Sweden and social democracy: is the old couple about to break up?

By Tanguy Séné | 16 February 2012

To quote this document: Tanguy Séné, “Sweden and social democracy: is the old couple about to break up?”, Nouvelle Europe [en ligne], Thursday 16 February 2012, http://www.nouvelle-europe.eu/node/1427, displayed on 21 October 2020

In days gone by, the Social democrats were seen as the natural rulers of Sweden. But in the past few years the center-right coalition has managed to hold on to power by drawing votes from the middle-class. Does it mean the Swedes are rejecting the traditional, strong Nordic welfare state? Or is it rather a sign of a more European-wide malaise about social-democracy?

The Swedish Social Democratic Party (SAP) is in bad shape. On 21 January, its recently elected leader Håkan Juholt resigned after several scandals (involving illegal use of parliamentary allowances) and a series of blunders.  He had held this job for ten months. At the same time, a Novus poll released in December showed only 25.3 of the Swedish intended to vote for the Social Democrats – well below their score when they were defeated for the second time by the center-right at the last general election (30.9%).

More than a defeat, a downfall

Many European politicians would think this is a very relative decline, and fewer would despise such figures, especially in a proportional voting system as there is in Sweden. Some facts might thus help to understand why, on the contrary, the Swedish social democrats feel they are going through an historical crisis. The SAP has never reached such low voting intentions before. Over the past 80 years, they have been in power for 66 years (only two center-right governments filled the gaps). They were helped by the fact they won more than 40% of the votes from 1940 to 1988. In liberal democracies, few political parties enjoy such a continuous grip on the state: no wonder the Social Democrats feel like they are the natural managers of their country.

However, since they were defeated for the first time by the center-right coalition in 2006, led by the current Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeld, it seems they are on a steep declining trend. They lost even more votes from 2006 (34,6%) to 2010 (30,9%), failing to attract middle-class citizens. Meanwhile, the liberal conservative Moderate party, headed by Fredrik Reinfeld, grew more popular. Does it mean that the Swedish are distancing themselves from their social democratic model?

First, one should clarify what social democracy is. Historian Tony Judt puts it that way: “Social democrats… share with liberals a commitment to cultural and religious tolerance. But in public policy [they] believe in the possibility and virtue of collective action for the public good. … a social democratic vision of the good society entails from the outset a greater role for the state and the public sector”. In that respect, Sweden continues to epitomize the social-democratic state. The Social Democrats have set up a cradle-to-grave social security system, heavily tax-subsidized, with high and universal social expenditures. It is combined with considerable fiscal intervention in labor markets and strong labor unions. One of the typical achievements of the Swedish welfare state are found in living standards and life expectancy: they often top international rankings.

Renouncing the Nordic welfare state?

Some like Gøsta Esping-Andersen call it “the Social Democratic Model”, others like André Sapir “the Nordic Model”. Whatever the name, it has fascinated the European left for a long time. For one thing, it undermines the usual opposition between state intervention and economic performance. In 2010, Sweden recorded both the EU's highest growth rate (5,7%) and a budget surplus (the only member state with Estonia to do so in the epidemic of public deficits). For economist André Sapir, the “Nordics enjoy an envious position, with a social model that delivers both efficiency and equity”, where efficiency is defined as the capacity to generate high employment rates and equity by the relatively low risk of poverty. The Anglo-Saxon model (United Kingdom, Ireland) is seen as efficient, while the Continental model (France, Germany) fosters more equity – but none of them manage to combine both.

So why are Swedish voters swaying towards the right? There are several causes. Of course, the government’s track record over the past few years played a role: as mentioned above, Swedish GDP is growing fast, unemployment is under 8% and keeps falling while it currently runs no public deficit. In addition, the Cabinet seems strongly united, which contrasts with the bickering taking place within the SAP. All of these good results (especially in comparison with the rest of Europe) contribute to the popularity of a right-oriented program: reducing welfare allowances, suppressing taxes for the lower-paid, cutting unemployment benefits in a typical “workfare” fashion. Reinfeld recently proposed raising  the legal retiring age to… 75.

And yet, the current government is a far cry from speaking or acting in favor of the dismantling of the Swedish welfare state. As opposed to to many of their conservative predecessors, today’s Moderates have borrowed much from the social democratic stance, advocating equality and public services. The ambition of Fredrik Reinfeld would be to rather “fix” the model than change it. In 2006 he declared to Reuters: “The Nordic welfare model is in many aspects a good model but it needs more of a choice for individuals”. At that time, he estimated some aspects of it were uncompleted: “We have a strong economy but we don't have the job creation we need. We want more job creation.” So far, the voters seem to have approved of his choices.

One must conclude that by electing a center-right government, the Swedes have not rejected social democracy, but the Social Democrats. The malaise about social democratic political parties is deeper and concerns Europe as a whole – who could have predicted that in a time of economic crisis, votes and polls would have benefited above all to the right in the continent? As Tony Judt shrewdly observes, almost no politician in Europe (from left or right) contests the fundamentals of the social democratic society. Quoting him again: “Social democracy, in one form or another, is the prose of contemporary politics. There are very few European politicians, and fewer still in positions of influence, who would dissent from core social democratic assumptions about the duties of the state, however they might differ as to their scope… The problem today lies not in social democratic policies, but in their exhausted language”.

The European left has indeed to propose an alternative, a coherent project to confront the right’s.  In our recent history, much has been done by the social democrats to build welfare states and fairer societies. Now it is time to shape a new discourse in response to today’s social and economic challenges. Mona Sahlin, a previous leader of the Swedish social democrats (just before Håkan Juholt and Stefan Löfven), has made a telling confidence: “We cannot only be a party for when life is hard. We also have to be a party for people who have jobs and believe in the future.”


To go further

On Nouvelle Europe website

Dossier de décembre 2011 : 

To read

  • JUDT, T., Ill fares the land, London, Penguin Books, 2010
  • TRUC, O., ‘Ces sociaux-démocrates suédois qui ne savent plus où ils vont’, Le Monde, February 11th 2012
  • TRUC, O., ‘Social democrats meet to find ways of saving their Nordic model’, The Guardian Weekly, 7 February 2012
  • ‘In the dumps’, The Economist, January 28th 2012
  • ‘Fading charms’, The Economist, December 31th 2011
  • ‘The strange death of social-democratic Sweden’, The Economist, September 16th 2010

On the internet


Picture: Withering rose, by Laen, on flickr



The structure of our society has been engineered and structuralised on a non-scientific basis by the Social Democrats some 80 years ago. Yet speculation over the function of welfare state goes into a deeper confusion over what exactly Sweden is going to be even without the Social Democrats.
The Social Democrats set up a welfare state several decades ago and the logic of welfare state was social security, high tax, social benefits and the role of state over citizens’ life, rental flats for all, mass immigration, and equal poverty for all citizens. The utopian social engineering in Swedish history has been designed and launched by the Social Democrats which swept away human intelligence and normal psychological functioning. On top of that, the doctrine of this social system has also been introduced as a model for other countries to follow. The results are over a million early retired and sick leave today, a failed immigration policy, isolation and loneliness, high alcohol and drug addiction, hundreds of ghetto-like segregated communities, welfare fraud, terrorism, and a high suicide rate. The OECD research on social isolation in 2005 indicates that Sweden has the highest number of social isolation in the world. According the government statistic only in 2002 some 110 000 immigrants from developing countries have been arrived in Sweden. The reality of life for immigrants in Sweden is far from the intension of the Social Democrats to create a link between government responsibilities over those who have unfortunate enough to make a decent life. We all remembered well that Timur Abdullah who was a home-made turn-of-the-century immigrant who came with self- distraction at the central Stockholm a few years ago. Yet the entire media in Sweden filled with issues such has democracy, peace on earth, Nobel Prize, environmental issues, human right, animal right, street children in Brazil, street dogs in Rumania, teenage pregnancy in Moldova, etc. A false and unrealistic supremacy that a small nation needs to save the world where we have a society that normal citizen are suffering from isolation, stress, poverty, unemployment, alcohol and drug related problems. The major argument is the welfare state in this country has not been built on social order or on aspiration of citizen responsibility or contribution. The collective norms of society which have been engineered by Social democrats are a very unique and distinctive which may not be susceptible to an evolutionary change today but will suffer a catastrophic breakdown.
Along this line, the storm that threatens our society today is little to do with outside forces such as economic recession, EC crisis, etc . More precisely, it is not civil war, poverty, globalization or unemployment in developing country draw immigrants into Sweden. It is the nature welfare state and immigration law that allow people in developing country to find their ways to Sweden when people in developing country access to information that the OECD calculation that social benefit for a person in 2005 was about 103 640 SEK per person yearly. This situation has created a breeding ground for fraud both for immigrants and native alike. We have a system that there is no alternative for immigrants to evolve, use their intelligence, and see alternatives. We have a system which polarizes immigrants’ attention pull them into fragmentation and division. As a result, a fundamental change seems to be impossible and several generations will be negatively affected.

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