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Issue 33, December 1998

Sweden votes left, as Left Party moves right

    The Left Party and the government
    SJP and the future
    Socialist Justice Party results

Sweden's general election set new records: the Christian Democrats and the Left Party (ex-communists) doubled their vote; the Liberals, Centre Party (ex-farmers' party) and Social Democrats (SPD) had their worst results since the 1920s. Now the SPD-led government depends on Left Party and Green support. PER-ÅKE WESTERLUND discusses Sweden's political volatility.

SWEDEN'S SEPTEMBER GENERAL election reflected the growing fluidity and uncertainty among broad layers of voters. Many workers wanted to punish the SPD government for their severe austerity measures and their failure to deal with mass unemployment. The SPD lost 600,000 votes (8.8%). Roughly half of them went to the Left Party and half didn't vote at all.

This was despite attempts by SPD prime minister, Göran Persson, to entice voters with 'election sweets' (never-to-be-fulfilled promises). Families with children were promised a maximum charge of £50 per month for council child care. Today, many families pay three or four times more. They also promised to raise pensions and funding for local councils.

Most workers understood that this election would not mean a change of course. Those who voted for the SPD did so to block the Moderates (conservatives) and their sweeping privatisation proposals. Neither did Persson's promises upset the financial markets. Whoever governs, there will be tax cuts, privatisations and pro-EMU policies, stated a report by Handelsbanken, one of the top banks.

The Left Party scored a spectacular success, with their vote increasing to over 630,000 - 12%. They now have 43 MPs, up from 22. An election day exit poll showed support for the Left Party among LO workers (the national blue-collar trade union federation) rising to 20.6%, while SPD support fell 10% to 53.2%. The unemployed voted 28.3% for the Left Party and 33% SPD (a 20% drop), while 19% of first-time voters aged 18-21 backed the Left Party, 22.4% the SPD. Left Party support amongst women rose to 15.9% (34.9% SPD). However, this impressive electoral support for the Left Party is not matched by an increase in party membership - in some areas, the Left Party can't fill its seats in local councils.

  Unfortunately, this left turn by voters does not mean a turn to the left at the top. The Left Party had two different election campaigns: one directed to the SPD with the message, 'we are not populist', and one aimed at the market. 'Our economic policy has in fact been tested', the party leadership wrote in an election campaign report. They boasted that their support in 1994 for cuts of 112 billion Swedish krona (£9bn), 'gave Sweden back confidence and credit-worthness on the international finance markets'. They referred to 'tough' and 'necessary' cuts in welfare, meaning cuts in child benefits, pensions, dental care subsidies, and a new tax on all wage earners.

The same was true at local level. Since 1994 the Left Party has been in the ruling coalition of Sweden's biggest health authority, Stockholm regional council. Two years ago, this coalition closed two hospitals and cut 6,000 health jobs. In other councils, the Left Party has actively defended cuts in child and elderly care, local transport, schools and youth clubs, often in front of angry demonstrators.

In marked contrast, the Left Party's public election campaign promised shorter working hours, increased company taxes and slower repayment of the state debt, which would give more money to the public sector. The buzzword in their election material was 'justice'. The Left Party's Gudrun Schyman skilfully used the fact that she is the only female party leader, profiling important issues for women workers. There are also a few questions where the party opposes the other establishment parties: the Left Party is against Swedish membership of the European Union, for the closure of nuclear power plants, and against some deportations. Attacks from conservative politicians and the media gave credibility to the 'radical' image of the party.

Many Left Party voters were not aware of the party's record of supporting cuts in parliament and local councils. Others voted for them as the 'least bad' alternative. Some of their voters even thought that the cuts were necessary to 'solve the crisis'.

  Overall, the election campaign was marked by enormous scepticism towards all politicians. What held back a real break-through for the new Socialist Justice Party (SJP), the Swedish section of the Committee for a Workers International, was above all the lack of struggles in Sweden. There have been no national strikes since 1995, and even they were limited to a few towns. The embryonic movement of the unemployed in 1996, with support in local unions for a 24-hour general strike, was hijacked and buried by the trade union bureaucracy. The number and size of demonstrations are at a record low. This is due to a combination of factors: the deep crisis and a feeling of helplessness mixed with propaganda that the austerity programmes were temporary; the lack of credible national initiatives and the direct blocking role of the unions; and a growing understanding that successful struggle is harder today than in previous periods.

All parties are tested in action. Where the SJP has established itself locally and led struggles, including occupations, we have been able to expose the Left Party to a certain extent. That's why the SJP retained its two council seats in Umeå and was only between 100 and 200 votes from winning councillors in Luleå, Eskilstuna and Södertälje.

But with the continued absence of workers' struggle, reactionary parties can also gain support, although limited at this stage. A fascist party modelled on the French Front National, gained two councillors south of Stockholm. A pensioners' party, with an anti-immigrant policy, gained 1% nationally.

  top     The Left Party and the government

THE ROLE THE Left Party has set out to play in relation to the new government was made clear in the negotiations following the election. As SPD finance minister, Erik Åsbrink, stated: 'Election promises are one thing, now we are dealing with reality'. And when the Left Party vice-chairman, Johan Lönnroth, spoke in favour of increased taxes on short-term share trading, the market immediately responded. The SE-Bank, owned by the powerful Wallenberg family, warned that Lönnroth's comments were threatening the value of the currency.

'After the interview Lönnroth got cold feet and announced that he, of course, understands that the proposal cannot be implemented in Sweden alone', reported the business paper, Dagens Industri. 'Then short-term business would just move abroad. What its about is that the government in an international context should push the question of taxes which support long-term investment and punish short-term speculation'. Thus radical rhetoric was transformed into support for 'long-term' versus 'short-term' capitalism and international (ie EU) agreements.

'The Left Party is keeping a very low profile', Sweden's biggest paper, Aftonbladet, reported from the negotiations with the government. The leaders of the Left Party and the Greens are so happy by the invitation that they have forgotten what they wanted, was the conclusion of the leading liberal paper. The Greens attempted to be even more 'responsible' - in line with the situation in Germany, and earlier in France and Finland, where the Greens participate in Social Democratic governments. But in Sweden, the parties were only invited to reach an agreement, not to join the government.

  In reality, the difference made by the Left Party and the Greens through the agreement negotiations is negligible. The agreement includes an £8 tax rebate per month for the low paid; £2.50 rent rebate; and £80 million extra for councils. This should be compared with the tax rebate of £60 a month for highly-paid people, including ministers and MPs, and reduced housing tax, worth £25 a month for luxury houses. Moreover, the new proposals combined cost less than the promised maximum charge for council child-care costs, which has now been scrapped. Rumour has it that the Left Party and the Greens insisted that the SPD's election proposal was too expensive to match the state budget's 'cost ceiling'. This ceiling is one of the new EMU-inspired measures which supposedly will guarantee against excessive budget deficits. It means that no new spending proposals can be made for the next two to three years unless they are linked to cuts of an equal amount.

The Left Party and the Greens have accepted this and all other conditions put forward by the finance minister - including a low inflation target and a state budget surplus of 2% of GDP - stressing that they want a long-term agreement for the whole four-year parliamentary term. The agreement supports the independence of Riksbanken (the Central Bank) as part of EMU preparations and maintains the new pension system, which abolished the previous, higher, workers' pensions, despite initial Left Party opposition. Defence and EU/EMU questions have been kept out of the deal.

To balance the agreement, Persson has formed an even more pro-market and pro-EMU government than before. Two new 'ministers for economic growth', both returning to top positions after involvement in corruption scandals, are well-known supporters of EMU. They plan to cut unemployment by promoting small companies and low-paid service jobs, like household cleaning.

  top     SJP and the future

THE NEW ROLE of the Left Party provoked some debate on the left generally, although interestingly not at all inside the Left Party. Two distinct positions have been put forward by the Socialist Justice Party and the Socialist Party (SP, section of the USFI-international). When Lönnroth beat his retreat, the SP(USFI) criticised the market's attempt 'to sabotage the will of democracy', without criticising Lönnroth himself. Instead, they appealed for 'combined measures - from new laws to direct economic intervention - that a state still can use'.

The conclusion the SJP drew is that the Left Party is burying the last remnants of its differences with the SPD right wing. This is not a 'government of the labour movement' - as the SP(USFI) claims - but a bourgeois, pro-market government. Of course, it is correct to put pressure on the new government for concessions. But the Left Party and the Greens will share the blame for all the government's policies, including cuts, privatisations and unemployment.

In the election campaign, the SJP alone spoke about the Asian crisis and the coming downturn in the world economy. Since the election, there has been a growing acceptance that Sweden is particularly vulnerable. Already, lay-offs and cuts have started in Swedish industry, which is totally dominated by a few multinationals like Ericsson, Astra, ABB, Electrolux and Volvo. Thirty per cent of the companies on the Stockholm stock exchange are owned by international investors.

The slow-down in the economy will mean lower state revenues and increased pressure for cuts and privatisations, with further cuts in the health sector and public transport imminent. These sectors could be the first groups forced into struggle. Other measures could also lead to new struggles by school students and the unemployed. Generally, young people will be in the forefront, as was the case after the 1994 elections when Offensiv (now SJP) played the leading role in the mass school students' movement.

  Even a small party like the SJP can play a decisive role in future developments. Thousands of workers, who did not vote for the SJP, will be looking for initiatives to fight back. At least in the first round of cuts, no other force will be willing to lead a resolute struggle, linking different groups together in joint struggle, whilst building our own party at the same time.

A real change of political direction cannot be achieved through secret negotiations on conditions dictated by the market. The new agreement between the SPD, the Left Party and the Greens is more likely to be broken by the government, in favour of a 'crisis deal' with the right-wing parties, than by the Left Party or the Greens. The coming years will see the growth of a new class movement which will, much more than this election, change the political landscape of Sweden.

  top     Socialist Justice Party results

The Socialist Justice Party (SJP) stood in local and regional council elections in ten regions, and in the general election. There is a PR-system where people vote for a slate drawn up by the different parties.

Our votes were:

Stockholm 2,200
Umeå 2,119 (successful defence of two council seats).
Luleå 508 (112 votes from gaining a seat).
Gothenburg 524
Eskilstuna 426
Södertälje 401
Ö-vik 149
Helsingborg 148
Kiruna 50
Uppsala 22

A total 6,746 council votes were won, 7,836 in all elections.

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