Speech delivered at the Swedish Chamber of Commerce for the United Kingdom, London, January 28, 1988.


Swedish Politics Today and Tomorrow

Hans L Zetterberg, Svenska Dagbladet, Stockholm



The interest on part of the international community in Swedish politics is modest.  Politically we are a dull country, normally ruled by Social Democrats and/or Social Democratic ideas.  The Social Democratic Labour Party is a nearly 100-year-old party that has spun a tight network of public services and auxiliary voluntary associations and unions into every corner of the Swedish scene.  In the past 56 years the country has been ruled by Social Democrats during 50 years and by Social Democratic ideas executed by non-socialist for six years.

Most Swedes have been reasonably happy with this state of affairs.  By carrying the country through the depression of the 1930s, through World War II without getting involved in the fighting, and through the post war boom, the ruling Social Democracy gained considerable legitimacy. 44 years of holding the premiership, 1932 to 1976, is a very long time in politics.  It began before Hitler and it ended after Mao. No wonder that for the Swedes -- including the opposition -- Social Democracy defines the terms and images of politics.  Every Swede is a little bit of a Social Democrat, whether he or she likes it or not.


Olof Palme, the most well known and the most controversial of the Social Democratic Premiers, was assassinated on February 28, 1986.  He had attended a movie with his family.  He had brought no security guards, nor any chauffeur-driven limousine.  He was walking to the Stockholm metro to take the subway train back home - three stops down the line. Like most Swedes, he lived an unassuming life, void of ostentation, in this open, innocent and calm society (yes, you may say it is dull).

The Swedes lacked both the psychological and administrative preparedness for such an event.  The assassination of a head of government was something they associated with other parts of the world, not with Europe, and least of all with Scandinavia.  The police work was scandalously poor and the assasin got away.

The site of the assassination at the corner of Tunnelgatan and Sveavägen, one of Stockholm's main streets, quickly became a place of pilgrimage, almost a shrine, to which people brought poems and roses.

The funeral of Olof Palme was not a state funeral in a cathedral with officiating bishops and a coffin carried by generals.  It was a party funeral that took place in the Town Hall of Stockholm.  The pre-eminent symbols were the emblem of The United Nations, the plain white coffin blanketed with red roses, and the hundreds of black-shrouded scarlet banners of Sweden's workers' districts.  The Social Democratic Party saw nothing wrong in this: it has dominated Swedish politics for half a century and makes little distinction between itself and the state.

The funeral was attended by heads of state and dignitaries from all corners of the globe. They were seated in alphabetical, not diplomatic order.

The funeral represented a majestic tribute from supporters, opponents, and colleagues from all over the world to the basic common denominator of values we share and to a consensus about what constitutes a praiseworthy politician in our times.  The Secretary of The United Nations described Palme as "the quintessence of democratic man."

The assassination of Olof Palme is the most important political event in the life of the present parliament.  The Social Democratic Labour Party emerged revitalized from the crisis following the assassination of Olof Palme.  The party surged ahead in the polls, and its new leader Ingvar Carlsson received a confidence rating from the Swedish public that far surpassed any rating ever received by the controversial Olof Palme.


There is no strong spirit of opposition at hand in Sweden.  Now and then, the ruling Social Democrats are accused of showing the arrogance of power.  For one thing, like all (foolish) entrenched ruling parties, they use their power of appointment to give most every leading post in the country to a party faithful.  At present, however, unemployment is very low, inflation is modest, the budget deficit is down.  The mood of the land is that the Social Democrats will continue to rule, and may even deserve to do so.

However, since 1964, there has emerged something like a British political rhythm: swings between the party of the left and the party of the right.  (I am, of course, aware that Mrs. Thatcher has broken the normal rhythm by being re-elected a third time; such exceptions, however, do not cancel the main pattern of British political history.)  In Sweden, a constitutional reform in 1970 abolished the upper house of Parliament and allowed such swings their full political consequences.

The socialist parties in Sweden lost their majority i 1973 but continued to rule with a hung parliament in which deadlocked issues were decided by the drawing of lots.  In 1976, the non-socialists gained the government for six years, that is, two election periods.  In 1982 the socialists were back in power, and they kept it with a reduced majority in 1985.  Now, in the September election of 1988 we will find out whether politics in Sweden is to remain a one-party affair like politics in Mexico or Japan, or, to become a politics of alternating governments like Britain and the Continent.


Political scientists need not consider Swedish politics as dull.  They can find their research stimulated by the fact that the Swedish elections in the 1980s (along with the Danish) are the first ones in Western Europe in which an absolute majority of the franchised derive their livelihood from public funds.  Sweden offers a first-rate opportunity to study what happens when a country attempts to combine the majority rule of democracy with such a large-scale public welfare so that a majority is supported, in one way or another, by tax money.

An absolute majority of the 6.4 million enfranchised in the

Swedish elections of the 1980s consists of those who are employed in the public sector or have their primary source of income from the public coffers because of their entitlements as pensioners, unemployed, chronically disabled, et cetera.  Together, the "publicly supported"

constituted 52 percent of the voters in 1982, 54 percent in 1985 and 55 percent 1988 of the electorate.

Quite in line with these numbers is the Swedish tax bite. Taxes constituted 51 per cent of GNP in 1982, 52 per cent in 1985 and 56 per cent in 1988. Needless to say, these rates are repeated world records of taxation.

There, for the grace of God and Mrs. Thatcher goes Britain, you may say.

The fathers of democracy never pondered such a situation.  The very thought that the public sector would grow so large was beyond the horizons of their imagination.  Their reasoning was based on the premise that the state with all its powers is in the hands of a minority who are also living off the state.  The problem addressed by the fathers of democracy concerned the control this minority.  They devised democracy to ensure that the ruling minority followed the will of the majority, who naturally gained their livelihood in the private sector.

Sweden's problem has become the reverse: how shall a minority who derive their incomes from the private sector protect themselves against a publicly supported political bloc which not only represents a majority of the electorate but can also draw upon all the sources of power available to the state?  And how is the publicly supported plurality to guard against making decisions by majority rule granting themselves favours that ruin the country?

In the early 1930s the Social Democrats began the long process of casting the powers of the state in the role of ally rather than adversary.  Implementation of welfare was placed in public aegis, both the financing and the administration.

The Social Democrats favoured public sector expansion and they turned in due course the swelling ranks of the public employees into their voting support. The old bourgeois civil service became a minority in most of the bureaucracies.

When those dependent on public funds for their livelihood were in a minority, the Social Democrats had great appeal with the promise that they would enlarge the welfare system.  This proved most effective and resulted in the 44-year rule 1932 to 1976.

The 1982 election was the first one in which the publicly supported constituted more than 50 per cent of the electorate.  Now, when those supported by public funds are in a majority, the Social Democrats' appeal lies in their promise to preserve the welfare system as it stands.  This sufficed in 1982 to secure a working majority in the Riksdag without any promises of new welfare reforms.  In the 1985 election the power gained on this basis was consolidated.

To the public at large the party has portrayed itself as the defender of the rights of all citizens to tax-financed benefits and services. Internally, to those employed in the public sector or dependent upon it for their income, the Social Democrats portray themselves as the party that will guarantee their jobs and benefits.

This Janus face gives the Social Democrats a mighty position in the public debate.  On the one hand they have almost free rein to tend to the selfish interests of the many employees and workplaces in the public sector.  At the same time they can claim to be the party that cares for the well-being of the entire citizenry.


What is the party structure that sustains this kind of politics?

At stake in a Swedish election - the next one is in September this year - is the manning of a truly Big Government, albeit in a small state. The winners will directly control two thirds of the GNP, and indirectly much of the remaining economy.  The incumbents, the Social Democratic Party are designated (s).  They are in the main supported by Sweden's small Communist party (vpk).

The opposition represents established bourgeois interests revitalized in the 1980s by the Swedish counterpart to Thatcherite ideas, that is, neoliberal economic ideas of our times and the revived moralism that calls for personal, family and network responsibility rather than public welfare institutions.  The opposition is split into four loosely aligned parties: the Conservatives (m), the Liberals (fp), and the former Agrarians called the Centerites (c), and the small Christian Democrats (kds).

The Constitution excludes minor parties receiving less than 4 percent of the popular vote from the Riksdag.  By using a joint ticket with a major party -- which is not unconstitutional in a technical sense -- a minor party such as the Christian Democrats, got a seat in the 1985 Parliament anyway. Such deals will not be repeated in 1988.

In the battle is also an ecological party, the Greens (mp), which is expected to make progress this year, and, according to the polls, for the first time gain seats in Parliament.


The simple scale of the parties from left to right is a misleading guide to Swedish politics.  In the Swedish multi-party system, the parties' fight for votes is a war waged on all fronts.  For a Liberal the struggle against the Conservatives can be as important as that against the Social Democrats.  For a Social Democrat the battle against the Communists may seem as urgent as that against the Center Party.  There are, however, three main frontlines in the political battlefield of the 80s, and the parties may from time to time variously join forces along these lines.  The three fronts are the labour market, the commodity market, and growth.  The way the parties group themselves along these fronts is illustrated in our diagram.

Most clashes occur along the frontlines of the labour market. The struggle is for power over work and the workforce, the production apparatus, and its surplus profits. The frontline coincides with the preference for the private sector and the public sector. The forces are aligned as follows:

    Conservatives + Liberals + Centerites against Social Democrats + Communists 

This frontline is the basis for the blocs in Swedish politics - the non-socialists and the socialists, those who favour individual/entrepreneurial solutions and those who favour collective/egalitarian solutions.

The other front is the commodity market, primarily foodstuffs. The producers of foodstuffs are in conflict with consumers. At the heart of the conflict are the requisites conditions for primary industry and sparsely populated rural areas, subsides to agriculture, and food­prices. The forces are aligned thusly:

     Centerites against Social Democrats + Communists + Liberals + Conservatives

This front is loosing importance; there are only 90.000 active farmers in the country. The front is being redefined as periphery against the centre.

In Swedish, Norwegian and Finnish history the farmers have never been serfs in a feudal system.  Thus we early had the prerequisite for agrarian parties who organized the farmers while other parties organized people in commerce and industry.  The presence of the agrarian parties has split the bourgeois political front in the Nordic countries and created the "Nordic decease of politics": inability to oppose Social Democracy in a united way.  The agrarian parties have often been ready to enter compromises with the socialists, or enter coalition governments with them.  Only when the Swedish Centerites in 1976 turned against the nuclear energy policy of the Social Democrats could the latter be defeated.

The third frontline is growth. The fight is between supporters of economic growth and quality of life. It concerns the environment, large-scale industry, elaborate bureaucracy, and heavy dependence on exports, decentralization. The forces are aligned thusly:

          Centerites + Communists + Greens against Liberals + Social Democrats + Conservatives 

We recognize this front from the 1980 referendum on nuclear energy. There are indications of other minor frontlines.  One would be the religious front, where KDS, the Christian Democratic Socialists, stand-alone against all other parties, with the possible exception of the Centre Party.  Yet another would be foreign affairs: APK, the Workers' Communist Party, is Stalinist and loyal to the Soviet Union through thick and thin, and stands in opposition to all other parties, particularly the Conservatives are viewed as more friendly to the United States than others.  In contrast to many other countries, Swedish party structure does not evince any marked alignment along cultural-ethic lines.

The Green party is quality-of-life oriented, is more non-socialist than socialist, and differs from the Centre party in that it is more concerned with the consumer than with the producer.


The regional election trends show the Conservatives and Liberals jointly dominating the three metropolitan regions of the country.  In the Stockholm, Gothenburg and Malmoe area they are bigger than the Social Democrats.  Centerites and Communists in these areas are environmental parties, as are the Greens.

In the middle-sized cities in the southern third of the country the non-socialists rule. (The pattern is similar to England south of Manchester.) In the northern cities the socialists rule.  

In the periphery, or country side, the battle rages between Centerites and Social Democrats. The Centerites are strong in two bands across the country, from Halland to Gotland in the south, and in Jämtland in the north.


It so happens that all parties in parliament except the Communists have new leaders. The Liberals shifted to Bengt Westerberg prior to the last election, the others go into the campaign with entirely new leaders. All parties have chosen experts as leaders. Gone are the great gamesmen such as Palme (s) and Adelsohn (m) and Fälldin (c),

the helper and facilitator Karin Söder (c). In came the knowledgeable men from middle management and staff, men with facts and statistics but without classical education, global experience, or practical knowledge that can only be gained from the leadership of large, complex organizations.

Public confidence in these men varies.

By a large margin, the Social Democratic and the Liberal leader are in top.


The size and pervasiveness of the body politic in Swedish society make for many political issues and is in itself an issue in the political debate.  The issues of the 1988 election are illustrated in this chart.

Free choice of subsidized child care is one of the issues that joins the three non-socialist parties in this election. It is the first time that the non-socialists have a popular welfare issue and the Social Democrats stand for an unpopular issue.


To what does this all add up? I have asked my computer.

If the 1988 election runs a normal course without unforeseen upsets, our calculations indicate that the non-socialist bloc will resume the pattern it evinced between 1964 and 1976 prior to the disappointments with the Fälldin governments of growing at a faster rate than the socialist bloc. The period 1982-85 began this tack.  This would make for a close election, not uncommon in Sweden.  The odds, as I calculate them at this early stage, are, however, in favour of the non-socialists, but with the prospect that the Greens will hold the balance of power in Parliament.

Green parties tend to use parliaments as stages for political theatre rather than political compromise.  Thus I predict a weak and unstable government in Sweden after this fall's election.  We get a shift in government, a normal European swing between left and right, but at the price of instability and political inexperience.

That is the end of my tale. Thank you very much!