A (Very) Compressed History of Sweden, part 6
And Now What?
At the beginning of the 20th century, Sweden numbered among the poorest countries in Europe. Only 70 years later, Sweden qualified among the wealthiest. Part of the explanation is the fact that Sweden stayed out of the great wars, but that’s not all. Most governments have been walking “the third way”, i.e. a capitalist system that’s both supported and curbed by the state. In spite of high wages, generous welfare, and high taxes, Swedish enterprises have managed to be competitive and Swedes have enjoyed a living standard among the world’s highest. But the future looks uncertain…
The Good Post-war Years
The groundwork for the modern welfare state had already been laid in the period between WWI and WWII, and in the good years after the last war, the booming industry created all the necessary prerequisites for a social security and welfare system that probably was the best in the world, with healthcare insurance, unemployment insurance, 4-5 weeks of vacation, pensions, maternity leave, tuition-free universities,…
The parliament, dominated by the Social Democrats since the thirties and the government was leading a very active center-left foreign policy, mediating in conflicts, supporting human rights movements, criticising South Africa for apartheid, United States for the Vietnam war, and Soviet for the invasions in Hungary and Czechoslovakia.
Prime minister Olof Palme‘s criticism of USA during the late 60’s and 70’s did of course attract the biggest media interest, and caused the US’ ambassador’s return to Washington for a while. But relations were never really bad: pretending to be “alliance-free in peacetime and neutral in wartime”, Swedish governments had secretly been acting as an allied to US, monitoring Soviet activity, sharing intelligence information with CIA since the end of WWII.
When world economy was slowing down during the 70’s, harder times also reached Sweden, and the Social Democrats lost power in 1976, only to return 1982, still lead by the carismatic Olof Palme. However, his daring views and the way he expressed them also gave him many enemies; Olof Palme was assassinated in 1986, shot with a cal.45 handgun when walking home with his wife from a movie theatre in Stockholm. A lowlife suspect was arrested and tried but aquitted; the murderer is still at large.
The absence of life guards, the confused police actions, and the inexpert investigation that followed is still debated. Many theories have been put forward, suggesting that the killer should be searched in a conspiration within the Swedish Secret Police, the Swedish Army, the Kurdish resistance movement, the then governments of Soviet, USA, South Africa…
After Olof Palme’s death, power shifted back and forth between the right and left wings of parliament. A neo-liberal multi-party government (1991-), led by Carl Bildt, privatized state-owned enterprises, abolished many regulations, and concluded the accession to EU. Fargoing deregulation of the credit and housing markets made these markets collapse; an economic crisis followed, and the power was lost 1994. The social democrat governments that followed, led by Ingvar Carlsson and Göran Persson, had to save several banks from bankruptcy and allow the currency (SEK) to float. Despite a weak position in the parliament, they managed to gather support for draconian savings that brought the nation back on its feet.
One of the most known and important members of these governments was Anna Lindh, Minister of Foreign Affairs, an ardent advocate for strengthening UN’s role in international crisis, such as the then ongoing crisis in former Yugoslavia. During a shopping tour with a friend in the NK department store, Anna Lindh was assaulted and stabbed to death.
Anna Lindh’s death was a severe blow to the Social Democratic Party. Having shown great competence and being highly regarded in public opinion, she was considered to become the next leader of the party, competing for the Prime Minister’s chair.
The perpetrator, later identified from CCTV pictures, was a young man of Serbian descent who previously had been involved in several knife attacks. No motive for the murder could be found; it seems to have been triggered by an impulse. Even though the perpetrator was identified and apprehended within a few days, the police forces have been severely criticized for the neglect of her lifeguards, who should have followed her on the shopping tour.
Sweden and the European Union
After a referendum in 1994, Sweden joined the European Union in 1995. Only two small parties, Vänsterpartiet and Miljöpartiet, argumented against affiliation (“the Left Party” and “the Environment Party“). Politicians of all other parties argumented for membership, but the outcome of the referendum was still not sure until it was over.
Members of the European Union are bound to abandon their own currency and introduce the common currency, euro, as soon as they meet certain criteria. A second referendum was held 2003, with the same advocates for the euro as for the membership.
Whether Swedes were listening to the warnings, or if they just stubbornly wanted to keep the Swedish krona, no one knows, but the outcome of the referendum was a definite “no” to the euro. Sweden has therefore deliberately failed to meet the conditions for the euro zone.
However, before the 2003 referendum, there were a few economists that warned that a common currency is bound to fail unless the economic politics are coordinated in a federation. Observing the euro’s current situation, their fear seems to have been well funded, and the euro’s former advocates are currently speaking with rather low voices. Recent polls show that less than 10% are positive to the euro.
Many Swedes are discontent with the membership in EU. The adaptation to many of the common rules in EU is seen to lower the quality of the legal system as well as life in general. Some voices are raised in favor of leaving EU, but a withdrawal cannot really be seen as a realistic alternative, even if only 30% of all Swedes support the EU-membership, according to recent polls.
In the campaign for the election 2006, Prime Minister Göran Persson, previously hailed for doing a great job as Minister of Finance, now apparently tired, came out self-righteous, misjudging the labor market and the opinion. Power was lost to a right-wing government coalition (“the Alliance”), lead by Fredrik Reinfelt, currently still in power.
Apparently dominated by neoliberal ideas, the new government has changed the direction of Swedish politics to a greater extent than any previous right-wing government has managed, or dared. The three most important things on the agenda has been tax reductions with new tax alleviations every year, selling state property and enterprises to the private sector, and open the infrastructure (such as health care, schools, railways, power…) for private enterprises, to a new degree.
As the results are starting to show, many undeniably negative effects are reported in media, and even if the government is trying to underplay them, it’s getting increasingly embarrassing:
- Since lowered tax income induces less spending, the welfare system has undergone hasty reductions with tragic results for many disabled, incurably sick or retired people.
- Lowered unemployment benefits were expected to lower unemployment rates, but they have been steadily rising, while competence training schools have been closed.
- While the government pays for care in private-owned health care facilities, the private owners are transferring milliondollar profits to tax havens abroad, at the same time as numerous cases of systematic neglect are reported in these facilities.
- It has also been discovered that several enterprises, hospitals and schools have been sold for prices that were a fraction of the real value (to get rid of common property asap?).
Discontent is cooking, but Social Democrats have had serious leadership problems since they lost the election 2006, not being able to act as a forceful opposition, and not being able to present a credible alternative. Hope is now set to the new leader who was elected 2012: Stefan Löfvén, previously chairman in a trade union.
The upcoming general election in 2014 will be a thriller…