Leading article: Elections with wider implications

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The Independent Online

It is not often that a Swedish election causes ripples in the wider world. But the campaign now drawing to an end is the hardest fought for decades. The long-serving Social Democrat Prime Minister, Goran Persson, is pitted against Fredrik Reinfeldt, leader of the conservative Moderates, who will head a centre-right coalition if his party emerges as the largest in the new parliament. Opinion polls have shown the gap between the centre left and centre right narrowing over the past month. Swedes go to vote for real on Sunday.

Although Sweden is widely thought of as the embodiment of the so-called Scandinavian model - a high-tax, high-benefit society, with a relatively narrow discrepancy between the highest and lowest earners - the duel between centre-left and centre-right is not new for Swedish politics. Sweden elected a conservative government in the early Nineties, which left generally unhappy memories of indecision and splits.

Now, it seems, Sweden is once again toying with a vote for the centre-right. And, if the opinion polls are at all accurate, it could be the latest country to face an electoral dead heat, with the voters almost evenly divided between the need for continuity or change.

As seen from this country, the issues - and even the personalities - seem all too familiar. On the one side are the Social Democrats and Mr Persson - youthful when he became prime minister nine years ago, and now seen as a veteran politician. On the other is a four-party bloc, headed by the Moderates, whose telegenic young leader has revived the Swedish right. The issues are jobs, taxes, health care and migrant workers.

In pursuit of electability, Mr Reinfeldt has shifted his party towards the centre and has been careful not to give the impression that he would dismantle Sweden's welfare state. He speaks more in terms of refining it and improving incentives to work. He also claims that the country's real unemployment level is several times the official 6 per cent. A pledge to cut some taxes also features in his manifesto.

Mr Persson, for his part, is campaigning on his record of social stability and economic success. He argues that Sweden's relatively high taxes have not impaired economic growth, which is running above 4 per cent. It is a combination that has encouraged French and German reformists to look to the Scandinavians, as much as to the British, for inspiration.

The election sets youth against experience; a traditional welfare state against something arguably more modern and individualistic. And while the result will reflect the unique circumstances of Sweden, it will surely be followed closely by politicians here, looking for propitious straws blowing in the northerly wind.