“Swedes generally vote for parties and not for the party leaders,” Swedish public radio’s political news chief Fredrik Furtenbach told AFP. “But now, when you only have two main candidates, it’s a bit like a presidential election.”
Recent polls have predicted a tight race between Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt’s centre-right coalition and the left-leaning opposition coalition led by the Social Democrats’ Mona Sahlin.
Reinfeldt secured victory in the 2006 elections by bringing together the right-of-centre Moderate, Liberal, Centre and Christian Democrat parties in a coalition to beat the then-governing Social Democrats.
In a bid to regain power, the Social Democrats — which have on their own dominated Swedish political life for most of the 20th century — entered in a coalition with the formerly communist Left Party and the increasingly popular Greens.
That marked an important shift of the political situation in Sweden and a big change for the Social Democrats, who “now have to accept that they are no longer able to be the main player on their own,” said Henrik Brors, a political analyst with Sweden’s paper of reference Dagens Nyheter (DN).
“This of course changes the situation for voters,” he added, pointing out that Swedes now “have two clear-cut alternatives.”
When asked to decide between the two alternatives, voters will likely ask themselves which of the two main candidates “is best suited for governing Sweden? … Who is most competent?” said Jenny Madestam, a political scientist at Stockholm University.
Also describing this year’s race as a “presidential election,” Madestam said the increased focus on the candidates most likely would benefit the current government, whose chief Reinfeldt has consistently outshone Sahlin in popularity surveys, even when her coalition led voter intentions.
A poll published at the end of June ranked Sahlin ninth out of 11 Swedish party chiefs, falling ahead of only the leaders of the tiny pro-filesharing Pirate Party and of the far-right Sweden Democrats.
A political veteran who aims to become Sweden’s first woman prime minister, Sahlin, 53, has led the Social Democrats since 2007 after bouncing back from a scandal that tarnished her career over a decade earlier.
Critics say Sahlin’s main problem in the polls is that she has not been a strong leader since taking the top job at Sweden’s largest party, but her backers insist she is the victim of a “hate campaign.”
Several government ministers have for instance repeatedly brought up her dramatic fall from grace in the 1990s when she was caught purchasing chocolate and other items on her party credit card in the so-called Toblerone Affair.
“The government parties are reducing the electoral debate to a smear campaign by playing on slander, prejudice, and suspicion. The target is Mona Sahlin,” a number of her party members charged in an open letter to Dagens Nyheter at the beginning of July.
Sahlin is also facing a threat from within her alliance, with the young co-chair of the relatively small Green Party, Maria Wetterstrand, ranking far more popular and even listed by some observers as a more natural left-wing government leader.
Reinfeldt, 45, who since taking office in 2006 has been criticised for his lack of charisma, has meanwhile worked hard to portray himself as a calm and confident politician.
According to political scientist Madestam, Reinfeldt has to a large extent succeeded in showing himself as a competent prime minister. He has also seen his popularity boosted by Swedes’ tendency to opt for stability — or the party in power — in times of crisis, she said.
For instance, Sweden’s weathering of the global financial storm and the fact that it is not facing the same debt crisis as many other European countries has benefited the government.
That made up for the hit the ruling coalition’s ratings took last year after it introduced widely unpopular reforms of Sweden’s generous welfare state by for instance dramatically slashing access to long-term sick leave.
“When the debate goes into economy, it’s good for the government,” said DN’s Brors.
The governing coalition is also trying to win votes by changing its right-wing image and reaching out to voters in the middle and even the left, with Reinfeldt’s Moderates going so far as to dub themselves Sweden’s only true “labour party.”
In a new twist in personal politics, it is Reinfeldt who is taking on the role of “father of the nation,” Brors wrote recently, “with his sights set on the Social Democrats’ core voters.”