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Sweden's welfare state has endured centre-right rule: experts

AFP/The Local · 16 Sep 2010, 10:42

Published: 16 Sep 2010 10:42 GMT+02:00

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When a right-leaning coalition ousted Sweden's long-sitting Social Democrats four years ago, many feared the end was near for the country's coveted welfare state, but as Sunday's vote approaches, experts say few real changes have been made to the system.

"There have been no dramatic, systemic changes or radical cuts to the welfare state, but rather a marginal re-orientation," says Stefan Svallfors, a sociology professor at Umeå University in northern Sweden.

Sweden's cradle-to-grave welfare state has been hailed by many as one of the world's most successful socio-economic models, offering universal health and child care, more than a year's parental leave, a solid public education system and an extensive sick-leave and benefits system.

The so-called "Swedish model," which combines socialist values and virile industry and enterprise is often held up as an example to follow when governments around the world contemplate reform.

But when the centre-right Alliance, made up of Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt's Moderate Party along with the Centre, Liberal and Christian Democrat parties won the 2006 election many wondered if the system would survive.

They toppled the Social Democrats, who have dominated Swedish politics for the past 80 years and are considered the primary caretakers of the welfare state, and recent polls indicate they are set to win another, albeit tight, victory on September 19th.

Yet observers say little has been done to alter Sweden's socialist-minded welfare state, pointing out that the model is too deeply engrained in the Swedish identity to allow much beyond small changes within the existing framework.

"Basically, there have not been many changes to the Swedish welfare state," says Håkan Tribell of the conservative think tank Timbro.

The government "has not changed any of the main principles or reduced the welfare state's ambitions," he says.

Ulf Bjereld, a political science professor at the Gothenburg University with connections to the Social Democrats, agrees the government has not yet truly altered the system.

"I think the Moderate Party especially knows there is no support among the Swedish public for radical changes to the welfare state," he tells AFP.

However, according to Social Democrat chief Mona Sahlin, who is angling to become Sweden's first woman prime minister at the head of a leftwing opposition coalition that also includes the Greens and formerly communist Left Party, the welfare state is already shifting character.

"The disparities have grown over the past four years," she said in a recent televised debate with Reinfeldt, insisting his government's reforms have left the poor and disadvantaged worse off while padding the pockets of the wealthy.

The government has among other things significantly cut income taxes, reformed the unemployment benefit system to make coverage fees more expensive for people in professions struggling with high unemployment, and slashed access to long term sick leave.

According to the left, which has been eager to supply examples of seriously ill people hit by the latter change, some 45,000 people will this year lose their benefits and be forced back onto the labour market.

"You do not become healthy just because you become poor," Sahlin pointed out.

Reinfeldt meanwhile insists the reform aims to help people move from benefits to work and to create more jobs to help finance the welfare state.

"You can never let down your guard on jobs, or the welfare state suffers," he said in the televised debate, adding that "when more people are working ... we can afford to maintain our welfare ambitions."

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Reinfeldt, who has created headlines by claiming his party is Sweden's only true "workers party," has not always been such an outspoken supporter of the welfare state.

For instance, in a 1993 book titled "The Sleeping Nation," he called for the system to be replaced with a more neoliberal society.

Since then however, he and the rest of the government have toned down criticism of the welfare state, as it is generally understood that Swedes have no interest in dismantling the system.

"They basically went to the elections on leftist rhetoric last time, and that's what they are doing again," says sociologist Svallfors, pointing out however that the government's "politics have not been very left-wing."

"When Reinfeldt talks about the new workers' party, for instance, he is not talking about a party for the working class, but for people with jobs, opposed to those who don't work and are living on benefits," he says.

AFP/The Local (news@thelocal.se)

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Your comments about this article

11:01 September 17, 2010 by NickM
"Nya" Modertana under Reinfeldt = New Labour under Blair.
11:22 September 17, 2010 by Bork
Depending on the ideological goals of the center coalition, the changes may not be immediately noticeable, but come back to bite at full force a decade or two later. Looking at the US, the changes the right started making in the 80's, and then under Democrats in the 90's, were not noticeable to the middle class at the time (aided by large economic bubbles and easy credit), but came back to bite the average American quite hard later on. Now America has high unemployment with a poor or non-existent safety net, mass poverty and homelessness, high crime, and enormous income disparity.
18:05 September 17, 2010 by BunnyOlesen
I'm originally from the states and you are correct !! If they really want to fix the welfare system they need to halt all immigration and check the work status of immigrants - If they are not supported by a working family member, they should be allowed a certain amount of time to work, and should not be granted citizenship or benefits until or unless these basic fundamental work requirements are met. If immigrants are here to "pick up the slack" left by not enough people to fill the jobs, then the excuses they are using as to why they aren't working make me sick. Also why do we need so many new non swedish speaking people, who are unskilled, when the unemployment rate is 7.4% ?
16:31 November 26, 2010 by suckfist
Reminds me of Butskellism.

Anders Nordlund of Umea University had a dissertation back in the early 2000s called "Resilient Welfare States" that goes hand-in-hand with current "experts'" conclusions that Nordic welfare systems are more or less built to last the different forces along the political spectrum.

Rather than dismantle the system, pressures from globalization, domestic poitical change, economic hardship, etc., only result in a re-orientation of the system.

For example, the central government in various Nordic states might relinquish more power to individual provinces to do the welfare bidding; a mere enhancement to efficiency.

I think this unique and propitious social-economic model should be treated like an endangered species. Nowhere else in the world is there such a powerful attempt by a government to help people.
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