Jacob Christensen

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Public Expenditure Growth

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Just a short reply to my colleague Peter Kurrild-Klitgaard who with reference to an article in The Economist argues that the public sector is a leviathan whose growth cannot be limited or stopped.

First, we should note that the tendency to rapid growth in public sector expenditure measured as a share of the economy stopped sometime during the mid- to late-1970s. From then on, we have seen stagnation even if economic growth obviously means that expenditure has increased since the early 1980s.

Second, the growth in relative expenditure in the last years must be seen in the context of the global financial crisis which a) saw GDP fall in many countries and b) saw increases in unemployment which again meant that a share of the workforce had to rely on some kind of public support. This is what the Keynesians call automatic stabilisers.

Third, the economic policies of Republican administrations and congressional majorities in the US are a cause for concern. The idea that tax cuts are the solution to any problem is by now intellectually – but not politically – discredited and the massive deficits created by Republican policies are a major problem for the US and world economy. In fact, US economic policy is a major theoretical and practical headache.

Kurrild-Klitgaard is right that special interest groups (farmers, anyone?) create a lot of blocking points in the policy process and that it is easy to find cases where resources are being spent in a way which is inefficient in the short or long run due to government programmes (my own example would be the Danish Early Retirement Benefit but in the US defence spending could be used as a warning case). It is also correct that the demand for services and transfers is in principle inexhaustible.

But this does not necessarily mean that the public sector is dysfunctional or uncontrollable as a whole.

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March 30th, 2011 at 4:54 pm

The “Danish Strategy”

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Over on Twitter Sydsvenskan’s Niklas Orrenius asked me recently if one could speak of a “Danish strategy”, meaning that the Danish Liberal Party (V) had set up the field for the Danish People’s Party (DF) by making a) immigration policy acceptable on the political agenda and b) making an extreme position (in relative terms) possible by presenting outrageous proposals which would then allow DF to appear as a “responsible” party. The dynamic is put in crude terms here (in part due to Twitter’s 140 sign limit)

I think there are several questions at stake here:

A. Have the Sweden Democrats (SD) deliberately used the Swedish Liberals (FP) as a foil during the past parliamentary term and the 2010 election campaign?

This one is probably not for me to answer – but we do know that immigration has been the main motivation for voters who opted for SD and that the Swedish Liberals deliberately pushed immigration policy in the 2002 and 2006 campaigns (with differing success, it should be noted). So by putting immigration on the mainstream agenda, it would seem logical that FP cleared the path for SD. On the other hand, FP generally attracts a different segment of the Swedish electorate.

The subquestion is if FP has made outrageous initiatives which SD could then catch on to and come out as the sensible party. I’m a bit unsure about that – but for somebody with access to Swedish media databases it ought to be easy to check. I’m not sure, though, that SD has to appear “sensible” to its potential voters – it is probably more important that SD appears to express “everybody’s concerns”.

B. Have the Swedish parties imitated their Danish counterparts?

We know that FP took inspiration from V in the 2002 campaign. I’m not really sure about the 2006 and 2010 campaigns. Similarly, direct exchanges between SD and DF only began during the 2010 campaign. But SD could definitively use DF to bolster its own standing given that DF in 2010 had been the parliamentary basis for the Danish government for almost nine years. Obviously this would help give SD coalition potential.

C. Was there in fact a “Danish strategy” where the Liberals set up the field for the Danish People’s Party?

This is more complicated. Immigration has been sort-of-on-the-agenda since the mid-1980s but unemployment and economic policy were the major issues until the 1994 and 1998 elections. The Danish Liberals definitively would play the immigration card in the late 1980s and early 1990s but at that point the Progress Party was a highly unstable unit which “responsible” parties treated with great care. My guess is that the Liberals were waiting to see how the newly-formed DF would perform in parliament between 1995 and 2001 and it was only after 2001 that the real affinities between the Liberals and DF became obvious.

Similarities and Differences

A final problem is that even if the Danish and Swedish Liberals and DF/SD to some extent occupy similar roles in the respective party systems, there are also some important differences. V is the main bourgeois party in Denmark and the main atagonist of the Social Democrats and has been so since 1994 (V also used to be the main party on the right between 1920 and 1966), FP’s position is more precarious – it is more like “the nice party you might vote for if it wasn’t because you had a better first choice”.

Similarly, the attempt by Danish Social Democrats to brand DF as pariahs failed because DF was obviously the sensible offspring of the Progress Party. In fact, it was Mogens Glistrup who made the obnoxious comments about immigrants while V and later DF used a more polished language. Unlike DF, SD still struggles with the quasi-racist stamp and its roots in the “White Power”-subculture.

Finally, I think it is worth noting that the Swedish government recently chose to enter a migration agreement with the Green Party (and not SD or for that matter the leaderless Social Democrats). The Danish equivalent would be an agreement between the Liberal-Conservative government and the Social Liberals (given that the three parties held a majority in the Danish parliament) – something which most people would consider highly unlikely.

Written by Jacob Christensen

March 20th, 2011 at 12:00 pm

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Aylott on Juholt

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It may be thought fairly remarkable, and perhaps sub-optimal, that a party facing huge, historic challenges is about to elect a leader without having any real idea about how he plans to address those challenges. He will thus have no clear mandate to do anything at all.

Full text here.

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March 11th, 2011 at 1:57 pm

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The Chairman Speaks

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When did Håkan Juholt first appear in the gossip stream? Pretty late in the process, as far as I can tell.

Comments from Swedish colleagues and contacts:

Juholt is not generally known – but this may not be a problem: Jenny Madestam, Henrik Oscarsson, Marie Demker.

My thoughts: I agree. Nobody knew Helle Thorning-Schmidt before she was elected party chairman in 2005.

Juholt is not linked to past divisions in the party – can be an asset: Ulf Bjereld. (Note: Bjereld was a member of the crisis commission set up by the party after the election).

My thoughts: See above.

Juholt could be bad news for the Sweden Democrats: Niklas Orrenius.

My thoughts: Interesting perspective, but it probably takes more than a folksy image to win back young male working-class voters.

Carin Jämtin – The right choice of party secretary? Björn Johnsson (Carin Jämtin led the party in Stockholm where its performance was very bad in 2010)

My thoughts: Yes, but maybe Jämtin’s force is the work on the internal arena?

Nils Gustafsson points us to a revealing map.

My thoughts: :-D

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March 10th, 2011 at 10:59 pm

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Palme 1986

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Just as at the 20th anniversary in 2006, the 25th anniversary has spurred new discussions about the murder of the then Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme and his legacy. Back in 2006, I wrote this post and haven’t really got anything new to add.

Scandinavian readers might want to check these: Ola Nordebo, Ulf Bjereld, Claes Arvidsson as well as a “what if Palme was still alive“-article from DN.

Peter Santesson has considered the various conspiracy theories and amateur investigators as well as the reluctance to consider certain parts of Palme’s life in relation to the murder.

Palme has been the subject of two major biographies: Kjell Östberg’s volumes “I takt med tiden” and “När vinden vände” and Henrik Berggren’s “Underbara dagar framför oss“.

Swedish blogs are listed here.

Written by Jacob Christensen

February 28th, 2011 at 12:31 am

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The Swedish Social Democrats: Another Fine Mess

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A Sunday thought: Does Sweden have an opposition these days? (I’m not the first to ask)

In a technical meaning, yes: There are four parties in the Swedish Riksdag that are not included in the government and therefore, logically, some kind of opposition. But in the substantial meaning of the term, things are more complicated. The Sweden Democrats may not formally be a part of the government’s parliamentary basis, but for a number reasons will hesitate in bringing down the government, the Green Party may do business with the government, the Left Party is not sure if its first task will be to get rid of the party leader and the Social Democrats…

… The once-mighty Social Democrats, who were to Swedish politics what Liverpool F.C. was to English league football during the 1970s and 1980s, are a mere shadow of themselves. Remember that the SocDems only managed to remain Sweden’s largest party by a whisker in last September’s general election, that the party is still some way from presenting an even remotely credible selection of candidates to fill the position as party leader and in terms of policy development …

Oy vey, as they say in Yiddish.

But where exactly did it all go wrong?

One thing which has struck me is that the history of the Social Democrats in many ways mirrors the history of Swedish manufacturing during the 20th century. Consider that Sweden was a bit odd in that the manufacturing and similar centres were spread throughout the country – Swedes talk about a brukskultur and it is worth noting that the combined minds of the Wikipedia haven’t come up with an English or German translation for this. On the one hand, there were a small number of families and corporations controlling mining, forestry and manufacturing, on the other hand they were all over the place. And so were the Social Democrats who unlike any of the other Swedish parties could be found in some force from Karesuando to Smygehuk.

But what happens when you go from a decentralised manufacturing culture to an economy based on services and ICT and with clear nodes in, say, the Stockholm, Gothenburg, Malmö and Linköping-Norrköping regions? This is not just a change of geography – even if, or perhaps especially because, the Social Democrats have lost spectacularly in the Stockholm region in 2006 and 2010 – but also a change of mindset. Note that where the Danish Social Democrats have lost support among their core voters (unskilled and skilled workers), the Swedish Social Democrats have lost middle-class voters. The crises in Denmark and Sweden are, in fact, different, even if they may have been triggered by parallel social changes.

At the same time, being almost continuously in power from 1932 to 2006 does something to an organisation. Sweden may not have been a one-party state, but in many ways, the Social Democrats saw the Swedish state as a natural extension of the organisation. As Jenny Madestam has pointed out: The Social Democrats assume that they are selecting a new prime minister, not a new party leader. But what if the Swedish party system is permanently changing into state where to parties winning 30-35% of the vote are shadowed by six parties hovering between 5-10% of the vote? Strategically, the Social Democrats are in a new situation on the electoral and the parliamentary arenas. And as Madestam points out, they need somebody who can be the leader of the opposition.

Organisational change is a fascinating subject but viewed from the outside it still looks as if the Social Democrats still have quite some way to go in their understanding of the changed environment. And the second problem is going from understanding to implementing organisational and policy change.

Written by Jacob Christensen

February 6th, 2011 at 5:23 pm

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Lead Balloons of 2010 II: Mona Sahlin

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Strictly speaking, Mona Sahlin wasn’t a lead balloon of 2010. The Sahlin balloon had already begun leaking visibly sometime during 2008 and to anyone – except people like me – it was obvious during the early part of 2010 that the Swedish Social Democrats had been in serious trouble for some time. In the end, the Social Democrats were extremely lucky to remain the largest party in Sweden after the elections in September 2010.

The post-mortems have pointed to a number of reasons why Sahlin and the Social Democrats after cruising through 2007 and much of 2008 failed completely during the latter part of the 2006-2010 parliamentary term. Sahlin may have been the wrong leader for the Social Democrats but her leadership also revealed a number of challenges to the Social Democrats which the party has to find responses to if it wants to re-emerge as a contender in Swedish politics.

One thing which struck me about the aftermath of the 2006 election was the lack of a serious evaluation of what had led to the Social Democratic defeat in 2006 as well as a real test of the candidates for the position of party leader. Oh, wait … what happened was that there was no competition: Names were mentioned but in the end Mona Sahlin just sort of became party leader.1 And after all, polls showed that the Social Democrats had bounced back – and then some – after September 2006.2

If I look at the various comments following the 2010 collapse in Social Democratic support, several factors are in play and the party needs to address all of them in several ways:

1. Swedish society anno 2010 is nothing like Sweden of the 1960s or the 1930s. The rural-industrial society has given way for an urban service economy. But the Social Democrats are struggling with making inroads into the modern urban society. And even if the challenge from the Sweden Democrats is limited, the SweDems aim for those nostalgic about the old rural-industrial culture.

2. The curious lack of attachment with modern society is reflected in the party organisation which still relies heavily on internal recruitment. Exchanges with outside society is too limited. From the 1930s until the 1990s Social Democracy lived in a sort of symbiosis with the Swedish state but these days the party needs to build its own competences independently of the state.

3. Despite all talk of the Swedish Moderates going to the centre, there are still basic differences between the Moderate and the Social Democratic conception of how a welfare state should be organised. The problem for the Social Democrats is to make their model attractive for white-collar groups – traditional class-based arguments and painting the Moderates as representatives for the upper class no longer work.

4. Strategically, the Social Democrats were stuck between a centrist line and the desire to create a left-wing bloc to compete with the Alliance. One problem was that many voters the Left Party carried the same negative associations as the Sweden Democrats – even if the reasons for avoiding the Left Party were different, the alliance still discouraged potential white-collar and middle-class voters.

5. Sweden was hit by the international financial crisis during 2008 – but unlike what was the case in a number of other countries, the government benefited from the crisis while the Social Democrats lost. Traditionally, the Social Democrats led the centre-right with regard to economic competence. These days, this is no longer so.

6. It is hard to evaluate Sahlin’s efficacy as party leader given the structural and organisational factors. Still, I think that the party would have benefited from an open challenge before the 2007 party conference where candidates were forced to present their long-term plans for the party and their strategies.

7. Much has been said about Sahlin’s lack of analytical powers. Some of this may be due to grudges going back to the 1990s and some to prejudices against women, but Sahlin never really came across as somebody with a vision and a comprehensive set of strategies to implement it in everyday politics. We need a little more than butlers in the metro.

8. In 2010-2011, the party looks set to repeat the mistakes of 2006-2007. Recruiting a new party leader will be an internal process, controlled by the party’s executive committee. The difference is that this time, nobody can name a likely candidate as Sahlin’s successor.

PS: Some links to reports by and about the Social Democrats and their performance in the 2010 election can be found here and here.

My posts on Mona Sahlin can be found under this tag.

  1. See the posts on “Mona Sahlin – Curb your enthusiasm []
  2. If you don’t believe me, just go to the page “Political Reviews” and check my series on “Instant failure” []

Written by Jacob Christensen

December 15th, 2010 at 5:02 pm

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These days anybody can be an armchair expert on terrorism so here are, for what they are worth, my first impressions about the bombings in Stockholm yesterday:

1. Generally, the motive behind suicide attacks has been a grudge against a real or perceived military intervention or occupation of the home country. The point to remember is that suicide bombings are not particularly Muslim or Islamist in nature: The Tamil Tigers made great use of the tactic during the Sri Lankan civil war.

2. That said, we do need some kind of religious factor to explain why a Swedish-Iraqi would mount a suicide attack in Sweden. Afghanistan is the best link here. This also means that intelligence services in all countries which participate in military missions in Afghanistan are or should be looking out for individuals or groups planning similar attacks. Sweden may have been a high-odds country for an attack, but there would still be odds on an attack happening in Sweden.

3. Little is (officially) known about the man, except that he was an Iraqi refugee who came to Sweden in the early 1990s. We do not (yet) know how or where his radicalisation took place or if the attack was an individual action or planned in cooperation with an extremist Islamist group or network in Sweden or elsewhere.

4. Guessing from the reports it looks like that the plan of the bomber was to mount a double attack by blowing up his car and himself either at the same time or with a slight delay. Something (fortunately) appears to have gone completely wrong in the process so the bomber became the only victim. It could be either technical incompetence or the simple fact that he couldn’t go through with his original plan – somewhere I’ve seen research which shows that there are substantial mental blocks which have to be overcome before an individual is able to carry out an attack against other people (including suicide attacks).

5. We should consider a similar type of attack possible in Denmark. But you are still much much more likely to get killed by a lorry in the traffic than by an Islamist suicide bomber.

6. Warning against specific attacks is extremely difficult because of the risk of false positives. Too many warnings will lead to complacency among the public.

7. Generally, nurturing a culture of victimhood is not very constructive. This applies in general as well as to Islamists even if (or especially because) modern Islamism in many ways is built on the premise that the Muslim world is the victim of Western aggression.

8. Despite claims to the opposite, terrorists do not “only have to be lucky once” in order to win. It is true that they have to be lucky in the sense that a number of obstacles have to be overcome and that many attempted attacks are abandoned or thwarted, but the dream of the Big Attack Which Brings Down the Evil Opponent Forever is a chimera because it does not understand the difference between general and specific support for any social or political order. In practice, extremist thinking has been found to be defective in this sense at least since the late 19th century.

Update 2010-12-15: Scandinavian-readers might want to read this post by Andreas Johansson Heinö on the Stockholm bomber and the political implications.

Written by Jacob Christensen

December 12th, 2010 at 10:33 pm

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Nick Aylott on Sahlin

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Nick Aylott, a former colleague from Umeå who is now an associate professor in political science at Södertörn College, has written a comment in the Swedish edition of The Local about the state of the Swedish Social Democracy after Mona Sahlin’s decision to step down as party leader. I hope Nick will forgive me for quoting the central part of his argument at length:

Sahlin’s own period as party chair involved an almost complete lack of leadership. Perhaps this was partly a reaction against her predecessor’s rather heavy-handed style. But it may have more to do with the party’s institutions (defined in a broad sense).

She did manage to pull the Social Democrats’ education policy towards a position that was more in line with most voters’ views. She was also responsible for the decision in 2008 to build a pre-electoral coalition with the two other left-of-centre parties (even if she was forced by her party to include the Left Party in that alliance, which proved electorally catastrophic).

But with regard to other substantive policy areas, especially economics, nothing was achieved – and, even worse, it never became at all clear what Sahlin WANTED to achieve. The manner in which she was selected as leader never involved her having to declare her candidacy, never mind set out a platform for where she wanted to take the party.

As I pretty much agree with Nick, I’ll just point you to his article for the rest.

One comment may be that the Swedish Social Democrats should avoid the curious process of 2006-2007 which involved selecting a leader by default and open the field for competing candidates. (You might want to check my review page for my comments – #1, #2 – from 2007)

Written by Jacob Christensen

November 15th, 2010 at 9:16 pm

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The Game of Ministerial Chairs; 2010 Edition

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Political scientists think this is fascinating, so please allow me to go through the distribution of portfolios in the reshuffled Reinfeldt government. For my take on the 2006 edition, look here.

This time, Fredrik Reinfeldt decided to expand the government from 22 to 24 ministers. This was no doubt done in order to accommodate demands from Moderate ranks for a higher share of the portfolios as well as keeping the coalition partners happy. If the government had kept its previous size, the smaller parties would have had to hand over portfolios to the Moderates.

After the election, the share according to the share of the votes looks as follows

  • Moderates: 30,1% of the vote = 60,9% share of the Alliance vote = 14,62 ministers (24 portfolios), 13,40 ministers (22 portfolios)
  • Liberals: 7,1% of the vote = 14,4% share = 3,45 (24) or 3,16 ministers (22)
  • Centre Party: 6,6% of the vote = 13,4% share = 3,21 (24) or 2,94 ministers (22)
  • Christian Democrats: 5,6% of the vote = 11,3% share = 2,72 (24) or 2,49 ministers (22)

If we then look at the actual cabinet, the distribution was: Moderates – 13, Liberals – 4, Centre Party – 4, Christian Democrats – 3. Strictly speaking, the Moderates gave away two portfolios to the Liberals and the Centre Party respectively, but this was what we normally expect.

There was some changes with regard to departmental boundaries (for instance, the title of Civilminister has been resurrected while the post as minister for higher education went the way of the dodo), but all in all the set-up looks pretty predictable. Especially with the benefit of hindsight. The personnel changes may have included some minor surprises but most of the new ministers look pretty solid and experienced.

Written by Jacob Christensen

October 6th, 2010 at 12:12 am

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