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Don't write off the government yet

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11:13 CEST+02:00
The government may be faltering in the polls, but Social Democrats should not expect the next election to be a walkover, says Nicholas Gregory, an Australian who ran for the party in the 2006 elections.

Despite a small movement in favour of the ruling coalition in recent opinion polls the opposition Social Democrats still have a big lead over the government parties. While certainly pleasing for the opposition, they should try to contain their excitement.

There are a variety of reasons that explain the current lead for the Social Democrats. Their new leader, Mona Sahlin, has given them a boost. Unpopular government policies and a horrendous start to their first term have both dragged down the government's poll ratings. But it is only early days in the current term and the government should still feel confident that it can turn things around before the election in 2010. The Alliance will grow into the job and bring forward more voter-friendly policies closer to election time.

Moreover, it is common for governments to be unpopular between elections. The psychology of voters is one thing mid-term, and something quite different come election time. It is much easier to be critical of the government when there is no election looming because the voter doesn't need to cast a ballot. When voters have ballots in their hands they are less likely to use them to punish the government.

This said, since the election the government's popularity has plummeted. Most new governments come to power with a bit of political capital to spend, but the current coalition seems to have spent much of theirs during the disastrous period directly after the election, during which two ministers were forced to resign. Less than a year after being elected one of the coalition partners has replaced its leader.

It was this start to their term that took the shine off the historic election victory and robbed the new government of much of its political capital.

But the government should take heart in the fact that it will improve with experience. They have been in opposition for a long time. Only three cabinet members have previous ministerial experience. Mistakes are going to be made by such novices but the government will learn and improve. Closer to the election they won't be making the same mistakes; they will be prepared and won't be the same easy target they were last year.

Social Democrats seeking succour in the recent promising polls should also remember that it is customary for governments at the beginning of a term to introduce their unpopular policies. Cutting services and pushing up the price of unemployment insurance are examples of unpopular policies this government has introduced. But this is smart politics – get the unpopular policies out of the way early so that they are a distant memory by the time the election comes around, especially if these decisions are translated into economic benefits in the long term.

It follows that unpopular policies early in the government's term are likely to be followed by more crowd-pleasing measures as the election approaches. Tax cuts or a budget with lots of goodies to buy over voters are probable. In addition to this, as the incumbent the government is in a better position to set the agenda. It can focus the public debate on issues that suit it best. The economy and national security usually work well for right of centre parties, while health and education are issues where left of centre parties are more likely to convince voters.

Another reason to believe the poll results are artificially inflated in favour of the Social Democrats is the fact that they have a new leader. New party leaders usually go through a political honeymoon with voters. They are fresh, more interesting to the electorate and have less political baggage. With time a new leader will make mistakes, support policies that divide the electorate and generally be demystified in the eyes of voters.

If an election were held today, the Social Democrats would win with a landslide. But an election is not being held today. The government will be performing better after four years of experience, they will introduce popular vote winning policies and the opposition will no longer be headed by a fresh new leader. The Social Democrats and their traditional coalition partners cannot expect to cruise to victory; they face a lot of work if they want to grab the reins of power.

Nicholas Gregory was a candidate for the Social Democrats in the 2006 elections to Stockholm City Council

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