The end of Sweden?s one-party state

The defeat of the Social Democrats could turn Sweden into a normal democracy, where it is common for power to change hands, argues Nima Sanandaji of Swedish think-tank Captus.

Swedish politics changed dramatically on September 17th. With most of the votes counted, the centre-right Alliance is the clear winner of the 2006 general election, receiving around 48 percent of the votes compared to some 46 percent for the left-wing parties combined.

Sweden has often been described as a “one-party state”, since the Social Democrats have been in power for 65 of the last 74 years. The term one-party state is also used by critics to point out that the Social Democratic Party, the big labour unions and the government have merged together in many ways.

Government agencies are often headed by those loyal to the Social Democratic Party. Each year the various agencies spend in total over 2 billion Swedish kronor on forming public opinion and it can be argued that this often occurs from a clear ideological Social Democratic viewpoint.

In most countries it would not have been strange to see a party that has been in power for the last twelve years lose to the opposition. But in Sweden the victory of the center-right has redrawn the political map. The Social Democratic Party only received around 35 percent of the votes, lower than any time since 1914. On the other hand the main center-right party, the Moderates, got 26 percent of the votes, more than any time since 1928.

Surprisingly all of this occurred in a time when the Swedish economy was going strong. So what caused the Social Democrats to lose the election? There are most likely three problems that faced the Swedish labour movement. Firstly, the Social Democratic government has been combating the unemployment statistics rather than unemployment for the past years. Even young people are routinely being classified as disabled or given early retirement in order to remove them from the open unemployment statistics.

Over time the public have realized that the various government programs that are aimed at helping the unemployed do not have a long term benefit for those seeking jobs, but are rather in place mostly to show that the politicians are “doing something” to solve the problem.

Secondly, the Social Democrats are increasingly seen as the political nobility of Sweden. Those who climb to the top of the Social Democratic Party, or the main labour unions for that matter, are rewarded with top paying jobs as heads of government agencies and government companies, although they often have few merits in terms of education or working experience.

Outgoing Prime Minister Göran Persson managed to make his wife the president of Systembolaget, the massive government company that has a monopoly on sale of most alcoholic beverages. Together the couple bought a very expensive estate – not exactly a fit home for the leader of the Swedish labour movement.

And thirdly the many years with welfare policies have drained the traditionally strong working ethics of the Swedish population. More and more people are willing to live off government benefits rather than working. Many ordinary citizens are tired of working hard knowing that their neighbors are choosing to stay home and take advantage of the welfare systems.

The new centre-right Alliance has an ample opportunity to demonstrate that they are worthy of leading the country. Over time Sweden might even translate to a normal democracy where it is common for political power to change hands. At the same time the Social Democrats might seize the chance to reform their party – returning to their traditional roots as a labour party and putting the welfare of the workers over the self-interests of politicians and bureaucrats.

Swedish politics has changed. Let us hope that time will prove that the change has been for the better.

Nima Sanandaji is the president of the Swedish think tank Captus and publisher of Captus Tidning