Reinfeldt: Sweden’s cool-headed winner

Sweden's prime minister in waiting Fredrik Reinfeldt enjoys washing up in the kitchen – "I like when things are clean" – yet the cool-headed 41-year-old's biggest clean-up job is the one he has carried out within his conservative Moderate Party.

He has remodeled the party into the “New Moderates”, turning it around to present the toughest challenge to the governing Social Democrats in years in Sunday’s legislative election.

Like Tony Blair who moved Britain’s Labour Party from the left toward the middle, Reinfeldt has shifted his party away from its right-wing upper class roots to appeal to a larger swathe of voters near the centre, where the electorate in traditionally Social Democratic Sweden tends to swarm.

Indeed, the parallels with Blair even extend to his rhetoric. In his victory speech on Sunday he echoed Blair’s own 1997 declaration:

“We have won as the New Moderates. We will also – together with our Alliance friends – govern as the new Moderates.”

“He is gentle, pensive and a good listener. His cool, soft-spoken approach goes down well with voters,” Henrik Brors, editorialist at leading daily Dagens Nyheter, told AFP.

“His election strategy is to steal votes from the right-wing of the Social Democrats,” Brors said.

Reinfeldt took over the leadership of the Moderates in October 2003 after a disastrous election the year before, in which the party plunged from 23 percent of votes to just 15 percent.

Since then he has toned down the party’s image as a threat to Swedes’ cherished cradle-to-grave welfare state, and styled himself after former US president Bill Clinton.

The move worked, with Moderates and their Alliance partners now set to form the next government.

But Reinfeldt himself says his is not a party of visionaries.

“We’re not advocates of a Great Leap Forward. Society is what people make of it, and not something that is decided from the top down,” he said in a recent newspaper interview.

Reinfeldt was born on August 4, 1965, the eldest of three children with two working parents.

He earned a business degree before launching his political career, becoming the head of the party’s youth wing in 1992.

Unlike many older politicians, he grew up in a Sweden heavily marked by the welfare society created by the Social Democrats in the postwar period, where high taxes finance state-run daycares, health care, schools, youth sports movements, and so on.

“He is credible when he says he wants to maintain the Swedish model. He grew up with the system and knows its good sides,” Brors said.

While previous Moderate leaders such as Carl Bildt called for major tax cuts which would slash funding for the welfare state, Reinfeldt has not.

Instead he has defended the system but called for changes. He has accused the Social Democrats of resting on their laurels, in particular when it comes to bringing down unemployment.

Reinfeldt has proposed cutting taxes for the lowest wage earners and reducing unemployment benefits, to give the jobless an incentive to work.

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

He has also been instrumental in uniting the notoriously-divided four-party centre-right opposition.

For the first time ever, the four this year presented a joint election manifesto.

Reinfeldt is married to Filippa, a city councillor in the Stockholm suburb of Täby where they live. They have three children aged 6 to 13.

Pia Ohlin/AFP