The Swedish Social Democrats announce their new chairman and the result is – silence.
When you consider that the chairman of the Social Democratic Party ought to be a very important actor in Swedish politics and that Mona Sahlin has always been controversial, the near absence of public debate is a little surprising.
On the other hand, the search for a new Social Democratic chairman has been a drawn-out process starting with Göran Persson’s announcement of his resignation in September and it has been obvious for some time that Sahlin would be the only realistic female candidate for the post so a certain fatigue on the side of the media would be understandable.
But what makes Sahlin so controversial among Social Democrats and – to answer a question from a comment to the earlier post – could a “Mona Sahlin” make it to the top of, say, the Danish Social Democratic Party?
With regard to the first question, the Social Democrats have already answered it themselves – there is not one, but two (or four, depending on how you count) reasons for the controversies.
Anyone for Chocolate?
The first line of criticism attacks Sahlin for being shallow politically and careless in personal matters – this is what political scientists would call a valence perspective (For examples – columnist Britta Svensson in Expressen; old-timer Enn Kokk’s savaging of Sahlin is also a fascinating read).
Here, we should note that the 1995 scandal was about a bit more than a Toblerone™ chocolate bar even if the amount of money involved in Sahlin’s dealings with the Chancery’s official credit card hardly would make anyone raise an eyebrow in Germany or France.
There Is No Hate Like Old Hate
The second line attacks Sahlin for taking an anti-trade union stance – this is partly a position issue, but given that Swedish trade unions tend to see the party as an organ charged with the execution of trade union policies in the legislative sphere, this is a pretty lethal kind of criticism. (For a defence of Sahlin against this line of attack, see Christer Isaksson in Expressen or Kjell-Olof Feldt in DN).
Just to prove how strained the relations between Sahlin and the trade union movement are, it was made public that she hadn’t been a member of a union between 1995 and 2006 and the obvious question is who decided to leak this information, not that it would hurt Sahlin’s credibility as a member of the Social Democratic family.
The accusations against Sahlin reached such heights that the former PM Ingvar Carlsson declared that Sahlin as Labour Market Minister from 1990 to 1991 (yes, we are talking about things that happened more than fifteen years ago!) was responsible for implementing government policies and that any criticism should be directed at him as the then leader of the government.
Carlsson made two indirect points here: As government minister, Sahlin was loyal and reliable – in this way he also defended her against accusations of lack of personal reliability – and the leader of the Social Democratic Party has other priorities than fulfilling the demands of the trade unions.
Maybe the true significance of Sahlin’s election as party leader would be to signify the end of trade union dominance in many areas of Swedish politics, even under a new Social Democratic government.
In 1995, trade unions could block her election. In 2007, they may have lost much of their former strength in the political arena. The party congress is still a little over a month away, so stuff can still happen.
A Danish Sahlin?
How about the Danish parallels, then?
I think that the best Danish match to Mona Sahlin would be Ritt Bjerregaard, who just like Sahlin has always been surrounded by controversies, but always managed to bounce back.
During her long political career, Bjerregaard was no stranger to scandals: The 1978 Hotel Ritz affair (as Education Minister, she committed the crime of staying at the Hotel Ritz in Paris when she was attending a UNESCO conference), the 1992 housing affair (she had a six-room apartment in Central Copenhagen but was registered in Odense, thus claiming extra expenses as an MP) and the non-publication of “The Commissioner’s Diary” in 1996 (a “diary” where Bjerregaard made a number of less-than-favourable comments about active politicians) stand out as the high, or low, points.
On the other hand, Bjerregaard also established herself as a profiled politician. As Education Minister during much of the 1970s, she became the symbol of the abolition of traditional demands in teaching in favour of a new, “leftist” line of education. As Social Minister, on the other hand, she was responsible for introducing austerity measures following the second oil crisis in 1979. Finally, as European Commissioner for the Environment and Minister of Food, she symbolised the new, Green approach to production and trade.
How effective she actually was as an administrator has been debated and unlike Sahlin, Bjerregaard was never able to be a contender for the highest offices in her party or in general until she was in her mid-60s when she led a successful campaign for the office of Mayor of Copenhagen.
If we assume that Sahlin is elected leader of the Swedish Social Democratic Party in March, why did she succeed where Bjerregaard failed?
Time may be one explanation: Bjerregaard came out of the 1970s where female politicians were still very much an exception to the rule. In the 1990s and especially the 2000s, things have changed. Not choosing a woman as chairman would have been an embarrassment to the Swedish Social Democrats.
Style and perception is another dimension we should consider. Especially when she was younger, Bjerregaard suffered under a reputation for being cold and aloof, almost robot-like in her relations with other people – her experiences as a girl with working-class background in the educational system could have played a role here. Sahlin, on the other hand, is described as charming, if un-coordinated.
Finally, Bjerregaard faced stiff competition in the form of, first, Svend Auken and later Poul Nyrup Rasmussen. Auken was the old party chairman Anker Jørgensen’s favourite during the 1980s, Nyrup Rasmussen was supported by the trade unions during the 1990s.
Note: The Mayor of Copenhagen isn’t elected directly. Ritt Bjerregaard led the Social Democratic ticket in the elections for the local council but the campaign in 2005 was generally seen as a two-way affair between her and the Liberal Søren Pind with Social Liberal Klaus Bondam as an outsider.