Sweden begins new era of centre-right government

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Sweden was starting a new political era yesterday as its long-serving Social Democratic premier, Goran Persson, handed in his resignation, complaining that his election defeat at the hands of a centre-right coalition was unfair.

Sunday's vote ends a 12-year spell of uninterrupted power for the centre-left party which has controlled Sweden for all but nine years since 1932, building up the country's generous welfare state in the process.

Despite strong economic growth, Mr Persson failed to head-off the challenge of Fredrik Reinfeldt, a 41-year-old father of three, who has moved his conservative party, known as the New Moderates, to the centre ground.

Yesterday Mr Persson vented his frustration at the election loss, saying: "It's a disappointment of course," adding: "And I don't think it's fair because when I leave today, I leave a country and a government that is in not only good shape, [but] is in a shape that all other governments in Europe envy."

With the Social Demo-crats recording their worst share of the vote since 1914, the election was a triumph for Mr Reinfeldt who emerged victorious by occupying the centre ground, and by presenting the voters with a unthreatening and personable alternative. A poll by the Swedish news agency TT last month showed 55 per cent of voters surveyed would rather have dinner with Mr Reinfeldt than with the outgoing prime minister.

Mr Reinfeldt has promised limited reform of Sweden's generous welfare system, a slight reduction in taxes and a sell-off of some state-owned assets. But, despite claims to the contrary from his political opponents, Mr Reinfeldt has made it clear that he has no intention to dismantle the welfare state.

On election night he hailed his success in language reminiscent of Tony Blair in 1997. Mr Reinfeldt said: "We campaigned as the New Moderates, we won as the New Moderates and together with our alliance partners we will rule Sweden as the New Moderates."