Swedes clear: "Don't touch our welfare state"

  • 2002-09-19
  • Pia Ohlin

One day after returning the Social Democrats to power, Swedes looked forward to another four years of stability and security as Prime Minister Goeran Persson vowed to defend the welfare state they hold so dear.

Stemming the tide of right-wing election victories across Europe over the past year, the Social Democrats and their left-wing allies, the Left Party and the Greens, won a surprisingly comfortable victory over the center-right opposition in the Sept. 15 general election in what polls had predicted would be a close race.

Persson's insistence on the need for reform while keeping Sweden's cradle-to-grave welfare system intact — thereby rejecting the opposition's tax cut agenda — struck a chord with voters willing to pay what it takes to improve health care and education.

"No one believes in socialism anymore. But almost everyone wants to keep the welfare state," leading Swedish commentator Mats Svegfors wrote in the daily Expressen on Sept. 16.

Sweden's fiercest advocates of tax cuts and the second-largest party, the conservative Moderates, suffered the most crushing blow of all the opposition parties as it registered its lowest score since the 1970s with 15 percent of votes.

Senior Moderates called for party leader Bo Lundgren's immediate resignation, calling the result "a catastrophe, a massacre".

Persson's Social Democrats garnered 40 percent of the votes, making them almost three times the size of their closest competitors. It was the first time in 11 years that an incumbent government has improved its support base in an election.

Voters appeared, however, to have more faith in Persson than political and financial analysts, who said the Social Democrats would have a hard time following through on campaign promises to put more teachers in schools and give more money to hospitals and elderly care.

"The weakening economy means that it is not at all certain that the Social Democrats' stated goals will become a reality in the coming years," the conservative daily Svenska Dagbladet wrote in an analysis.

Nordea bank chief economist Olle Djerf agreed.

"We are in a mild downturn, and more growth is needed for Persson to reach his goals," Djerf said.

Financial markets were however reassured by the Social Democrats' return to power, given Persson's strong economic record and his determination to bring Sweden into the euro zone following a referendum expected to be held next year.

"There would have been more uncertainty with a non-socialist government, but now the political scene remains familiar," Djerf said.

Swedish business has long since advocated switching to the euro, and analysts said Persson was the man to persuade Sweden's powerful unions, his left-wing allies and grassroots party supporters that the country should join Economic and Monetary Union.

"The EMU question is going to be easier to handle, now that the Social Democrats are sharing in this task. There are loads of hesitant voters out there, but now a 'Yes' vote will be easier to get," Djerf said.

Meanwhile, the Greens, who together with the Left have provided the minority Social Democrats with informal support in Parliament for the past four years, said this week they would be seeking a seat in government when the three parties begin negotiations.

Without the Greens, the Left and the Social Democrats are one seat short of a majority in the 349-seat Riksdag.

"Our view is that in order to do a good job in a collaboration we ought to sit in government," party co-leader Maria Wetterstrand told Swedish Radio.

However, she stopped short of the Greens' earlier position that it would bring down any government of which it was not a member, saying the party wanted to "first see where this week's negotiations would lead."