Since Fredrik Reinfeldt was elected leader in 2003, their change – both in rhetoric’s and actual policy – has been fundamental. Moderaterna was transformed into a party of partly new ideas and ideals. More extreme stances on welfare state cuts, tax cuts for the wealthy and labour market deregulation was abolished in an attempt to increase the party's appeal to "the midfield in Swedish politics” And that is probably one of the major factors that can explain their success during the last five years.
However, successful major policy shifts among parties are quite rare in Sweden. Why? Well, there is a fundamental risk in implementing a major policy shift for a party. Their core voters may dislike the change and either revolt against the party line or, even worse, leave it. Despite this: my prognosis is that there will be a major policy shift inside a certain party after the upcoming election. I think we should look back in history for a while and see the striking similarities between the two big parties in Sweden, and if history repeats itself, the Social Democratic Party is close to a major party shift by now.
In Moderaterna, you can summarize the sequence of events in this way: The former leader Carl Bildt (1986-1999) was in many ways successful and also, partly because of that, a very dominating party leader. The team around him was tight and their view of the world was similar in many aspects, the were often called “The Bunker boys”. After Carl Bildt`s resignation, a new leader took over: Bo Lundgren.
Lundgren was not directly part of Carl Bildt and his Bunker boys in Moderaterna but quite close. Obviously Lundgren had some visions of transforming the party into something new and more attractive to other more voters than their traditional and common 20 percent.
However, the attempt to change the party were half-heartened, it was not implemented broadly enough, and when the election 2002 was approaching – catastrophe struck. Internal strifes broke loose between leading personalities such as the party secretary and the party leader. After a famous TV-sent Walraffmade survey on the attitudes towards immigrants among Moderate activists and representatives, it was clear that some of them had xenophobic attitudes. The result 2002 was close to a catastrophe. And although the party leader could remain in power for a year, it soon became apparent that Bo Lundgren was fighting for a lost cause.
This scenario is now possibly taking place inside the Social Democratic Party. The sequence started in 2006 when the former leader Göran Persson (1996-2007) decided to resign after a setback in the parliamentary election. Persson was a dominating leader and in many aspects successful and thus gathered a close circle of men in his style. The Social democrats lost power but elected a leader outside of the inner gang of Persson, but quite close since Mona Sahlin was Minister of Sustainable Development and also appointed by Persson.
Sahlin also had visions of transforming the party into something more attractive and had a history of challenging the old stances and the old ideology of the Social Democratic Party. Some attempts were also made in that direction during her first year as party leader, but soon it reached a stand still. The reason was not only, but partly, because her vision of having a long term Red-green alliance with the Green party failed. An uproar in the left wing of her party forced Sahlin to retreat and instead the former communist party (Left Party) also was invited to the Red-green alliance – probably against Sahlins wishes. After that, the attempt to change the party collapsed. The more traditionalist Left Party got quite substantial influence in the Red-green alliance and the popularity figures of Sahlin and the Social democratic Party has plummeted ever since.
What the result in the upcoming election will be is obviously not clear yet, but the hints from the polls does not give Sahlin many chances and my prediction goes in the same direction. The probable failure in the election will however pave the way for a major party shift in the Social democratic Party, although it still remains unclear in what direction that change would go. In that case Sahlin will play the same unfortunate role as Bo Lundgren did in Moderaterna and thus be a parenthesis in the party history.
Henrik Lindberg is researcher at the Ratio Insitute.