and conservative parties seem to have given way to an impressive show of unity. But can this harmony last? Can compromises between these historic rivals survive September’s general election?
Part of the answer may be found with a little historical perspective, since the four parties come from different ideological backgrounds.
The Christian Democratic Party, for example, has a history of rivalry with its alliance partners. It was formed in the mid sixties by religious thinkers and Free Church leaders. When the party refused to join the right wing attempt to unite forces against the socialists in 1976, this naturally caused angry reactions in the other parties.
In 1985, the Christian Democrats entered Parliament for the first time in a joint list with the Centre Party. But the fragile agreement between the two parties left tensions in its wake. Today, after policy and name changes, the party is the fourth largest in parliament and focuses on healthcare, freedom of choice in education and neo-liberal economic reforms.
Unlike previous experiences, Maria Larsson says recent co-operation has proven successful:
“We have been working closely together in the Alliance for two years and we have solved many issues where we had different opinions from the start”.
“Good politics is the art of compromise and in a political system like the Swedish one, with seven parties represented in Parliament, all parties are interdependent on each other”.
The Centre Party also has a history of clashes with its new partners. Historically a farmers and rural party, it was once a close ally of the Social Democrats. Although it has long since changed its strategy, it has worked together with the Social Democrats on several issues over the years.
Jöran Hägglund is not worried by the Alliance parties’ problematic history of working together.
“As opposed to previous attempts, this one is not only a co-operation on a party leader level. It’s happening throughout the country on many levels. We are doing more to understand each other and work together and the experience is a good one. With each party contributing its own priorities, we are stronger together. The Centre Party, for example, brings forward environmental issues and takes in other issues from the other parties”.
The Liberal Party, the third largest in Parliament, is a well-rooted, traditional liberal organization, and the Moderate Party, the largest of the Alliance parties, a liberal-conservative force which has been around since the early 20th century and is now moving closer to the centre.
“We have more in common than what separates us, particularly on questions of education and the economy”, says Tobias Billström:
“The co-operation between the four parties is excellent and there have been few problems in the campaign so far. This has probably much to do with the fact that so much previous work has been done. The shape and content of the documents presented by the Alliance owe their credibility to a long process of negotiation and internal understanding of differences. Without doubt, the last three years have seen more discussions and seminars among the four parties than the 80s and the 90s put together”.
But the last few months have brought tensions as well as mutual understanding. The Centre Party struck a deal with the Social Democrats over energy policy: the Liberals and the Christian Democrats accused the party of going behind their backs.
Further criticism came when the Centre Party tried to force a vote of no confidence against Laila Freivalds, Sweden’s former foreign minister, over the government’s handling of the tsunami in South East Asia. This proposition surprised and puzzled the other Alliance parties which had agreed to wait for a report by a parliamentary committee before deciding whether to launch a vote of no confidence.
Another recent disagreement concerned Sweden’s property tax. The Alliance parties were unhappy with the current system, but had different ideas as to how to change it. The Moderates were in favor of reforming the calculation system and limiting homeowners’ tax liability; while the Christian Democrats wanted to abolish the tax completely, and replace it with a council charge.
It is a testament to how far the parties have come that most areas of disagreement have been tackled elegantly. Agreements have been reached on a joint budget proposal, on a common energy policy and on the property tax issue. These are all statements of compromise by parties eager to prove that theirs is a long-lasting partnership. The political events during the traditional Almedalen week in Gotland also gave an important boost for their united image. But politics is not only about appearances, it is also about hard nosed self-interest.
Göran Eriksson, a political analyst for Svenska Dagbladet, while impressed by the Alliance’s performances, says that faith in a future victory is a matter of survival for the Alliance. The moment any of the parties lose hope in a united victory, the rational step for each of them will be to maximize its own interests at the expense of the others:
“It’s an exciting thriller – the first to lose faith will try to hurt the others in the group,” he says.
Eriksson is not the only commentator warning of the risk of the cannibal tendency taking over on the right. Tommy Möller, professor of politics at Stockholm University says that further disagreement between the parties is inevitable, however much they try to streamline and coordinate, since they are all fighting for the same floating votes:
“The downside of the Alliance concept is that every little crack in the facade is put under the spotlight, and at the same time the parties are competing for votes”, he says.
But members of the Alliance are adamant, in public at least, that they can hold together:
“Differences in opinion can be overcome through hard work”, says Tobias Billström, “The statement about property tax issued in Almedalen shows that the Alliance certainly can find solutions when we have different opinions. The same is true about the agreement on a new energy strategy that the Alliance presented in June. All politics is eventually about compromise.”
Billström is keen to stress that having four separate parties can be seen as a plus.
“The voter votes for one of the four parties in the Alliance. This gives everyone the ability to add weight to a specific party in the Alliance,” he says.
The Alliance still undoubtedly has much to prove. Can it persuade voters that it does not pose a threat to the Swedish welfare state model, or that its solutions are superior?
Göran Eriksson quotes Maud Olofsson, the Centre Party leader, who admits that it is sometimes hard to explain the advantages of the Alliance’s policies. “One reason for this is that half of Swedes are longing for ‘the good old times’. The Social Democrats adapt their policies in a way that will appeal to these people”.
Liberal Party leader, Lars Leijonborg, quoted former Dutch Prime Minister, Wim Kok, on this issue, ”We know what must be done”, he said, “but we don’t know how to get elected”.
This raises the basic question of the political wisdom of forming the Alliance. Tobias Billström puts it simply: “It is virtually impossible to defeat the Social Democrats without uniting the centre-right parties in Sweden. The only way to swing public opinion – and ultimately the election results – is by presenting the voters with a reliable alternative – this is the core of the strategy of the Alliance”.
Maria Larsson agrees:
“I think our united alternative to the fractioned left wing cartel is appealing to many voters, both Social Democrat supporters and undecided voters”, she says.
“When you vote for one of the Alliance parties you know what you get. We make a point of telling the voters before the election what policies we will realize once we get voted in to office. The left wing cartel works in the opposite way. They try to hide their disunity and lack of common policy initiatives before the election only to surprise them with more taxes and regulations after”.
There is no doubt that the four Alliance parties are united in their ambition to grab Sweden’s reins of power, and that they are fed up with the Social Democrats’ long tenure of the Rosenbad government offices. What is yet to be seen is whether their union is an opportunistic political coaltion against a common rival or whether it will prove to be the precursor to long-term unity on the right of Swedish politics .
Tobias Billström is optimistic. He claims that the Alliance for Sweden has changed many things and that co-operation between the parties will continue even if they lose the elections. “But frankly speaking”, he says, “defeat is not on our minds right now”.