Wed Sep 6th, 2006 at 06:03:42 AM EST
I have been following the election campaign in Sweden through online newspaper articles. As I mention in a comment somewhere, my distaste quickly grew stronger than my interest. This is in other words a rant about the Swedish elections and the issues discussed in the campaign.
Basic rules of the game:
Sweden will hold general elections on Sunday, September 17. The elections will be for the national parliament, regional, and local government. The national elections are for the one chamber parliament, arranged in local multi-person electoral districts on a proportional basis. There are also a number of national seats in the parliament that are distributed among the parties to ensure a nationwide proportional representation. A party must get 4% of the votes nationally, or 12% is a single district to get any seats at all.
Our cast of characters:
- Social Democrats
This is the party presently in power. In fact, they have been in power since 1932 with only some briefer periods (9 years in total) in opposition.
- The Alliance
Made up of the four "right wing" parties. (the Moderate party, the Liberal party, the Centre party, and the Christian Democrats) None of these parties have a chance to get even close to a majority on their own. They have decided to settle their differences before the election and agree on how to rule together if they collectively get the votes.
- The Left Party
Used to be the Communist Party before that fell out of fashion. Could be a coalition partner for the Social Democrats depending on how their respective elections go. Or they might end up as a support party for a minority Social Democratic government as they are now.
- The Environmental party
Also a potential coalition partner or support party for the Social Democrats, and maybe also for the Alliance? They might swing where they get a better deal I heard suggested somewhere, but they are counted in the Left block in polls.
Right now it is very even between the blocks. 47.1% left vs. 48.2% right, well within the error margins of the poll.
As in many countries a process seems to have occurred by which the parties have moved closer to each other, collecting around some "centre". In Sweden this "centre" is fairly to the left. No one who wants to be elected really dispute the basic principles of the welfare society. The parties in the Alliance may be looking at introducing "choice" in some social infrastructure, and expand the private sector somewhat there, but they are by no means advocating the kind of reforms that some of the international financial press seems so keen to call for in European nations burdened by a welfare state.
On paper (at least on some paper) Sweden is doing quite well economically. Nice GDP growth, low inflation, fairly low unemployment numbers etc. The Swedes are however far from content. "Where are the jobs?" they ask. "Why are so many people still out of work?" Indeed, many people are out of work, and the unemployment numbers for Sweden hide a large number of people in a variety of "education programs". Looking at numbers, I can find nothing more recent than from 2004. Using OECD Factbook numbers for 2004 to get employment rates by age group, with countries "doing better" than Sweden following:
Sweden: 42.8% (Ireland:44.8, Mexico: 45.2, Austria: 51.9, United States: 53.9, Norway: 54.4, New Zealand: 56.8, Canada: 58.1, Australia: 59.4, United Kingdom: 60.1, Denmark: 61.3, Switzerland: 62.0, Iceland: 66.3)
Sweden: 82.9% (Norway: 83.1, Denmark: 84.0, Switzerland: 84.7, Iceland: 88.0)
Sweden: 69.5% (Iceland: 82.0)
So, doing worst in the young group like everyone else, but still not very far down the list. Well, no matter how Sweden compares internationally, people in the country are not content with the work situation. The "education programs" offered to out of work people, in fact mandated if you wish to continue on higher unemployment benefits after some time, are frequently ridiculed as "day care for adults", from both the left and the right. A large portion of the pre-election debate has been about employment and unemployment, and how to fix it. Both in articles and manifests from the parties, and in the lovely discussion boards attached to some Swedish newspapers. The level of debate on those boards is, as one might expect, abysmal.
So what do politicians propose to do about unemployment, if elected? The Social Democrats claim that employment will increase since Sweden is doing so well. They will expand a variety of training programs and expand higher education. Lower employer-fees (social security?) for employers that hire young people were also mentioned. (I think first suggested by the Alliance) Basically: more of the same, what we are doing is right, lets continue.
The Alliance doesn't think Sweden is doing very well. They claim that the country is headed for ruin under the Social Democrats. They would like to make it more attractive to work by some modes tax-cuts for low- and middle-income people, as well as eliminating the wealth-tax. (Okay, maybe eliminating the wealth tax is not intended to get more people to work, but they would like to get rid of it.) Also, lower benefits to give people more incentives to look for work.
I am not going to continue trying to sort out their positions. I doubt any politician is going to "create" jobs, and I really don't like the idea of lowering unemployment benefits to encourage people to get jobs that don't exist. "Welfare queens", anyone? In general, the parties engage in "laundry list" politics. Promising specific increases here, specific decreases there, and indicating that each of these will be a very important fix to some problem. Like schools. Children don't learn enough, they say. We must have better schools. And the way to do this is more money for teachers, but also possibly grades given earlier (they start in year 8 now), possibly according to a different grading scale, maybe with a grade for "behaviour", more discipline, etc. Or, hey, why not outlaw homework through year 9? (Left Party) Other issues: care of the elderly, immigration (assimilation, employment), health care, crime. I haven't seen much discussion of energy issues. People are reported to be upset about high gasoline prices, but not a single party wants to lower the tax. Very little talk about how to move Sweden off oil, though. Much fanfare about that earlier, but not a popular election issue.
Everyone seems to be out of good ideas of where to take the country next. The Social Democrats seem to believe that the country is basically on the right track, and everything should continue as before. The Alliance is as opposition required to disagree but nothing they say seem to really address the perceived issues. Participation in Swedish elections has been falling for a while now, and it will probably be low in this election as well. People may well feel like there are things at stake politically, but many don't have a sense of what politicians have to offer as solutions, or even an idea of what they would like to see done. There have also been, by Swedish standards, some nasty scandals. The Social Democrats got caught sending some nasty e-mails a bit back (don't remember the specifics of this one), and the Liberal party got caught breaking into some secret files of the Social Democrats the other day. Everyone is getting in quite a huff over this. The worst part is that the "hacking" was done by getting into an account with the same username and password, a very common Swedish nickname of the owner. So someone (not me!!!) typed in the nicknames of a bunch of Social Democrats in a web interface and one of them worked. With this info a member of the Liberal party accessed election secrets from an IP address listed to the Liberal party. I would say that anyone who got their account broken into that way, as well as the person who did the breaking in without taking even minimal steps to evade tracing should be promptly forbidden from holding office, ever, on grounds of supreme idiocy. None of this is likely to increase voter participation. It has been otherwise messy as well. Election material and "election huts" belonging to the parties and sprinkled around cities have been vandalized by groups on the extreme right and left. The Sweden Democrats (a nationalist, racist party that have tried to clean up just a bit to be more appealing) also look to make their best election ever. They get 2.9% now, and with uncertainties of polling it is not inconceivable that they might sneak their way over 4% and, shudder, get some seats.
But what about employment? It seems to me there is a ceiling somewhere, and to get above it you have to expand your public sector and somehow pay for it, or lower the number of hours worked per person and spread the work that needs doing more evenly. This is sometimes suggested, followed by a demand that yearly compensation for workers should not go down, followed by fury by employers. The employment question is a tricky one, and no one seems to even know how to approach it within a model that corresponds to physical reality. "In the future, we believe there will be infinite energy, and a pony for each citizen!" The inevitability of an eventual sustainable, non-growth society, possibly approaching quickly with the diminishing energy (oil) buffer, seems to call for labour policies that reflect the idea that in the future, everyone can't have more.