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Home Opinion Battle-lines are drawn for the 2014 Swedish Election
State of the LeftSweden

Battle-lines are drawn for the 2014 Swedish Election

Katrine Kielos - 23 January 2014

The Social Democrat strategy of focusing on building credibility on jobs and education seems to be paying off

Sometimes it actually is over before it's over. At least in politics. The sentiment in Sweden nine months before the general election is that prime minister Fredrik Reinfeldt will lose.

Who will win? Well, that is an entirely different question.

Nobody is quite sure why everyone is so sure that the coalition government is heading for defeat. Currently the red green parties get around 50 percent while the centre-right is polling around 39.

However this was also the case in the run up to the previous election. An election that Fredrik Reinfeldt ended up winning.

What is different this time?

The answer, the social democrats hope, lies in some other numbers.

In 2009 even though the social democrats were leading in the polls as a party, 74 percent of the Swedish public preferred Fredrik Reinfeldt as prime minister. Mona Sahlin, the then opposition leader was never perceived as prime ministerial and in retrospect it is clear that it mattered a great deal.

The new social democratic leader, former steel worker Stefan Löfven is not the most exciting candidate but he is perceived as competent and able.

Today only 56 percent say they prefer Fredrik Reinfeldtas prime minister.

The other thing that has changed is how voters view the policies of the main parties. In the run up to the last election, even when Fredrik Reinfeldt was behind in the polls, he was perceived to have the best policies for fighting unemployment.

And since Swedish voters ranked this issue as the most important in 2010 - it mattered a great deal.

The centre right basically ran their whole campaign on these two strengths:

Reinfeldt's popularity and jobs. It worked. Today however voters say they prefer Stefan Löfvens policies on jobs. And not just jobs. Education and health care as well.

The social democrats have pursued a strategy for the last two years focused on building credibility on jobs and education and it seems to have paid off.

The social democratic narrative was also helped by the OECD Pisa study published in December last year. It showed Swedish students to have the biggest fall in scores of any country. The reasons for the bad performance of Swedish schools are complex but in the public debate much of it is blamed on the “free shools”.

The reforms enabling parents and companies to run schools for profit are much older than Fredrik Reinfeldt's government. They are still causing him problems however. A narrative about a backlash from market reforms in the public sector will inevitably hurt the centre-right more than the centre-left.

However pressure is mounting also on Stefan Löfven to take a firmer stance against “free schools”.

A similar thing is happening with regard to healthcare. Fredrik Reinfeldt's ex-wife (they divorced last year) is causing him trouble. Not on any personal level - but on a political level.

Filippa Reinfeldt is a powerful politician in her own right and in charge of healthcare in the Stockholm region. She is considered to be more market oriented than the prime minister and has become a symbol for privatisations and new public management. Recently Stockholm has been featured heavily in national media for its chaotic health care situation. The problems with maternal care and long waiting hours probably have more to do with lack of planning than the government’s tax cuts (in Sweden health care is funded through local taxes) but again the narrative is hurting the government.

None of this however answers the question about who will win in September.

Beyond the surface the xenophobic party, the Sweden Democrats are gaining support. If they manage to take more seats in parliament it can get very difficult for Stefan Löfven to form a government.

In this sense nothing about the Swedish election is over until it's over.

Nine months is an eternity in politics.

Katrine Kielos is a columnist for Aftonbladet, Sweden and Scandanavia's largest daily newspaper

A contribution to State of the Left - Policy Network's monthly insight bulletin that reports from across the world of social democratic politics.

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The Policy Network Observatory promotes critical debate and reflection on progressive politics. It is centre-left orientated but determinedly challenges social democracy. It is pro-European but restlessly questions EU institutions and practices.

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