Behind me the live TV coverage of Sweden’s general election goes on and on, as it will for many hours. Right now, just after 8pm, the Alliance parties are marginally ahead, but the final result will not be known until tomorrow. The election has been the focus of news here for months and the last few weeks have been intense. The Social Democratic party, which has provided the leadership of Sweden for most of the last 70 years, is under attack from the “right”. I say right, but what is called “right” here we Australians would think of as centre. There are no serious right wing parties here in Sweden. The Social Democrats are not very left either. There are a few more left wing parties which have provoked much debate in this election. Vänsterpartiet, which can be translated as The Left Party, has been selling themselves as the true workers’ party, saying that the Social Democrats have lost the confidence of the real worker. Mind you, I wonder whether there is a real working class here in Sweden. Perhaps, if it is defined by the nature of the work – unskilled workers, labourers etc. In terms of money there seems to me to be far less difference between the unskilled workers and professionals here than in other western countries with which I am familiar – Australia, the USA, Canada, the UK. The poor in this country are not the workers, but the unemployed and the migrants, the refugees and other marginal groups. I’m not sure who is championing their interests.
The left wing parties – Vänsterpartiet and The Feminist Initiative – tend to be opposed to many things which we think are important, in particular the family. The Feminists, for example, seem still to be convinced that the problems of society are the result of gender inequality, and that gender inequality is a result of the burden of children. So that burden must be relieved by better daycare and higher pay for women. Personally I find it extraordinary that women in Sweden would be paid any less than men for the same work, though the Feminists seem to suggest that they are. Perhaps the biggest issue for them is that so many women choose to work less than men because they are forced to by the demands of family life. One leader in the Feminists group was heard to say “Death to the Family” and we found ourselves wondering what kind of Sweden they really wanted. Surely the family must be the building block of a strong society.
The Alliance is a coalition of parties made up of the Moderates (Moderaterna), the People’s Party (Folkpartiet), the Centre Party (Centrepartiet) and the Christian Democrats (Kristdemocraterna). The Moderates are probably the most conservative, but all of the parties are fairly centre. There has been a swing towards the Alliance in the polls leading up to the election, but Swedes seem to me to basically fairly conservative, not politically perhaps, but in terms of their desire for change. For all the faults of the Social Democrats, they have led the country for a long time, and people know them. It is easy to criticise the government, but it is another thing to elect a different government to run the nation. There have been swings towards conservatism in the past, but invariably the Social Democrats have come back on the next election.
Why should Sweden change? Surely this is one of the best countries in the world to live in? Surely the population of Sweden is one of the best looked after of any nation in the world? Where does the discontent come from?
It hard for me, a non-Swede, to answer that question, especially after being here for little more than 6 weeks. I have been rather cynical toward the Swedish welfare state at times, but there can be no doubt that it is a comfortable place to be. So why are people unhappy? The Local, which is an Internet based Swedish news service in English, has summarised the main election proposals and these can be seen on their website. Unemployment is clearly an issue. The Social Democrats, it seems, have proposed a rise in unemployment benefits to address this issue. The Alliance has suggested that part of the solution is to abolish employers’ tax for those who employ people under 20 years of age, and reduce it for people aged 20-25. Of course, the Social Democrats have promised thousands of new jobs if they are elected, but exactly where those jobs will come from I have no real understanding. The Alliance, predictably for a more conservative group, has suggested other tax cuts, believing that this will stimulate the economy. I am unclear what the Social Democrats are proposing about the current tax rate, which is one of the highest in the western world.
The family is another significant issue in this election. The Social Democrats have proposed a cut in the cost of daycare. The Christian Democrats, on the other hand, have proposed the introduction of a payment to parents who choose to stay home with their children. The left wing radicals see this as a step back into the dark ages of the 50s and 60s. To suggest that people stay home with their children is, they believe, to lose half a century of social progress. This issue has provoked much discussion in our household, and much indignation from M, who apart from a few short periods has been home with the children for the last 8 years; but rather than feeling oppressed and disadvantaged she has seen it as one of the most rewarding times of her life so far. She has stayed home out of choice, and we both believe that such a choice is important, that mothers (or fathers for that matter) should not be discouraged from staying home if that is what they want to do. Of course many in Sweden say that staying home is not an option for Swedish parents, because they could not pay the bills without two incomes. The same is said in Australia, of course, but once again it is a question of choice. People tend to always spend a little more than they earn, and if they earn two incomes, they spend two incomes and wonder how they could survive with less.
I could go on, but there is no way I can do justice to the issues at stake. I have too little understanding. Of course, I have no right to vote, not being a Swedish citizen. The debates in the news, on the television, in workplaces and over coffee have gone on and on for many months. Tomorrow we will know what the Swedish voting public has decided. It is an interesting time to be in Sweden…