VIEWS FROM THE CAPITALS
Fickle SWEDES are turning on their government – again
Swedes are a pretty hard bunch to please. Just 16 months ago, they dumped the social democrats – the country’s dominant political force for 75 years – regardless of international acclaim for the “Swedish model” of high-tech economic expansion plus extensive social security. Now public support for the centre-right government has dropped to record lows, despite accelerating growth and falling unemployment. Opinion polls have found that Swedes are more concerned about cuts in welfare programmes, particularly unemployment benefits, than they are encouraged by good news on jobs. So what does all this say about Swedish politics?
Like most Europeans these days, Swedes tend to vote against rather than for a political party. Traditional left-wing voters abandoned the social democrats when they were perceived to have lost their idealism, especially since they also appeared to take so little pride in their own achievements. From the late 1990s, Sweden’s blend of technological innovation, openness and competitiveness – together with a web of reformed social benefits – was hailed as a viable alternative to stagnating European welfare systems or cut-throat Anglo-American neo-liberalism. Germans in particular were impressed by the benefits of the Swedish model, more so than “Blairite” New Labour in Britain or the home-grown Neue Mitte of Gerhard Schröder. Swedish social democrat leaders, however, practically apologised for their policies and promised to revert to the true path of welfare support when times got better. The people, meanwhile, focused on the pain of reform, rather than their country’s success, and felt that more jobs ought to have been created. In September 2006, the social democrats lost power to a four-party alliance led by the conservative Moderate Party. The new coalition promised more jobs and less social exclusion, not least among immigrant communities. Conservative mantras about welfare cuts and tax reductions were played down.
But the new government’s honeymoon period didn’t last long. Voters quickly became sceptical about the centrist rhetoric of the ruling alliance, deciding the coalition comprised “true blue” conservatives and pro-market liberals rather than a new breed of moderates. Personality politics also played a part. Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt may be soft-spoken enough for Swedish tastes, but he seems generally considered rather too laid back for the job. The government’s reputation for managerial competence has also taken several knocks. Two ministers had to resign in their first two weeks in office because of media revelations about misdemeanours, like refusing to pay public broadcasting fees and hiring nannies and cleaners on the black market. Other examples of the government’s amateurism over the past year have further dented their credibility as competent managers of the country.
Of course, the previous government’s competence had also been questioned. It suffered a particularly serious blow in 2004/5 when a large number of Swedish holidaymakers fell victim to the Indian Ocean tsunami and then felt deserted by the authorities. Swedes also lost patience with the former prime minister, Göran Persson. He was branded as too self-centred and even blatantly non-egalitarian, notably over his taste for splendid mansions. Perhaps significantly for the future, when Persson announced his resignation on election night, support for the social democrats immediately rose. It has continued to increase ever since, even though voters have little indication which way the party is now heading.
Swedish attitudes towards Europe give one final insight into the skewed relationship between policy success and public appreciation in this country. Swedes used to be very reluctant members of the European Union. But 10 years on, opinion polls are at last showing that a majority of Swedes now take membership for granted. There is still little real enthusiasm for Europe, though, and very little discussion of EU issues. In Brussels, for example, Sweden wins praise for its commitment to the Common Foreign and Security Policy and common defence policies, even though this remarkable shift from traditional Swedish non-alignment is barely discussed at home. Swedes appear to have learned to tolerate the EU, without caring to know very much about it.