Election goes down to the wire

Sweden's legislative elections look set to go down to the wire on Sunday, with polls indicating voters may swing to the right due to their disgruntlement with the left-wing that has been in power for the past 12 years.

Two party leaders, each at the head of a more or less solid alliance, have taken centre stage in an election campaign focused on employment, health care and pensions.

On the left, Social Democratic Prime Minister Göran Persson is seeking his third straight mandate after a decade at the head of a minority government, touting his strong record on the flourishing Swedish economy.

But at age 57, Persson has been put on the defensive by Moderate leader Fredrik Reinfeldt, who at 41 has modeled himself as a modern, youthful and level-headed leader despite his lack of experience in government.

According to recent opinion polls the centre-right Alliance, and the left-wing bloc made up of the Social Democrats and their Green and Left allies, are neck-and-neck, though most give the opposition a slight advantage.

Pollsters note that as many as 18 percent of voters have yet to decide how they will vote on Sunday.

The Social Democrats’ struggles in the polls may seem hard to comprehend at a glance.

The party has dominated Swedish politics in the post-war period, governing the country for 65 of the past 74 years and creating the cradle-to-grave welfare state Swedes cherish dearly.

Persson has rejected the opposition’s argument that he has worn out his welcome among voters and that the time has come for a change.

“The Swedish people have grappled with that question for 70 years and concluded in the end that things work well with the Social Democrats,” Persson said during a recent television interview.

In 2006, the country appears to be doing well: growth of 5.5 percent in the second quarter, a budget surplus, unemployment falling to 5.7 percent in August, and exports on the rise.

So what do voters have to complain about?

“People tell us they’re fed up with the Social Democrats because they have let down the little guys,” says Christina Ellfors Sjoedin, a candidate for the Moderates.

Many Swedes say the so-called “Swedish model” is showing cracks, in particular in the field of employment. Reinfeldt, the head of the conservative Moderate Party, has capitalized on the issue, making it the main theme of his election campaign.

He has cited experts’ statistics that as many as 20 percent of people of working age live off of state subsidies, either as unemployed or on sick leave, early retirement or government retraining schemes.

Rather than proposing a total overhaul of the “Swedish model”, the opposition leader has suggested making small changes to improve the system.

“Göran Persson leads a subsidies party and we are the new workers’ party,” Reinfeldt has reiterated throughout the campaign.

His message is simple: Swedes need to work to fund the welfare system. He has promised to cut income taxes for low income earners and to reduce generous unemployment benefits. He is also in favour of privatisations.

“It is strange that we have mass unemployment when we are in the middle of a booming economic cycle… We have presented a program for jobs, the three parties on the left have no job proposals,” Reinfeldt argued in a televised debate on Thursday.

“There won’t be more jobs created by worsening conditions for the sick and the unemployed,” Persson countered.

On Sunday, in addition to the legislative elections, Stockholm residents will also vote in a referendum on whether to introduce a road congestion tax aimed at reducing traffic into and out of the capital.