Profile: Göran Persson, the big man of Swedish socialism

Respected by some as a skilled statesman and criticised by others as a power-loving politician, Swedish Prime Minister Göran Persson, who has been in power for a decade, is an innately political animal.

Persson became prime minister in 1996 when the ruling Social Democrats, the party he has served throughout his political career, elected him as leader after then-prime minister Ingvar Carlsson stepped down.

The 57-year-old then obtained a mandate directly from the Swedish people in 1998’s legislative elections and again four years later. During these two terms he led minority governments with the support of the Left Party and the Green Party.

As head of government, Persson has been accused of arrogance and of fostering a presidential, rather than prime ministerial, style of leadership.

“He is a man who loves power and loves dictating conditions,” journalist and writer Mats Öberg, author of a book on Persson published last year, told AFP.

Persson however has made much of his working-class roots, canvassing with success in Sweden’s industrial heartland and championing generous benefit payments for the unemployed.

He first became a member of parliament at the age of 30, and after a four-year stint as a mayor of the town of Katrineholm he returned to national politics in 1989 as education minister.

In 1994, he was appointed head of the finance ministry where he oversaw economically painful measures for the country’s 1995 entry into the European Union.

Olle Svenning, a journalist and writer who has also published a book on the prime minister, said Persson’s success at rebuilding the economy during the mid-1990’s is his greatest achievement.

“He is a pragmatist who attaches more importance to economic stability than political visions,” Svenning told AFP.

And Persson can point to a flourishing economy based on a social model, respected abroad as combining the best of capitalism and socialism.

He has however been widely criticised for his failure to reduce unemployment. Despite vast amounts of public money being lavished on job creation schemes under Persson, Swedish unemployment has remained obstinately high at two percent above the government’s own target of four percent.

Persson and his government also came in for fierce criticism for their handling of the aftermath of the Asian tsunami of December 2004 in which 543 Swedes died.

Authorities’ response to the crisis caused outrage in Sweden and Persson’s popularity ratings immediately after the affair reflected voters’ anger. He has however seen his ratings since recover.

A staunch europhile, Persson enjoys playing a role on the international scene, as illustrated by his initiative to host a donor conference to raise funds for Lebanon at the end of August – although critics blasted the move as a sign of his arrogance.

After a decade as prime minister, speculation in Sweden is rife over when Persson will relinquish power if reelected, with some doubting whether he will serve a full four-year-term.

He has often spoken publicly of his dream of retiring to his country estate that he is currently building in the Sörmland region just south of Stockholm.

Divorced twice, Persson is married to Anitra Steen, the head of the state alcohol monopoly Systembolaget. He has two daughters, aged 24 and 27, from his first marriage.

Sophie Mongalvy