Sweden's Politics of Perssonal Destruction

Voters say nay to Social Democrats, but "the most successful society the world has ever known" will, alas, survive


A political journalist of my acquaintance—and one of pronounced rightist tendencies—waved his hand over Stockholm's Old Town and, with the drunken avidity of a winner, declared his country "liberated."

It was an understandable reaction (though the comparison of outgoing Prime Minister Göran Persson to Marshal Pétain was a stretch) for he and his comrades spent the previous 12 years wandering the political wilderness. Sweden, he ruefully noted, had long been a "one party state;" democratic, but ruled by the Social Democrats for an astounding 65 of the last 74 years.

After a string of humiliating defeats, the Moderate Party (yes, in Sweden the mainstream party furthest to the right is "moderate") resuscitated itself by downplaying its free-market credentials. It reversed its political fortunes by promising to salvage the welfare state, a system "rotting from within" but much beloved by those indebted to it. And it worked. Last Sunday, the "new right," led by new Prime Minister and compassionate conservative Fredrik Reinfeldt, forced the Social Democrats into opposition.

Both the Left Party (which provided vital support to the ruling Social Democrats over the past twelve years and moral support to East Germany for the previous fifty) and the Social Democrats hemorrhaged support. Former Left leader Gudrun Schyman, famous for attempting to levy a general "man tax" on the "Taliban-like" Swedish male, left to start Feminist Initiative, a political party charged with "abolishing the patriarchal order" through stultifying speeches and record-high rates of taxation. With the loss of Schyman, the party chose as its leader a self-identified communist who belatedly realized that former allegiances with the GDR might turn off voters—even in Sweden.

In fact, the entire left-wing bloc ran a disastrous campaign. "The only new idea pushed by the Social Democrats," says Svenska Dagbladet columnist Kristian Karlsson, "was an extension of free dental care to those below 24. It's currently available to those 18 and under." The Left Party presented a few regressive and inspired ideas—like a suggestion that Swedes only be allowed a six hour workday—but the government, says Karlsson, had "offered absolutely nothing."

But why would the Persson government even need new ideas when, in the words of Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee, Sweden is "the most successful society the world has ever known?" According to Toynbee, the Swedish system is strong as ever, with low unemployment, minuscule inflation and growth rates that "soar above" EU competitors. With such a record of success, a right-wing victory would be "perverse." Anticipating the worst, Toynbee offered a bizarre explanation for Swedish ingratitude: "The Swedes seem to lack self-confidence, intimidated by global neocon warnings. Despite their strong economy, they worry. Will globalisation strike?"

Some basic economic statistics offer a more plausible theory. According to Persson's government, its rule was vindicated by low unemployment figures, usually quoted as 5 percent. But when one untangles the mess of "early retirees" and those hiding in "job training" programs, the figures can reach as high as 20 percent. Author < a href="http://www.johannorberg.net/">Johan Norberg argues that in 1970 Sweden "had the fourth-highest per-capita income in the world, according to OECD figures." That ranking recently dropped to 14, a decline traceable to the state's massive expansion in this period. A healthy system of sickness benefits (currently 16 percent of GDP) has created an expanding class of "unhealthy" people, who stay home (collecting 80 percent of their salaries) at the highest rate in the EU.

Unlike their editorial page boosters in Britain, Swedes are keenly aware that none of these benefits—health care, day care, generous sick leave payments—are in fact "free" and all could use a thorough audit by a new government. But one shouldn't confuse a desire to streamline the system with a desire to see the system dismantled. Voters most certainly did not, as Investors Business Daily claimed, "reject the much-praised 'Swedish Model' of economic development." The Moderate Party ran on a Clintonian "mend it, don't end it" approach to welfare, arguing that it was a "good system" that simply needed some tweaks and targeted cuts. According to an editorial in the tabloid Expressen, Swedes have "confidence in their welfare state" and were tired of the venality and corruption of Persson's government.

Kristian Karlsson is less sanguine than many of his more ideologically pure compatriots, those who see Reinfeldt's centrism as an unforgivable betrayal of the movement. "Look at what the right-wing government accomplished in the early 1990s," he writes. "Typically large spending, sure, but they pushed through school vouchers and enormous amounts of deregulation—radio, telecoms, television, hospitals. It's a piecemeal approach. Here in Sweden, that is only way to effect change."

Scandinavia just might be trending to the right, but just not a right recognizable to anyone at a Grover Norquist—he of curiously Swedish lineage—coffee klatch. The Nordic countries are now travelling a path of conservative welfare-statism: trim where we can, privatize, offer school choice. But taxes will remain higher than average and the "Swedish model" will be available to those who need it. Indeed, Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen was previously known for his treatise on the virtues of Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek, From Welfare State to Minimal State. Though he has since abandoned orthodox liberalism, Rasmussen has converted Denmark to a "flexicurity" model, making it easier for employers to fire workers. Norway's right-wing Progress Party is the now the nation's most popular, with a combination of tougher immigration policies, tax cuts and welfare state goodies subsidized by the country's massive oil revenue.

Reinfeldt too once identified himself as a man of vaguely libertarian principals. But it's clear when talking with Moderate Party voters that the ebullience has little to do with Reinfeldt as a leader or thinker (all the Reinfeldt supporters I spoke with were sceptical). The country has been liberated and the sceptics aren't celebrating who won, but who lost.

The Social Democrats lost. But it appears that the welfare state won.