Sweden lurches to the right as era of Social Democratic rule ends

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The Independent Online

Sweden suffered a political earthquake last night as the country's centre-right emerged victorious from elections that ended the near-hegemony of the country's Social Democrats.

With most of the votes counted, the opposition leader, Fredrik Reinfeldt, declared victory for a coalition of right-wing parties, ejecting from office the sitting prime minister, Göran Persson, after a decade in power. The result is a spectacular success for a remodelled, centrist, Opposition party against the Social Democrats who have held power in Sweden for all but nine years since 1932.

A triumphant Mr Reinfeldt, who has steered his party to the centre ground, told supporters: "The Swedish people have voted in an alliance government." He added: "We won as the new Moderates but I will govern as representative of all Swedes. It was teamwork that brought us this victory."

Soon after, Mr Persson conceded defeat, saying he would stand down as party leader next March. "We have lost the election but we are not a defeated party," Mr Persson told workers.

Together with three other parties Mr Reinfeldt's conservatives, known as the Moderates, took 48.1 per cent of the vote, compared to 46.2 per cent for the Social Democrats and their allies (the Greens and the Left Party), according to a count of 98 per cent of electoral districts.

With 26 per cent of the vote, the Moderate Party showed strong gains on their last result in 2002 when they won only 15 per cent.

By contrast, the Social Democrats had only 35.3 per cent which, if confirmed, would be the party's worst showing in parliamentary elections since 1914.

Mr Reinfeldt, who will be the new Swedish premier, is a 41-year-old father-of-three who has shifted his to the centre ground bringing them out of the political wilderness.

Yesterday's vote was being seen as a verdict on the management of Sweden's much-praised social model that uses the proceeds from high taxes to channel big investment into health, education, childcare and research and development.

On paper, things have been going well for most Swedes with economic growth higher than 5 per cent and inflation low. But while unemployment is officially 6 per cent, the rate for young people is several times that figure and much joblessness is hidden with huge numbers of people on sickness benefit. The Moderates argue the true unemployment figure is higher than 20 per cent.

Mr Reinfeldt promised reforms to the system but was careful not to challenge the fundamentals of the welfare state that has overwhelming support in Sweden. Tax cuts would be directed towards the lowest earners, for example.

His determination to occupy the political centre ground bears comparison with the tactics of David Cameron, Britain's opposition leader. Mr Reinfeldt also benefited from the desire of many voters for a change, and Mr Persson's reputation for arrogance.

But the Reinfeldt tactics delivered a rare victory for the centre-right against one of the most successful vote-winning forces in democratic politics. The last time they were out of office was in 1994.

As in several recent elections in Europe, including in Germany and Italy, voters appeared to be almost evenly split between left and right on the eve of polling.

Mr Persson's efforts to retain power had been complicated by demands from the Social Democrats' allies to have cabinet seats in any new government. Mr Persson resisted calls for a formal coalition, while Mr Reinfeldt agreed an alliance with centre-right partners.

Smaller parties such as the Feminist Initiative or the far-right, anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats made little impact. Though more than one in ten of Sweden's nine million residents are foreign-born, mainstream politicians have avoided the temptation to make immigration an issue.