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Socialism Today 104 - October 2006

Sweden’s social democrats lose

SEPTEMBER’S ELECTIONS marked a historic defeat for Sweden’s social democrats. The four parties that make up the right-wing Alliance will now form a government for the first time in twelve years. Their victory is entirely due to the right-wing policies of the outgoing government of prime minister Göran Persson, whose unpopularity symbolises the deepening crisis within the social democratic party. At 35% of the total vote, this was the worst result for the social democrats since universal suffrage was introduced in 1921.

Of the four Alliance parties, only Fredrik Reinfeldt’s ‘new’ Moderates can point to any real gains. The Moderates now have as many seats in parliament as their three partners – the Liberals, Centre and Christian Democrats – combined. The struggle against the new government’s attacks on the unemployed, on job protection and women’s rights must be prepared now.

The elections also delivered a serious warning in the form of sweeping local gains for the racist Sweden Democrats, which won seats in almost 80 local councils and three regional parliaments. In Sweden, elections for all levels of government – national, regional and local – take place on the same day.

Fighting on a clear socialist programme of opposition to cuts and privatisation, Rättvisepartiet Socialisterna (CWI Sweden) increased from five to eight city councillors, winning two new seats in Stockholm (Haninge) as well as consolidating its position in the northern cities of Umeå and Luleå (where we gained a third seat). The victory in Haninge is the first ever in the Stockholm region for a party to the left of the Left Party (ex-Communist Party), which is nothing but a support party for social-democratic spending cuts. The gains for the CWI show it would be one-sided to characterise the results as a swing to the right in Swedish society.

These elections were historic in many respects. In the midst of an economic boom with 4% annual GDP growth, the social democrats did not just lose support, they lost office. In the capital, Stockholm, they lost one in four voters from the 2002 elections. No other social democratic party leader has had such a poor electoral showing as Persson. Under his decade-long tenure the party’s share of the vote has stayed under 40%, historically low for a party that has ruled Sweden for 65 of the last 74 years, often with an absolute majority.

In the 2002 elections, the Moderates suffered their worst defeat since 1917, losing one-third of their support from the previous (1998) elections. After that, the party underwent an ‘extreme makeover’ to regain its position as the largest party on the right. In this election, the Moderates campaigned on the theme, ‘a change of government but no change of policy’, with Reinfeldt promising to spend at least as much on education, health and social services as the social democrats. Within the Alliance, the Moderates positioned themselves to the left of their allies (a reversal of its traditonal position) and toned down suggestions of a radical shift in policy. The emphasis was on the ‘new’ nature of the Moderates: ‘a party for everyone’.

The media has portrayed the Alliance success as being a result of its policies, especially on jobs. In reality, the Alliance’s biggest asset was discontent with Persson and the social democrats. In the 2002 elections, the social democrats held onto office thanks to international events – the perception of external danger following 9/11 – but also because of the extreme neo-liberal policies of the ‘old’ Moderates, not least in Stockholm, which was Moderate-run from 1998-2002. In 2002, therefore, the social democrats gained in the main cities. This time, the opposite happened. In the greater Stockholm region, they only got 26.3% of the vote.

In previous elections, the social democrats gained ground in the final weeks of the campaign as fear of regime change mobilised even critical voters behind the traditional ruling party. This time, the Alliance lead widened in the final days. The social democrats simply lacked credibility after implementing their brutal right-wing ‘systemskifte’ (change of system) during the 1990s, in which the famous ‘Swedish model’ of welfare and full employment was largely dismantled.

Already in his May Day 2006 speech, Persson signalled that unemployment was not an election issue as far as the government was concerned. This allowed the Alliance to present itself as an ‘Alliance for jobs’. In reality, the new government aims to create a low-wage labour market by attacking the unemployed, making it easier to sack workers, and forcing more employees onto short-term contracts. Those workers and unemployed who put their hope in the Alliance to create jobs will be hugely disappointed.

Unlike in 1976, and especially 1991, the Alliance is not assuming office at a time of downturn in the economy. But the current economic conjuncture can turn suddenly. Swedish capitalism’s extreme dependence on exports means that processes in the world economy can have an especially big impact on Sweden. The global conjuncture has probably already peaked and growth will slow next year. Unemployment in Sweden and internationally will therefore start to rise again, which will be followed by new attacks on the jobless, on workers’ rights and public spending.

The general mood can quickly change. None of the established parties enjoy any stable support and, as the differences between them shrink, so their support becomes more fleeting. The roller-coaster swings in support for the Moderates since 1998 are proof of this. And the political scandals which surfaced in these elections are a result of this political and ideological convergence. The new government takes office against the background of a political crisis and strong anti-establishment mood.

Opinion can soon swing against the new government and trigger internal splits inside the Alliance, especially if support for any of its component parts falls close to parliament’s 4% threshold. Fear of a snap election could be the factor which, in the final analysis, holds the Alliance together. The lack of any fighting alternative at national level, as well as a possible continuation of economic growth for a period, can mean a certain honeymoon period for Reinfeldt.

What’s needed is a movement in the trade unions, workplaces, schools and housing estates to organise the discontent and raise the level of consciousness. Even the backlash against Carl Bildt’s right-wing government in 1991 needed almost a year to develop before it laid the ground for the ‘movement for justice’ which characterised Swedish politics in the period 1992-96.

The new government’s programme is unmistakable: privatisation of state-owned companies; the sell-off of hospitals by local authorities; costlier trade union membership and unemployment insurance; benefit cuts for the long-term unemployed; tax rebates for household services; big cuts in council childcare budgets which will result in women being pushed back into the home.

The LO national trade union federation could be forced into calling protests on the lines of those against Bildt in 1992 and 1993. But for this to happen, major pressure from below is needed. The crisis inside the social democrats is also a crisis for the LO leadership, which spent hundreds of millions of their members’ money on Persson. The social democrats’ position in the workplaces has been further undermined by the scale of the election defeat, while the authority of the LO leaders has perhaps never been lower. At a certain stage, this will open new possibilities for the building of a socialist opposition inside the unions and growing calls for a break with the social democrats.

The struggle against the new government can present opportunities for new broader political initiatives like Rättviselistan (the Justice List) in 1995, or WASG in Germany. Rättvisepartiet Socialisterna will use its gains in the council elections to accelerate this process.

The social democrats will never be able to return to the special historical role and mass base in Swedish society they enjoyed in the past. There is no way under a capitalist system in crisis that the party can repair its shattered ties with the working class and the workplaces. The social democrats are today a bourgeois party, a process symbolised by the retiring party leader becoming a landowner. The Persson decade can, therefore, be described as a watershed in the history of social democracy.

In all likelihood, the party will be forced to ape the Moderates and purge its top ranks in favour of a new younger generation. This does not necessarily mean a change of political direction, apart from perhaps in rhetoric. The new generation of social-democratic leaders are careerists who are, if anything, to the right of Persson. A new period of crisis and struggle is opening, with big possibilities to win broad support for socialist policies and bolder more combative methods of struggle.

Per Olsson,

Rättvisepartiet Socialisterna (CWI Sweden)


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