Sweden: Why the Social Democrats lost and what comes next

For only the third time in 84 years the Social Democracy lost the recent parliamentary elections in Sweden, leading to the resignation of its leader Göran Persson. Now a bourgeois four party “alliance” will govern the country. But anyone who thinks that the workers of Sweden have voted for more attacks on their living conditions is ignoring reality. The alliance announced the very opposite of what they are going to do. So a new period of conflict is being prepared.

On September 17, Swedes narrowly voted to elect a four party bourgeois coalition government, dominated by the Conservative party. Does this mean that contrary to developments internationally, Sweden has moved to the right? Only by looking at things superficially is it possible to draw that conclusion.

To understand what has taken place one has to go back to 2003. That was a year of major struggles in Sweden. That was the year of the massive anti-war demonstrations, which forced the then Social Democratic government to distance itself from the US Administration. That was also the year in which there was one of the largest public sector strikes ever in Sweden. And finally on the electoral front, despite the entire establishment - the bosses, the media, the leaderships of all the main parties and the trade unions - being unanimously in favour of joining the European Monetary Union (EMU), a referendum decisively rejected it.

But where was the movement to go from there? The war begun, the public sectors strike was stabbed in the back by the leadership and the anti-EMU consisted of a rag-bag mixture of all kinds of groups who for various, and sometimes opposing, reasons were against the EMU. Due to the lack of a clear and established left in the Social Democratic Workers Party (SAP) and the unions, there was no possibility of capturing all the anger and frustration that came to the surface in 2003 and giving it a more stable long-term form. Inevitably a period of taking stock, a certain degree of demoralisation, and passivity set in.

In this situation some parts of those sections of the working class with the least tradition of collective struggle began to look for more individual solutions to their problems. Thus the Conservative Party increased its vote significantly among white-collar workers, young people, unemployed and immigrants. They got 26.1 % of the vote. Let's be clear: They did not vote for full-blown neo-liberal policies. The bourgeois alliance committed themselves towards not changing the labour laws and to preserving the welfare state. The Prime Minister to be, Fredrik Reinfeldt, said he wanted to cooperate with the trade unions rather than confront them. The Conservative Party has re-branded itself as "the new workers' party" and they have frantically tried to wash away their old racist image.

Only the bourgeois alliance offered improvements to low paid workers. They promised them a tax cut of about 50 euros a month. For better off workers, who own their own homes (over 60%), they said they would reduce tax on housing.

Above all the bourgeois alliance consistently put the question of jobs at the centre of their election campaign. Unemployment has been the question of greatest concern to the electorate for some time. The alliance claimed to have the policies to create jobs, and they also claimed that the Social Democratic government was doing little to create more jobs. Which is entirely true. Göran Persson, the former Prime Minister, put his foot in his mouth when during the election campaign he explained that it wasn't necessary to do anything - jobs would just appear. This flies in the face of the fact that mass unemployment has persisted for over 15 years.

The SAP only received 35.2% of the vote, its lowest vote since universal suffrage was introduced. In for example Stockholm (a town with a large middle stratum) the vote swung heavily to the Conservatives. However, broad layers of the working class stayed loyal to the SAP. They were not fooled by the propaganda of the bourgeois alliance. They knew that the alliance had no real solutions. In fact, because the bourgeois parties led in the opinion polls for weeks before the actual election, a certain mobilisation took place. In Sweden's largest industrial city, Gothenburg, the Social Democrats increased their vote by almost 4%. Likewise in the traditional red areas in the north of Sweden the vote for the SAP went up. Partially this is due to some voters, who to no avail had protest voted for the Left Party (ex-communists) in the previous elections, returning to the SAP. Still, the Left Party recorded one of its highest votes ever, 5.8%. This was despite having been given a very rough ride in the media since the movement died down after 2003, and their old leader, Gudrun Schyman, leaving to start a feminist party (0.7% of the vote).

The Greens have a fairly left profile and have been supporting the Social Democratic government in parliament for years. They went up slightly to 5.2%. So all in all, the parliamentary base of the previous government was reduced from 52.9% to 46.2% in this election. Voter participation was basically the same as during the last election.

In the same speech in which Göran Persson conceded defeat on election night, he announced his resignation as party leader. This is unprecedented. Before the present defeat the SAP had lost the parliamentary elections only three times during the last 84 years, but nobody ever suggested that these defeats meant that the leader had to resign. Now, it was more or less taken for granted. And since then a flood of criticism of Göran Persson has come out into the open. His resignation was not for personal reasons, although his desire to complete the refurbishment of his new 2 million euro estate probably played a role. The main reason was the bankruptcy of his policies.

When Göran Persson was elected party leader 10 years ago it represented a shift in policy within the party leadership. Before that the hard ideological right-wing had dominated and Mona Sahlin, deputy Prime Minister and darling of the media, was seen as the inevitable successor to the aging Ingvar Carlsson. She was in favour of all kinds of cuts and market solutions for the public sector as a means to "renew" it. She said that small businessmen were "heroes". But the members of the party did not agree and in a revolt, using the excuse of a minor scandal, she was forced to resign and the openly pro-capitalist wing that she represented was routed.

In came Göran Persson. He still argued in favour of cuts. Actually he implemented cuts on a scale that sent German Social Democrats scurrying to Sweden to study how it is possible to make such huge cuts. But unlike Mona Sahlin he didn't argue in favour of it on a principled basis. He simply pointed to the giant deficits and said that it was very regretful but necessary to cut. And that after the state finances were in order there would be reforms, as in the past. He also argued against inequality, but in practice presided over a giant redistribution of wealth from the poor to the rich. During the last ten years of Social Democratic government GDP grew by 44%. The income of the richest tenth of the population grew slightly faster: 49% (for the very richest 5% it grew by 58%). But the income of all the other tenths of the population grew by between 21 and 30%.

Well, Göran Persson, the representative of the bookkeeping visionless bureaucracy achieved his main goals. The state finances have been positive for years. The state debt has been reduced from 80% to 50% of GDP. The finances of the regional governments and the municipalities have also been positive. And yet, despite this and despite Sweden having among the fastest growth rates in Europe, there have been few reforms and not even promises of substantial reforms. Göran Persson made it clear during the election campaign that there probably would be none in the immediate future either. The resignation of Göran Persson means that the "pragmatic" bureaucrats have reached the end of the road, for them. The road has been opened for more left reformist ideas to fill the vacuum after Persson's heavy fall. Now is the time for the left to go on the offensive. Now is the time for audacity.

The honeymoon of the new bourgeois government will in all probability be short. The government is unlikely to frontally attack the labour movement, in the first instance. The working class in Sweden is very strong. 80% of the population are working class and over 80% of all workers are members of trade unions. The few times in the recent decades when the capitalists have openly confronted the working class, instead of relying on the leadership of the Social Democracy to do the dirty work, they have received a bloody nose. The new government has acknowledged that they have no mandate for any tough games. Instead they will first try to surreptitiously undermine the movement. They will definitely attack unemployment and sickness benefits, attacking the weakest first. They will privatize further and attempt to find all kinds of ways to weaken the base of the movement.

Things will not be easy for them. Many union contracts are up for renewal in the spring. Swedish companies are making record profits, based on record exports. More than half of everything produced in Sweden is exported now. Many unions, now unfettered by having to adapt to a Social Democratic government, have made it clear they are going for a larger share of the cake. Already the miners have achieved a 4.7 % rise, although the establishment consensus had "recommended" rises of 3.5%. The bourgeois government will provide a clear focus on which many will want to vent there anger, once the dust and illusions of the election begin to settle. Far from inaugurating a rightward shift in Sweden, the election of the bourgeois alliance will deepen the radicalisation that has been going on for some time.