Social democracy has not returned to Sweden. For something to come back it needs to have been gone in the first place.
The most astounding thing about the election of Social Democratic prime minister Stefan Löfven in September was how quickly his predecessor, Fredrik Reinfeldt, was forgotten. Reinfeldt, the centre-right leader who had governed Sweden for eight years and been David Cameron’s closest ally in Europe (a statement that perhaps does not say that much) resigned on election night.
And just like that he was gone.
Some political leaders are like oak trees – they define the whole landscape and when they are felled their absence defines the whole political landscape. Reinfeldt was a very skilled politician, but was no oak tree.
The situation in parliament after the election was difficult. Löfven, an adopted orphan and former steelworker, had brought his party to some form of victory with 30 per cent of the vote. But it was far from enough – not even with the support of the Green party could he gather a majority. After first reaching out to Reinfeldt’s former coalition partners in the liberal and centre parties Löfven formed a government with the Green party as expected but with informal support from the Left party.
The prime minister’s task of forming a government would have been a lot more difficult had the leader of the xenophobic party, the Sweden Democrats, not been forced to go on sick leave. In a very surprising political development his depression and gambling problem made him take time out straight after the election. Nobody knows when he will be back. And the Sweden Democrats without their leader is like the United Kingdom Independence party without Nigel Farage – a one-trick pony without the pony.
This staggering development bought Löfven time. It looked as though he might possess that all-important political quality: luck. Getting his budget through parliament will still be tricky but the Sweden Democrats will be hesitant to try to bring the government down. They would not want to risk going into an early election without their leader. The same is true for the centre-right. It is still unclear who will succeed Reinfeldt.
Just a few years ago the Social Democrats governing Sweden in a formal coalition with the Greens would have been unthinkable. Political realities change, but political differences remain. Löfven’s government authorised a controversial wolf cull soon after taking office. This caused the Green party leader, deputy prime minister Åsa Romson, to criticise her own government publicly. Wolf hunting is one of the most contentious political issues in Swedish politics. In few other areas do the views of the urban middle class and the traditional social-democratic base clash more violently. The working classes of the north want to kill wolves, the urban middle classes want to save them. There is no middle ground and every Swedish Machiavellian knows that if you want to get rid of a political rival the best way is to put him or her in charge of the government’s wolf policy.
On economic matters the cooperation with the Green party has worked better. When the new finance minister, Magdalena Andersson, presented her first budget it was pretty much as expected. To say that Andersson is not a Keynesian is like saying a tiger is not a vegetarian. Strong public finances are Andersson’s religion.
However, there is also some soul-searching going on. The global financial crisis has forced the Social Democrats to reconsider some parts of the fiscal framework they helped create in the 1990s. One component is the surplus target which states that net lending must be one per cent of gross domestic product, on average over the cycle.
The main issue of the election campaign that brought the Social Democrats back to power was the poor performance of Swedish schools. Education is also the area where the Löfven government will have to deliver results. This will not be easy. The Swedish public sector is to a very large extent run with new public management, quasi-markets and private providers. It is therefore hard to govern.
In the Anglo-Saxon economies neoliberal thinking was influential on labour market policy and in regard to financial regulation; in Sweden it took the form of new public management. Even though many of the Swedish public sector reforms are extreme in the light of international comparison, such as the for-profit ‘free schools’, there has been a wide political consensus around them.
Since the global financial crisis of 2008 social democrats all over Europe have been challenged to question ideas they had accepted and taken for granted in the 1990s. Sweden is no exception. But here it is the state of the public sector – not the financial sector – that is driving the ideological re-evaluation.
It is, however, an area just as technically difficult to reregulate as financial markets. Löfven’s government has been starting to tighten regulation and he has appointed a minister responsible for how local governments deal with private providers of public services. This will be an ongoing theme for his government.
Meanwhile, the war in eastern Ukraine has been casting its shadow over Swedish politics for a long time now. The public is growing more and more worried about Russia and the state of Swedish defence. The hunt for the alleged Russian submarine in the Stockholm archipelago made world news this autumn. Tension is mounting in the whole region. Former Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt made a big name for himself in Europe as an outspoken critic of Vladimir Putin. But the Reinfeldt government’s main legacy in this field will actually be that it ended conscription and cut defence spending massively. Löfven’s administration has signalled that it will take a different approach, and the new defence minister has even opened up the possibility of bringing conscription back. How he will get this past the Greens is another question.
Nobody can say how long Löfven’s current government will last. It could last a full term, but with such a tricky situation in parliament it is unlikely to grow into an oak tree or to redefine European social democracy.
That does not, however, mean it cannot get things done. Time will tell.
Katrine Marçal is a columnist for Aftonbladet
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