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Reinfeldt one year on

Paul O'Mahony · 17 Sep 2007, 18:35

Published: 17 Sep 2007 18:35 GMT+02:00

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As political editor of the liberal-conservative Svenska Dagbladet, PJ Anders Linder was convinced of the necessity of a cohesive alliance if the centre-right parties were to wrest power from the Social Democrats.

"What we were most interested in was a power change. A change of scene was good for the social climate in Sweden," he says.

Previously, Sweden's rare non-socialist governments had taken the helm during periods of economic crisis. This time round, the country's economy was in tremendous good health and the Alliance came to power with the table already laid, to paraphrase former Prime Minister Göran Persson.

But victory was soon soured by a disastrous start in which two cabinet ministers were forced to resign amid revelations of private financial irregularities.

"This meant that the government never had a honeymoon period. The scandals made them more fragile," says Linder.

Stig-Björn Ljunggren, a Social Democrat and frequent political commentator agrees with this assessment. But he also points to the fact that, once the election was won, the government immediately set its sights on a more distant prize.

"They got off to a really catastrophic start but did manage to stabilize. Usually we hear that the first 100 days are the most important, but right from the start this government has been focussed on the last hundred days and the run-up to the 2010 election," he says.

To the extent that this is true, a deficit of 10 percentage points in recent polls may not cause Fredrik Reinfeldt to lose any sleep at this early stage.

"The only risk is that the poor showing in the polls will drive them to do strange things," says Linder.

In his view, the government has done more or less exactly what it said it would, producing a form of contract politics never before seen in Sweden.

"They have carefully been putting in place all the policies they said they would: tax breaks on domestic services, reduced costs for employers, no more property tax or wealth tax and better education policies," says Linder.

But while they may have excelled in implementation, they have failed with their communication.

"They need to turn the phrase 'less talk and more action' on its head. However commendable it may be, there has been too much action and not enough talk," says Linder.

Fredrik Reinfeldt in particular has often been conspicuous by his absence, though Ljunggren feels that this may be a deliberate strategy on the Moderate Party's behalf.

"I think it's very possible that he has intentionally avoided the limelight," says Ljunggren.

"Him being reserved has given others a chance to profile themselves. It's also possible that they are saving him so that voters don't tire of him like they did with Göran Persson.

"A third explanation might be that, as a new Prime Minister, he has a lot to learn and needs to travel extensively both at home and abroad," he adds.

While the Prime Minister has "done a good job so far", Linder reckons he might benefit from shedding some of his inhibitions.

"He has been reserved and formal. But people seem to like him and the Alliance would be able to get more value out of his popularity if he were more visible in the media," he says.

The struggle for control over the A-kassa, or unemployment insurance system, is regarded by many as the most significant battle of the government's first year. Television cameras were in place when trade union leader Wanja Lundby-Wedin engaged in a fierce war of words with labour market minister Sven Otto Littorin during one of many protest demonstrations against the proposed reforms.

"The government have chosen their fights carefully and are gradually moving away from the Sweden created by the Social Democrats. For example they are undermining the trade union movement by dismantling the intimate relationship between the unions and the unemployment insurance system," says Ljunggren.

Steps taken by the government to make membership of an unemployment insurance fund compulsory are a case in point.

"They have also ensured that union membership fees are no longer tax deductible. By removing economic incentives to join a union, the Alliance is moving Sweden towards a normalization of union relations," says Ljunggren.

It is debatable whether the government has been damaged by the trade union movement's vociferous protests on this issue.

"A lot of people say that the A-kassa issue hurt the government's ratings but I think it's more to do with the fact that people are conservative. I don't mean politically conservative but in the sense that they don't like too much change," says Linder.

Both analysts agree that the gainfully employed have reaped the greatest rewards over the past year.

"The Alliance is focusing on winning the sort of middle class voters who might otherwise vote Social Democrat. Introducing tax breaks on domestic services was one example of an attempt to gain hegemony among these voters," says Ljunggren.

While workers have been the recipients of welcome tax cuts, many small business owners are frustrated that so little has been done to help improve their lot.

"Reinfeldt has no interest in being seen as a champion of business owners," says Linder.

Story continues below…

"I think it's a mistake because in the long run Sweden needs to nurture business interests. But this is a sector that is not likely to vote for the left anyway and he doesn't want to be seen to be doing too much for them."

If the Prime Minister is to guide the government to a second term in office, he may need to retain those traditional Social Democrats who last September took the unprecedented step of voting Moderate. To this end, Göran Persson's successor, Mona Sahlin, could prove to be the government's strongest asset.

"Mona Sahlin has been off the radar a bit. But it should be remembered that she was not the Social Democrats' dream candidate and she will have to become more involved in the public debate. The media has been giving Reinfeldt a hard time for a while now. Her time will come too," says Linder.

Stig-Björn Ljunggren is concerned that Sahlin tendency to focus on young people may cause her to lose older voters, many of whom voted for the Social Democrats last time round.

"Pensioners represent a large and volatile group," he says.

As for the government's overall performance, PJ Anders Linder views them as undeniably green, but also refreshingly keen.

"They have had one year of on the job training and they have delivered on their promises. They have a lot left to learn but it has been a very productive year on the whole," he says.

Stig-Björn Ljunggren also points to their inexperience, drawing an analogy with a bunch of children on a sports field.

"It hasn't been a catastrophe but it's obvious that they haven't governed before. They've been quite amateurish, almost like a kids' football team. They're either all running after the ball or just standing there looking at it," he says.

Paul O'Mahony (paul.omahony@thelocal.com)

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