Sweden's 'Cameron' offers an electable right-wing

He is a young father of three who moved his party of right-wingers to the centre ground, bringing it to the threshold of power after years in the wilderness. While David Cameron has revitalised British politics, something similar has happened in Sweden with the rise of the opposition leader Fredrik Reinfeldt.

Since taking the helm of the Swedish conservatives, known as the Moderates, a little more than two years ago, Mr Reinfeldt has pushed through a programme of radical changes, producing the fastest, most dramatic, makeover in Swedish political history.

Elections loom in September and the Moderates have been out of power for even longer than the British Tories, last holding office in 1994. But, at 40, the Swedish opposition leader now stands a good chance of replacing the Social Democrat Göran Persson, who has been Prime Minister for even longer than Tony Blair.

In the 2002 elections the Moderates won just 15.2 per cent of the vote; now their opinion poll rating is almost double that. Mr Reinfeldt has slaughtered several of the right's sacred cows, banished the older generation of neo-liberals and ushered in a new era of caring, social conservatism.

According to Tobias Billström, a 32-year-old Swedish MP and ally of Mr Reinfeldt: "It has been quite a remarkable change that has taken place."

Mr Reinfeldt's personal ratings are higher than those of Mr Persson, whose domination of Swedish politics has been so total that his nickname, roughly translated, means "he who decides".

Bald and stocky, Mr Reinfeldt bears a closer physical resemblance to William Hague than David Cameron, but his politics are decidedly to the left. In 2002, 90 per cent of tax cuts proposed by the Moderates were directed at the top 10 per cent of the income scale. Now the emphasis has been shifted to lower earners.

Trade unions and labour legislation have been presented as an asset rather than a liability. And the opposition leader has reaffirmed his commitment to Sweden's generous welfare state, calling for more money for schools and health care. He wants more effort to integrate immigrants and financial incentives for fathers to stay at home with their new-borns.

Such a shift to the centre has been controversial within the party. Mats Wiklund, author of an acclaimed biography of Mr Reinfeldt, said: "The secret of his success has been to occupy the centre ground. But to him this is a huge risk, banking on the fact that it will bring electoral victory.

"To govern is very important for Moderates. The question remains: what happens if they lose: Will he be able to hold the party's position in the centre?"

Critics of Mr Reinfeldt are keeping their peace until the elections but will not remain quiet if the result goes the other way.

Polls show the Alliance, a coalition of of Moderates and three other opposition parties, is ahead of the Social Democrats, the Socialists and the Greens. But, with the economy performing well, the Prime Minister is fighting hard to retain his job and his party is a formidable vote-winning machine, having been in power for all but nine years since 1932.

Nevertheless Mr Billström says it is already possible to draw some conclusions from his party's success. "It is not about a makeover," he says. "It is about showing people that we are here, we have changed - and not just the logo but the substance behind it."

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