'Superficially this may look like a question of money. But ultimately it is a question about morals and honour in our society,' he told a rainy election rally at Stockholm University. 'Benefits should go to those who need them - not to those who cheat. It is a question about trust in the entire system.'
Welfare cheating has become an increasingly emotive issue across Europe and the United States, where President Bill Clinton made it a theme of his winning campaign two years ago. At 45, Mr Bildt is the West's youngest head of government, three years younger than Mr Clinton.
Computer registers on citizens are particularly extensive in Sweden, but previously the government had been prevented by privacy laws from using the files to cross-check facts about people's lives. Mr Bildt said that, in Sweden, the problem of welfare cheating was 'greater than anyone has dared to discuss in the debate so far'.
His advisers admitted to a dilemma between the traditional right-wing abhorrence of Sweden's 'Big Brother' reliance on computer registers and the need to crack down on welfare abuse, possibly the most widespread in the Western world. 'There was a great deal of agonising,' one aide said. 'The subject has been almost taboo until now.'
The campaign has been fought almost entirely on economic issues in a society where the recession of the early 1990s has shaken the Swedish model to its core. Mr Bildt says his non-socialist coalition government is closing in on the left-wing's earlier 55 per cent lead in opinion polls.
Mr Bildt, who stands accused of dismantling the social safety net that the Social Democrats built up over most of this century, has repeatedly asked the voters: 'The question is whether our country's renewal should continue or be slowed down, whether Sweden will catch up with other nations as we did over the 1970s and 1980s.'
Sweden's biggest exporters - including Volvo and the telecommunications giant Ericsson - warned this week that any increase in the tax burden would increase capital flight and unemployment. They did not mention the Social Democratic Party by name, but some Social Democratic spokesmen accused the multi-national companies of political blackmail and undemocratic practices.
The Social Democratic leader, Ingvar Carlsson, who took over as prime minister after the assassination of Olaf Palme in 1986 and whose government lost power in 1991, has tried to tap into deep public anxiety over unemployment, the budget deficit, interest rate rises and uncertainty over pensions. 'It frightens me how quickly the structures of a society can be torn down,' the opposition leader, who will be 60 this year, declared yesterday.
Either man will have the task of persuading the electorate to vote in favour of entry to the European Union in a referendum this November, a complicated task in a society where misapprehensions and uncertainties about Europe abound.Reuse content