How Swede It Is!

Brian Hicks

Updated September 19, 2006

It’s long been the stoic model of northern European moderation. Though Sweden’s seasons vary wildly, the dole doesn’t. But there is still economic contrast – high benefits, and unemployment too high for comfort. This past Sunday’s elections may change that.

After a decade and a half in the parliamentary opposition, a center-right coalition won the September 17 general election. The head of this elected movement is Fredrik Reinfeldt, a man who was elected to the Riksdag (parliament) in 1991 just a year after completing his university studies in economics.

He also published a book called The Sleeping Nation, in which he criticized Sweden’s so-called "cradle-to-grave" socioeconomic support system. Though his opposition leans moderately towards the right side of the political spectrum, his views do not place him in league with fervently nationalist parties like France’s Front National.

The Stockholm-born Reinfeldt has led his party for three years, and that party is called, rather shockingly for an opposition group, the Moderate Party.

Though each individual country in Europe and the world certainly merits evaluation based on unique characteristics, Sweden seems to see its political life and behavior through an especially different prism than the rest of the European Union’s components.

Moderation is the rule, not the exception, and where comfort is of course comfortable, comfort can also spell stagnation for national economies whose emphasis on quality of life sidesteps questions of growth and employment.

Here is where Reinfeldt’s slight tilt to the right becomes important.

A Yankee in King Gustaf’s Court

A longtime friend of mine from Kansas City now makes his home in the southern Swedish city of Lund. I spoke with him yesterday to get his take on the popular response to results in his locale and across Sweden, and to gain his perspective as a transplant from the world’s largest economy to the world’s cushiest.

"Swedes are very, very proud of their country, and feel a certain superior disconnection with the rest of the world," he opines. "To be dealing with the same political realities as Europe is an insult to that spirit."

"It’s not quite a snobbish thing," he adds. "It’s just a Swedish thing."

But the Swedish sense of Swedishness is now changing. Malmö, a large city in southern Sweden that lies just across a bridge from Copenhagen, Denmark, has the country’s highest population of foreign-born residents for a municipality its size.

A full 26% of Malmö’s population was born abroad, with the highest numbers coming from the former Yugoslavia and Iraq.

This shatters the commonly-held perception of Sweden as a blond bastion of Nordic identity, and holds it in contrast to nearby countries like Estonia whose immigration policies make it almost impossible to attain citizenship without marrying a native.

The changing complexion of the country can be a huge asset in the multinational economy of the 21st century, but only if the productivity and momentum of a reinvigorated and extroverted population are harnessed.

Reinfeldt should not want and does not appear to want to create a full stop between his coalition and the one led by the Social Democrats he defeated (along with their leader, PM Goeran Persson).

If the Swedish people bear a certain attitude of snobbishness toward their Continental neighbors, it is because they have held themselves above the fray in several wars and let government spending act as a lifevest for the economy, accounting for just above 54% of GDP. Compare that to the US figure of 29%.


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Level Playing Field, Boring Game?

Sweden has one of the most equitable distributions in the world, but that does not mean the society’s EKG is flat. ranks Sweden as #4 on its list of technological achievement by country.

Sweden’s quality of life, infant mortality, and economic competitiveness are all ranked very high. Its educated and well-fed populace innovates in the business world while launching a disproportionate number of pop culture bulwarks like ABBA.

Life is comfy, and Goeran Persson let his seat get a little too warm during his tenure. The German daily Berliner Zeitung remarked Tuesday that the ruling party leader trusted too heavily in "the Swedish voters’ force of habit and caution…appealed solely to the good experiences they had had with him and his party," and that he "did not seem to notice" the strong mood for change in the country.

That mood stems from a human political restlessness that threatens to knock a two-term majority from its congressional roost in the US this year. Persson also failed to convince the masses that his government’s statistic of 5.7% unemployment was more reliable than Reinfeldt’s 15% figure.

Complacency sows the seeds of unrest, even if the Swedish style is much more metered than what we are currently seeing in Thailand. The Moderates now set for power would do well to remember what is sacrosanct in their country (welfare), while turning the heat up just enough to move more of the potential workforce into jobs.

Otherwise, they too will fall victim to the uneasy stirrings of a new Sweden.

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