Europa & die Welt Debattenbeitrag

Riots and the Reinfeldt syndrome

The response of mainstream Sweden to the recent riots is proof of Prime Minister Reinfeldt’s success in leading a political project based on an impossible promise.

”In Sweden we have a system…” this sentence uttered with a heavy Swedish accent and a lot of pride can almost always be heard in policy discussions with Swedes. Whether it’s education or childcare or industrial policy Swedes love to explain how their famous welfare state takes care of things.

The Nordic country is used to being the poster child for equality, stability and sustainable growth. In the wake of the financial crisis articles celebrating the Swedish model seem to pop up everywhere.

So when news broke about riots and burning cars in the Stockholm suburb of Husby in May it turned into both international headlines and a Swedish identity crisis. The intensity of the unrest shocked the world. France and Britain have experienced riots but Sweden was meant to be different.

The truth is that beyond all the articles celebrating the Nordic Model Sweden is changing rapidly. Neither politics nor the general population has caught up with the development. Nowhere has this been more evident than in the response to the riots in Stockholm.

Despite Sweden’s high living standards the country has seen the biggest surge in inequality of any Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development country over the past 15 years, according to a recent OECD report.

This development has speeded up under Fredrik Reinfeldt’s centre-right government.

”Stockholm riots are more about economics than immigration”, The Financial Times wrote in an editorial. The paper noted that Sweden has changed from the Nordic country that took social democracy the furthest to the one that experimented most with market liberalisation. Perhaps the pendulum has swung too far, they asked. The same kind of analysis echoed from the pages of The Wall Street Journal and International Herald Tribune.

In Sweden however the riots where not discussed within this context of rising inequality. Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt took a long time to even comment on the events and his government tried to make the riots into an issue of random criminal individuals. Naturally the Swedish Democrats, a xenophobic party with roots in the neo-Nazi movement tried to capitalise on the violence.

Interestingly mainstream Sweden didn’t seem to view the riots in the context of a changing Swedish model, an angle that seemed evident to international media.

In many ways this is proof of Prime Minister Reinfeldt’s success.

His political project has in its essence been built upon an impossible promise.

Reinfeldt revolutionised the Swedish centre-right by dropping its traditional opposition to the Swedish model. He promised the electorate that they could keep their beloved welfare state, just with lower taxes and without the, at the time, unpopular social democratic government.

Reinfeldt’s party has been very successful in communicating this message however his political programme of large tax cuts financed by deep cuts in the social security system does change Sweden. No matter what the government says.

Together with the market reforms within the public sector that Sweden experimented with in the 1990s the country is slowly turning into something else.

In June news broke that JB Education, one of Sweden’s largest operators of publicly funded, privately managed free schools, would declare bankruptcy. The international headlines were not far behind. What was going on in Sweden?

Being the poster child for failing market reforms, burning cars and youth unemployment is not something the Swedes are used to.

Fredrik Reinfeldt’s message that none of this is really happening therefore naturally has its appeal. The question is how long he can keep it up. To admit that something is happening to the Swedish model is to admit the impossibility of his own political project. Paradoxically therefore, the claim that Sweden isn’t changing and the Nordic Model is still intact is the most important one for the centre-right to hold on to. „In Sweden we still have a system….“

The article was first published as contribution to the State of the Left, a monthly insight report from our London-based partner thinktank Policy Network’s Social Democracy Observatory.