A vote for the good life

MICHAEL POSNER September 16 1985

A vote for the good life

MICHAEL POSNER September 16 1985

A vote for the good life


For a short time last winter, the brisk Baltic breezes that swept across Stockholm’s central boulevard, the Strandvägen, seemed to carry the seeds of historic political change. Under the vaulted ceilings of the Opera Cafe, a gathering place for the city’s best and brightest, the talk turned increasingly to possibilities that were—by Swedish standards—almost revolutionary. If the opinion polls held until the Sept. 15 election, a coalition of three centre-right parties would replace the governing Social Democrats, who have held power in Sweden for 47 of the past 53 years. Such a sweeping redesign of the contours of the modern Swedish state would probably lead to a serious weakening of the traditional welfare society. That such a scenario was even thinkable indicated that Sweden, for years the envy of people in many countries of the West, was in the midst of a crisis.

But last week, as 8.3 million Swedes watched the end of the election campaign, the prospects for dramatic change were fading like the country’s brief northern summer. Under threetime Prime Minister Olaf Palme, the Social Democrats had rallied to take a narrow one-percentage-point lead in the polls. The Swedish economy, pincered between a 16-per-cent loan rate and eight-per-cent inflation, was still in a period of robust growth.

And the three opposition parties had spent most of the campaign on the defensive, either assuring voters that they were not contemplating fundamental reforms of social programs or attacking each other over basic policy questions. In fact, they were not even able to agree on which party leader—Moderate,

Centre or Liberal— would be come prime

minister if the coalition won.

The most probable choice would be Ulf Adelsohn, chairman of the Moderate, or conservative party. In his attempt to become his party’s first prime minister since 1928, the 43-year-old Adelsohn had fashioned a platform based on tax cuts to marginal rates of income, reductions in the growth rate of the public sector and the privatization of medical and day care. “We’ve got to stop this vicious cycle of tax and subsidy,” Adelsohn, a career politician, said

repeatedly. “A Swede should be able to live on his own income.” That message carried a special resonance for Sweden’s young professionals, as well as for first-time voters, about 40 per cent of whom were leaning toward the Moderates.

But for Adelsohn the campaign was largely a chronicle of missed opportunities. In the spring, an antigovernment newspaper report-

ed that Palme had waived a $5,000 fee for an address to Harvard University. The fee, which would have been taxable, was instead given to Palme’s eldest son, Joachim, as a scholarship at the same institution. But the resulting controversy lasted only a few days. A few weeks later a Swedish technical journal disclosed that the government had secretly conducted nuclear weapons tests for 18 years after the Riksdag, Sweden’s parliament, had formally ordered the research stopped. In fact, the tests continued for five years after Sweden took the lead in signing the United Nations nuclear nonproliferation treaty.

The revelations, observers said, could have been damaging politically to Palme. As secretary to former prime minister Tage Erlander and later as his successor, he was almost certainly aware of the tests. But the Moderates were unable to turn the initial outcry into a national scandal.

The Social Democrats’ recovery in the polls, analysts say, was largely a result of Palme’s personal credibility. At 58, he affects an air of casual confidence, turning up at campaign rallies in worn-out shoes and old mud-splattered pants, his cowlicked hair standing up like a wheat stook. In fact, many Swedes compare him to former prime minister Pierre Trudeau: brilliant but temperamental, respected by most but loved by few, capable in one moment of immense charm and in the next of intellectual brutality. Indeed, one Swedish critic, writer Jan Myrdahl, once noted that Palme “had the aristocratic mentality of a Prussian cavalry officer.”

Still, most Swedes seem comfortable with Palme. Alone among contemporary politicians he has put Sweden on the international stage and given it prominence at disarmament conferences and other forums for peace. Moreover, the Social Democrats and the welfare ethic, which they have helped to promote, are so entrenched in Swedish society—in the 3.2-million-member unions, the civil service and the powerful government agencies that implement policy—that they now represent the party of the status quo. And many Swedes clearly welcome that development. “Better the devil you know,” said one elderly woman in Stockholm’s central Sergeis Torg plaza last week. Added Anna Carlsson, a young mother wheeling her three-month-old son near the city’s Culture House: “I don’t want the private sector making money off my child.”

At the same time, the opposition parties consistently made costly mistakes in the campaign. In one incident Adelsohn offhandedly dismissed economic sanctions against South Africa because, he said, they would hurt “poor Negroes.” However, the central weakness of the coalition parties, which ruled Sweden from 1976 to 1982, has been their inability to find common ground. The coalition’s years in power were marked by economic drift and a succession of four unstable governments. Palme now describes their time in office as “the bourgeois period,” and he ruthlessly exploits any flaws in their record.

The only issue on which the alliance agrees is opposition to Sweden’s new löntagarfonder, or “wage earner funds.” Introduced by the Social Democrats 21 months ago, the controversial system allows union-controlled boards to invest small percentages of corporate profits and employee wages in shares of Swedish industry—to a maximum of 49.9 per cent of any one company. The funds have not had nearly the impact feared

by their detractors—that they would reduce Sweden’s pool of risk capital—or expected by their advocates—that they would ease demands by labor for higher wage contracts. But a majority of Swedes regard them as creeping socialism in comparatively unfettered private industry, and the coalition has pledged to dismantle them.

But the centre-right parties still had a reasonable chance at capturing a majority of the 349 seats at stake. (At dissolution the standings were: Social Democrats 166; coalition 163; Communists 20). Less than a week before voting day six per cent of the electorate was still undecided—a remarkable figure in a nation where political loyalties are traditionally sealed well in advance.

The public debate has been dominated by discussion of the country’s economic performance. Palme’s Social Democrats have accented the positive, citing record corporate profits and modest progress on cutting inflation and interest rates. “We’re on the right track,” Palme tells his audiences, adding, “Let us not endanger Sweden with untried policies.” The opposition has stressed the negative indices: a growing national debt of $74 billion, compared to Canada’s $35.8 billion, and the highest tax burden in the Western world. “We have a high standard of living,” said Adelsohn, “but we have it on loan.”

Still, the contest in the campaign lies beneath the cold calculus of wage settlements and current account deficits. Palme insists—and most Swedes apparently agree—that the Social Democrats have provided “the most humane, the most secure system in history.” Virtually every social need from infancy to old age is freely available or heavily subsidized. But the result is that Sweden has become a forbudstat, a nation of rules and regulations in which individual enterprise is considered to be subordinate to the common good. It has become, in the words of writer Jorn Donner, “a huge collective.” The laws, he says, were intended to improve people’s lives. “But somewhere en route, a number of those laws became means in themselves and people suddenly [found] they were prisoners.”

For Hans Zetterberg, the respected head of the Swedish polling institute SIFO, whoever is the winner this Sunday will not make a significant difference. For the first time in Swedish history, he declared, and perhaps for the first time in Western history, an absolute majority of the electorate—54 per cent—is dependent on the state for employment or life-sustaining subsidies. The election, Zetterberg adds, is not a contest between Palme and Adelsohn, nor even between the socialist and nonsocialist blocs. It is a struggle between the public and private sectors.

Two weeks before election day, Palme faced Adelsohn in a 90-minute TV debate. Preparing for it, both men made a show of relaxing. Adelsohn jogged a few miles; Palme went rowing. The choice of activity seemed appropriate. Adelsohn is running largely under his own power; Palme is gliding, leveraged by the powerful oars of the Social Democratic network. On that basis alone, the patrons of the Opera Cafe are willing to give a slight edge to Palme. But even if Adelsohn manages a surprise victory, they insist that Sweden will not change.


in Stockholm