Sweden - Leadership

Persson is considered to be a decisive and determined politician; a tough-minded technocrat, with "strong views and strong methods." He has now led his party to a third consecutive term after pledging to safeguard the welfare state. The Swedish result is all the more striking because the center-left has lost power in many other European countries. Persson is, moreover, no reformer or innovator because his party is still closely aligned with the powerful trade unions while he is opposed to private involvement in public services such as health care. He fought the 2002 election by stressing that it was better to keep up spending on the health service, schools and looking after the old than to cut taxes and Persson has not shied away from proposing to raise taxes. His ability to form a working, informal coalition with two radical parties demonstrates his political skill, as well as the pragmatic Swedish political culture.

Persson has not abandoned Sweden's famous welfare state, which is especially generous in health, education, and social security programs. Support for these programs remains strong across the political spectrum despite serious critiques from foreign media commentators and academics. The SAP restored some of the cuts in unemployment and sickness insurance. Persson continued efforts to reduce bureaucratic inefficiencies and encouraged cautious measures aimed at stimulating competition and even outsourcing in the public sector. Public sector labor unions and the left wing of the SAP object to many of these measures. Traditional voters showed their displeasure by abandoning the SAP for the more collectivist Left Party in 1998. Clearly though, Persson is able to compensate for the loss of these voters by appealing to employees in the private sector, especially Sweden's large engineering and high technology sectors, who enjoyed growing prosperity fueled by dynamic exports in the late 1990s until very recently. The strong export growth and buoyant domestic economy also drove up property values, which pleased middle-class voters. After 2001, the sluggish international economy has hurt Swedish export firms, depressed tax receipts, and increased social spending pressures. Voters, however, were not convinced that the opposition knew how to deal with the international economic uncertainties.

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