On Sunday, September 17, Sweden had parliamentary elections, and on a global agenda dominated by Iran's nuclear ambitions, carbombs in Iraq and what not, it was easy to overlook them - but in the big country on the Baltic an electoral earthquake took place. The Social Democrats of PM Goran Persson lost to a center-right coalition led by a man seemingly coming from nowhere: Fredrik Reinfeldt of the center-right Moderates Party.
"Mr Reinfeldt is promising to reform the tax and benefits system so that taking a job will always be a better deal than receiving social benefits or government training. Mr Reinfeldt, who takes office 6 October, will also make it easier for companies to hire and fire people. He says the move will have a significant impact in reducing youth unemployment, which is among the highest rates in Europe. "We are the party of working people," Mr Reinfeldt (41) told voters throughout the election campaign. He wants to trim the Swedish economy so that it will make the best of the global market. And he has the support of big, as well as small, businesses."
That sounds lovely, isn't it? Well, you may or may not have noticed somewhere that the election was a relatively close call, which would apparently not justify the use of a phrase like "electoral earthquake". After all, the three leftwing parties still secured 171 seats against the 178 of Reinfeldts centre-right bloc (the Riksdag, Sweden's unicameral parliament, has 349 seats). But then you have to know that Swedish politics have been dominated almost constantly by the Social Democrats. in the period since 1932 they were in charge in all but nine years, and the last change of the guard dates from 1994 already. This situation has a lot if not all to do with the Social Democrats being the architects of the famous/notorious (take your pick) welfare state, typically characterized by cradle to grave state assistance as well as insanely high taxes (a municipal income tax of about 30% and a high-income state tax of 20-25% for salaries exceeding 300 000 SEK, Swedish "kronen", per year. Plus, employing companies pay an additional 32% of an "employer's fee". Plus, a national VAT of 25% or 18%). Anyway, for decades the Swedish Democrats literally bought their votes by promising Leif Q to take care of everything if only he'd keep them in power. But on September 17 an apparently sufficient number of Leif Q's were tired of being bossed around and opted for a change. With SD being in power for so long, Sweden has been dubbed a "Democratic One Party State", but like a senior member of Reinfeldts New Moderates said, Sweden has finally become a real democracy....
To be sure, the victory for the right is also due to the fact that Sweden's four centre-right parties - the Moderate Unity Party, the Liberals, the Centre Party and the Christian Democrats - decided to come up as a united front under the name Allians för Sverige (Alliance for Sweden), agreed upon one PM candidate - Mr. Reinfeldt of the Moderates - AND still boasted a strong social program. One has to understand that you don't win Europeans over to the right by appealing upon things like individualism and/or taking pride at not needing state support. For five decades now, Europeans have been pampered with a gazillion of government measures seemingly taking every responsibility out of the citizen's hands, and in this field the Swedish state was and is a champ: check out this social security overview and you will understand why Swedish taxes are so high.
That is why Mr. Reinfeldt in his bid for PM decided to take a different course than his predecessor Bo Lundgren, held responsible for the Moderates' disastrous 2002 showing, and instead of hammerring upon less taxes and regulation chose to emphasize small pro-business adjustments and a soft approach for reforming social security. In fact Reinfeldt did not rock the boat and even beat the Social Democrats on their own turf. Personally, I have reluctantly come to agree that this is the best way for rightist parties to regain power in Europe. A series of small incremental steps intended to streamline social security and in the process regularly confront the electorate with the (necessary) fait accompli. Reform is needed, but it has to be done stealth mode so as not to lose control again to the socialists at the first occasion. Using this technique, Germans are right now getting slowly accustomed to the knowledge they will have to work till 67. If a rightwing party would trumpet that out loud, it would be kicked out in no time.
There is another not entirely unimportant aspect in the Right's victory in Sweden, and that is that Reinfeldts bloc finally broke the taboo on Swedish unemployment. The official unemployment figure hovers around 6.5 per cent. Reinfeldt stated clearly that if you would add the people on sickness or disability leave or in government job-training programs, the figure would be higher than 20 percent. Desperate to demonstrate that the famous European welfare state is at least as good as the despised US in keeping people at work, socialist parties all over Europe have indeed for decades sexed up unemployment figures by not taking into account categories like the abovementioned. I can tell, as I know all too well from Belgian experience. Here too the Swedes seem to have been real champs, check out this amazing TCS column, Crazy for work in Sweden. But again, it seems enough citizens were finally fed up with the charade.
Some quick country facts: Sweden's consolidation as a nation happened fairly early for European states, namely in the 12th Century, and perhaps not coincidentally with the Christianization of the country. In 1389, Norway, Sweden and Denmark formed one unity under one monarch through the Union of Kalmar, but in 1521 King Gustav I of the House Vasa broke with that union and laid the foundations of the Sweden as we know it today. In the 16th and 17th centuries Sweden was despite its small population of approximately 2 million, one of Europes superpowers, and its most famous characters from that era are Gustavus II Adolfus who fought (and died) in the Thirty-Year War, and Charles XII who famously invaded Peter The Great's Russia but in the end was utterly defeated at Poltava in 1708.
In the 19th century, the two most relevant socio-economic phenomena to occur in Sweden were massive emigration to the US (an estimated 1 million between 1850 and 1910) and industrializaton (from 1870 on). In the 20th century, Sweden managed to stay neutral in both world wars, and after that latter conflict acquired worldwide fame with quality automotive and aeronautical products. During the Cold War it remained nonaligned, and it only joined the European Union in 1995. Today, Sweden, with capital Stockholm, has a population of app. 9,060,000, which on a surface of 449,964 sq km (173,732 sq miles) still translates in a very low (average) population density for European standards. In 2005, its GDP was estimated at $268 billion. The colours of the Swedish flag are yellow and blue. If you look closely, you can discern a woman on the photo. Rumor has it that one in every two Swedes is a woman. Before you pack your coffers for Stockholm, keep in mind that probably not all of them look like the one pictured.