A few minutes before midnight Sunday, a triumphant and weary Prime Minister Olof Palme hailed his electoral victory as a stirring endorsement of the Swedish welfare state.
Then, speaking in English to foreign reporters at the Parliament building on an island in the oldest quarter of Stockholm, Palme, 58, lowered his voice and said, “With all its faults, the welfare state remains the most humane and civilized system ever created.”
There is little doubt that Palme meant what he said--and that most Swedes agree with him.
The election Sunday made it clear that the Swedish welfare state is now sacrosanct as an issue in Swedish politics.
On the right, the Moderate Party, as the conservatives now call themselves, proposed huge cuts in taxes and public spending, actions that would have forced reductions in many of the benefits of the welfare state. The conservatives argued that lower taxes would spur the economy, increase profits and wealth and thus benefit the society as a whole.
Palme, who was far behind in the public opinion polls a year ago, denounced these proposals as a threat to the welfare state and as an espousal of the rightist philosophy of President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. In a sense, he called Swedes to the barricades to defend the welfare state, and they followed him.
Anomaly in Democratic Europe
Thus, Sweden remains an anomaly in democratic Europe. In an era of grudging acceptance of Reaganomics and Thatcherism, at a time when even the Socialist governments of France and Spain are following austere policies that reduce spending, ease restrictions on business and allow high unemployment, Sweden continues to follow its own way. It is a heavily taxed society protected by what is probably the most extensive welfare system in any democratic country.
Whether because of this or in spite of it, the 8.3 million people of Sweden enjoy one of the highest standards of living and the lowest rates of unemployment in the world.
The Swedish welfare state provides, among other benefits, allowances for children, day care centers so that mothers may work, 12 months of leave for parents when a child is born, health care for everyone, free university education, income supplements, work schemes and job retraining programs for the unemployed, pensions and housing allowances for the aged.
Within the system, there are controversial issues. Sweden, for example, has a shortage of 90,000 places in its day care centers, and the Social Democrats have pledged to take care of this with an extensive construction program.
Some critics, however, insist that women are forced to work because of low family incomes and that the government should encourage them to stay at home by providing a child care allowance, which the mother could use either to put the child in a center or to stay home with her child.
In reply, the Social Democrats contend that allowances would keep women at home and undermine all policies aimed at equality between the sexes. But one thing about the argument is obvious. No politician is foolhardy enough to advocate the elimination of any kind of child care program.
For child care and all the other welfare programs, Sweden pays a heavy price. Swedes in middle-income brackets give up about half their salary in taxes. On top of this, Swedes sometimes find their freedom of choice limited--for example, they are virtually forced to accept the doctors and the child care centers assigned by the bureaucracy.
Yet Swedes do not want to give up a single aspect of the system. In his last day of campaigning in the Goteborg area, Palme rushed to the defense of a program that provides the aged with coupons that pay for 80% of their taxi fares. This was the kind of program, Palme insisted, probably correctly, that the opposition would have to eliminate if it reduced taxes and public spending. Palme, in contrast, promised that the elderly would keep their taxi coupons.
“It is a very popular program,” said a Swedish bureaucrat accompanying the prime minister. “The old people like it. I know taxi drivers who depend on it for their income. But it is very costly.”
The Moderate Party sustained Palme’s attacks on other issues such as this, and its leader, Ulf Adelsohn, who had hoped to take over as prime minister, will instead lead an opposition party with 10 fewer seats in the new Parliament than in the last.
Liberal Party Did Well
In fact, the one leader on the right who did well in the election--Bengt Westerberg, the 38-year-old businessman who heads the Liberal party--insisted that he would defend the welfare state if he were prime minister.
Speaking with foreign correspondents after the election, Westerberg said he agrees with Palme that “there are people and groups in the Moderate Party who are threats against the welfare system.”
He refused to classify himself as such a threat. But he told the foreign correspondents, “If you want to save the welfare system, you have to make cuts. Otherwise, you will have to raise taxes.”
A superficial reading of the election returns might make an outsider believe that the Swedes were closely divided on the issue of the welfare state. The Social Democrats and the small Communist Party won 50.3% of the vote while the three parties to their right won a total of 48.1%.
Many Avoided Attacks
But while a vote on the left was surely a vote in favor of the welfare state, a vote on the right was not as certainly a vote against it. Many politicians on the right refuse to attack the welfare state and some, like Westerberg, proclaim its virtues.
An overwhelming majority of the Swedish voters obviously like their system. One reason may be their dependence on it. In a recent study, Hans Zetterberg, a sociologist who heads the Swedish Institute of Public Opinion, concluded that more than half of Sweden’s 6.4 million voters were dependent on the welfare state for their main source of income.