The hottest issue leading up to Sunday’s general elections — the far-right Sweden Democrats expected entrance into parliament and possible role as kingmakers after the vote — was meanwhile barely touched upon in the debate.
“I am not against cutting taxes, but not at any price,” Social Democrat leader Mona Sahlin, who is vying to become Sweden’s first woman prime minister, said during the two-hour debate on public television.
“What is needed now is not more tax cuts for those of us who already have the most,” said Sahlin, insisting Sweden should invest in its welfare state, which she argued had been severely weakened by four years of centre-right rule.
Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt meanwhile stressed that his Moderate Party and its coalition partners the Liberal, Centre and Christian Democrat parties, had focused on sound public finances, cutting benefits and taxes in a bid to create jobs and thereby “secure the financing of the welfare state,”
Sweden’s womb-to-tomb welfare state has been hailed as one of the world’s most successful models, offering universal health and child care, more than a year’s parental leave, solid public education system and extensive sick leave.
The Social Democrats, who have dominated Swedish politics for the past 80 years, were ousted from power four years ago as the centre-right parties toned down their criticism of the system and said they were the better caretakers of the so-called “Swedish model.”
Friday’s debate however clearly showed that the two sides have dramatically different ideas of what the welfare state should entail.
Sahlin and her coalition partners, the heads of the Greens and the formerly communist Left Party, said the government’s massive income tax cuts had hampered investment in job creation, healthcare, schools and the environment.
“We have to stop living as though we were the last generation on earth,” Green Party co-chair Maria Wetterstrand said, while Left leader Lars Ohly insisted “we should not have to have poor children in our welfare state.”
The three leftwing leaders lashed out at a government reform that has dramatically reduced access to long-term sick leave, pointing out that tens of thousands of people had lost their benefits.
“When you get sick you should not also be forced to become poor,” Sahlin said.
The government parties, which have been eager to focus on Sweden’s strong economy, meanwhile said the reform aimed to reduce the strain on the welfare state of having masses of able-bodied people on benefits.
When his government came to power, Reinfeldt said, “750,000 people in the world’s healthiest country were too sick to work … We have tried to fix a very serious societal problem … passivity.”
There was only a very brief discussion Friday of the far-right’s likely surge into parliament after the elections, with several party leaders blaming lax immigrant integration policies.