In Swedish politics, casual style belies serious intent

By Reuters Staff
July 12, 2010

By Patrick Lannin

In a short-sleeved shirt, shorts and sandals, Swedish Left Party leader Lars Ohly looked like a man on holiday.

In fact, he was presenting proposals with his centre-left allies on Friday for more money to be spent on culture, part of a hard fought campaign in the Nordic state against the centre-right government coalition ahead of an election on September 19.

His appearance, and the fairly casual dress of three other centre-left leaders at a policy presentation — itself taking place in the cozy children’s section of a library — showed how Swedes like their politics: laid back.

Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt and his three centre-right goverment allies chose a slightly less casual look when they presented new spending proposals on Thursday, but they were still in informal shirt sleeves with no ties for the men or a summer dress for the woman leader of one of the parties.

The chilled out approach to policy was also on display elsewhere on the island of Gotland, where politicians, lobbyists and interest groups of all persuasions got together for the annual Almedalen week of seminars, speeches and presentations.

The core party political stuff was interspersed with events like a stunt by a feminist party, which burnt money to illustrate pay gaps between men and women, and a pretend bordello which was being used to highlight why prostitution, which is illegal in Sweden, is wrong.

SWEDEN-ODD/FEMINIST

Elsewhere, a group of young people cycled around the town singing songs to promote the use of the bicycle over the car.

For the political parties, the main issues are their stance on taxes and the welfare state.

Reinfeldt has cut taxes and trimmed back the welfare state, though he says he wants to preserve the core of a social security system which has boosted Swedes’ wellbeing over decades. Their slogans focus on the rights of the individual to decide his or her own fate.

The opposition, led by the Social Democrats and including the Left Party and the Green Party, want to roll back some of Reinfeldt’s tax cuts and spend even more on welfare. Their stance is more that society should look after everyone, not just the well off.

Though the Swedish style of presentation and debate might be more informal than elsewhere in Europe, there is a still a tough political battle going on, particularly during the Almedalen week, for voter attention and headline space.

This is all the more urgent as the parties are well aware of the closeness of the election race, demonstrated again in an opinion poll in the Expressen newspaper on Friday.

It showed Reinfeldt’s government parties maintaining a lead they only took in recent months, after being almost continuously behind in the polls since they took office in 2006, but the gap was only 4.9 percentage points, down from a previous poll.

In such a situation, Reinfeldt was right when he said at a speech during Almedalen week that every single vote is going to count for both sides of the party political divide and that party activists cannot relax — even if they might want to be laid back.

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