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Home Opinion Fredrik Reinfeldt's worn-out political playbook
State of the LeftSweden

Fredrik Reinfeldt's worn-out political playbook

Katrine Kielos - 26 March 2014

Voters are confused by the Swedish prime minister’s Merkel-style approach to electoral campaigning. The Social Democrat polling position thus looks strong ahead of the September 2014 elections

The announcement that the British conservative party will rebrand itself “the worker's party” has been one of few successes of Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt lately.

In Sweden, Mr Reinfeldt's conservative party, which began calling themselves “the workers party” in 2005 seems to have lost their Midas touch.

There's an election in September and the likelihood of a social democratic government is increasing. However this hasn't stopped the British conservative party from copying their tactics.

Not just the rebranding of the British Tory party but also how British chancellor George Osborne has been pitching his recent budget as a budget for “ordinary working people” was straight out of Fredrik Reinfeldt's playbook.

The free movement of political slogans is now a reality in Europe - whether we like it or not.

While Britains David Cameron has been trying out Fredrik Reinfeldt's strategy, Fredrik Reinfeldt has been trying out Angela Merkel's.

The German chancellor, has become the face of what political scientists call “asymmetric demobilisation”. The idea is to deliberately dull the issues and defuse conflicts with the opposition. If you manage to persuade more of your opponent’s supporters to stay at home than your own, you are on to a winning election strategy.  

In the last couple of months Fredrik Reinfeldt has been trying this Merkel-strategy. But instead of minimising the ideological difference between him and the opposition it has resulted in confusion about where his own party stands.

First he wanted to lower taxes, then he wanted to raise them. Then he wanted to lower some again. He proposed cuts to the Swedish defense budget, but then he changed his mind. He wanted lower student's grants, then he backed away from the idea. He copied the opposition on policy after policy on education, but the fierce debate on the dramatic fall of school standards in Sweden is not dissipating.

There are also reports about tension between Fredrik Reinfeldt and his finance minister Anders Borg. The importance of this should not be neglected. “Bromances” are an underestimated force in politics.

The close relationship between Mr Reinfeldt and Mr Borg was a big part of the formula that Swedish Social democrats found so hard to beat.

Even though the general terrain seems more favourable to the left than it has been in a long time, opposition leader Stefan Löfven has his own dilemmas to face. The former steel worker and union leader looks more and more like a credible prime minister but it's still unclear what his political project is.

The Swedish public is growing angrier and angrier with the public sector reforms of the last 20 years. This has wider ideological implications. In Sweden the “neoliberal revolution” didn't happen in banking - it happened in the school and health care system. Few other countries went further with quasi-markets, private providers, free schools run for profit and new public management.

All of this in a system exclusively funded by tax payers money.

The reforms made some people and companies very rich. The Swedish public accepted this, as long as things worked, in much the same way as the public of Britain and the US accepted finance, as long as things worked.

However now, with large free school companies going bankrupt and reports of nurseries feeding children hard bread and water to increase profit, the public sentiment in Sweden is very different.

But just as with finance – the question about how to re-regulate a market – is not an easy one. This is especially true for a centre-left party that didn't exactly oppose the reforms in the past.

So all in all Stefan Löfven might very well be the next prime minister of Sweden. What kind of prime minister he intends to be, is still rather unclear.

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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