With three years left until the next election, Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt and Social Democrat leader Mona Sahlin could afford to keep the debate civilized, but there were still sharp disagreements between the pair.
SVT, the hosts of the debate, had commissioned a poll to decide the topics for discussion. The poll, from the Sifo institute, resulted in jobs being the first subject debated.
Reinfeldt trumpeted his government’s achievements in the area.
“We have ensured that people enter the market, and that many jobs do too. Both young people and people from other countries are affected by this,” he said.
Sahlin countered that long-term unemployment among young people was not falling. She added that women in Sweden were unfairly treated.
“You and your government are increasing inequality,” she told the prime minister.
“93,000 jobs came about without us reducing unemployment benefits,” she said, referring to the government’s recent cuts to benefits.
Education was chosen in the poll as the second area to be discussed by the pair. Sahlin was asked why results were so bad.
“Many schools are in municipalities and housing estates where many people live in difficult situations. We want to continue to focus on these areas,” she said.
Reinfeldt emphasised the importance of good schools.
“You build better schools stone by stone. We are planning a reading and writing programme for the youngest. We are to focus on teachers.
The prime minister also said he was keen to allow youngsters between 16 and 19 to take more vocational courses.
“Let those who want to work in practical jobs follow practical programmes,” he said.
Sahlin said she was worried that this would lead to schools separating children by ability.
Following the debate, which also touched on healthcare and care for the elderly, both leaders claimed to be pleased.
“I think it was a much more profitable discussion…than I experienced with [former Prime Minister] Göran Persson,” he said.
Sahlin said the debate had shown Reinfeldt to be a “good Moderate”, and her to be a good Social Democrat.
“I think that we both communicated our different viewpoints well,” she said.
Press commentators said the debate generally went Reinfeldt’s way.
Henrik Brors in Dagens Nyheter argued that the choice of questions favoured Reinfeldt.
“It was a dream situation for Fredrik Reinfeldt to be able to start by speaking about jobs, his favourite subject,” Brors wrote.
Svenska Dagbladet’s Göran Eriksson made a similar point, saying the viewers had given the prime minister a present by voting for employment as the main issue.
Aftonbladet’s Lena Mellin said that the debate was “low-key and focused on the issues – just as voters want it to be”. But she accused both Reinfeldt and Sahlin of not being completely frank.
The government’s rationale for reducing benefits was to make living on welfare so unattractive that people will take lower-paid jobs, she said. Reinfeldt, she said, did not admit to this. “Instead he mumbles something about social exclusion.”
“Mona Sahlin mumbles too. Social Democrat policies led to long-term sick leave and early retirement reaching record levels,” she added.