A new sort of Swedish model appeals to the right, not the left
Sep 16th 2010OUTSIDE Scandinavia, Sweden is generally known for two things: social democracy, and the books of Stieg Larsson. That may change, for if the polls in the run-up to the election on September 19th are correct, the first may end up looking like one of the corpses so often found in the second.
The election is expected to return the centre-right government voted in four years ago. Indeed, the main centre-right party, the Moderates, could oust the Social Democrats as Sweden’s biggest single party—for the first time since the 1930s. The centre-right’s success has not only undermined the view, widely held outside Sweden, that the place is a social-democratic paradise; it has also chipped away at a social model that foreigners find enviable but Swedes find expensive.
This week’s polls point to a clear lead for the four-party centre-right alliance, led by the Moderates’ leader (and incumbent prime minister), Fredrik Reinfeldt. The Social Democrat vote could even fall below 30%. Mr Reinfeldt may still have problems forming a new government, thanks to the probable emergence in parliament of the far-right Sweden Democrats (see article). But if he succeeds, this will be the first time since the war that a centre-right government has been re-elected after serving a full term.
Sep 16th 2010For years Sweden has represented a sort of nirvana for the left. To socialists everywhere, this was a country that managed enviably to combine high taxes and massive state spending with high living standards and a strong economy. Five years ago, Britain’s leftish Guardian newspaper called it “the most successful society the world has ever known”. And yet the results of this election are likely to confirm that the place has tilted decisively to the right. Why?
Mr Reinfeldt has been lucky in his timing. A year ago Sweden was in deep recession, as were his ratings. Now that it has bounced back to become the fastest-growing economy in western Europe, so have his numbers. He seems to be a more likeable, easier-going character than his opponent, Mona Sahlin. Ms Sahlin’s alliance with the Greens and the Left party has been fractious. And, despite Sweden’s progressive credentials, her sex may be a disadvantage.
Yet three deeper factors should give Social Democrats everywhere pause for thought. The first is that voters seem to value competent government above ideology. Previous centre-right governments have tended to fall victim to infighting, reinforcing the Social Democrats’ conviction that they are the natural party of government.
Mr Reinfeldt’s government, however, has been both united and competent. Carl Bildt, the foreign minister, has done an impressive job of raising Sweden’s profile and wielding influence. The finance minister, Anders Borg, has shown genuine skill in handling the financial crisis and its aftermath. Swedish GDP is growing strongly, and unemployment is falling. The budget is heading into surplus next year. Sweden has just been promoted to second place in the World Economic Forum’s competitiveness rankings, ahead of America. The contrast with much of the rest of Europe is striking.
A second trend is growing dissatisfaction with the “Swedish model”. Swedes are not about to become Thatcherites or tea-party tax-haters. Even on the right, voters and politicians favour consensus, equality and expansive public services. Nobody is standing on a platform of slashing the top rates of income tax (almost 60%) or the size of the state. Yet the centre-right has made welfare payments less generous, cut taxes for the lower-paid and trimmed the numbers on sickness benefit. Voters seem to approve.
Sweden still has too much unemployment, especially among the young, the unskilled and immigrants. But partly because the government’s reforms have made work pay more and unemployment pay less, this recovery has seen the creation of a lot more private-sector jobs than previous ones. Public services remain generous, but this government has done more than the Social Democrats to boost the private provision of education, health care and welfare.
The third trend is a malaise in socialism, and not only in Scandinavia. Many had hoped that the financial crisis would lead to a renaissance of the left, because the perceived failure of free-market capitalism would pull voters back into supporting a bigger role for the state. And yet Sweden’s election will confirm that this is not happening. In Denmark and Finland (even, lately, in Norway) the left is falling back. Across much of Europe, with the exception of France, the crisis has so far seemed to help the right more than the left.
Competence and moderation have been hallmarks of Mr Reinfeldt’s government. Other countries are interested, not least Britain. The Tory leader, David Cameron, a friend of Mr Reinfeldt’s, is also in coalition with the liberals. British public-sector reformers now look to Sweden for examples of greater competition and more private provision. So the Swedish model still appeals—but to the right, not the left. That is a mark of how far the Swedish Social Democrats have fallen.