If the cardinal sin in American politics is cheating on your spouse, in Sweden, it’s cheating on your taxes.
Gudrun Schyman knows.
Her 10-year leadership of the former communist Left Party crumbled a few weeks ago after she was accused of tax evasion.
The wit and charisma that helped the 54-year-old feminist recover from earlier crises, including a public bout with alcoholism, didn’t fix the damage done by questionable deductions on her 2002 tax return.
“I’ve made a mistake, but I couldn’t imagine that it would start this media massacre and moral panic,” she acknowledged in an interview.
Elected officials in this Scandinavian country can get away with extramarital affairs, past drug use, even a career as a porn star. But mishandle anything tax-related and that political career can be history.
“When it comes to morally upright behavior involving economic transactions, we’ve placed the bar very high,” said Arne Modig, a political analyst with the Temo polling institute.
Sweden’s taxes on income, wealth and property are the world’s highest. Meanwhile, the government provides free education and subsidized health care to its 8.9 million residents. It also offers some of the world’s most generous welfare benefits, including unemployment compensation and up to 480 days of paid parental leave.
While most Swedes willingly send half their paychecks to the state, they’re hypersensitive about how the tax money is spent. Perks afforded to politicians elsewhere are not accepted here.
“In southern European countries, people are proud that their representatives ride in limousines. In Sweden, it’s not like that. If you represent average people, then you live like average people,” said Ingrid Burman, deputy chairman of the Left Party, the fourth biggest in the 349-seat Riksdag, or parliament.
Lawmakers are paid 518,400 kronor a year -- $61,100 U.S. -- nearly twice as much as the average Swede, but less than most lawmakers in the 15-nation European Union.
Prime Minister Goeran Persson earns $140,000 a year, half the amount that Britain’s Tony Blair gets and about a third of President Bush’s pay.
Burman says many Left Party members sought Schyman’s resignation because she didn’t represent the party’s skattemoral -- a uniquely Scandinavian word meaning taxpayers’ morality.
Tax authorities rejected deductions of $14,250 that Schyman listed on her return. The deductions included job-related international flights for which the government reimbursed her. Schyman says she claimed those deductions by mistake and wasn’t trying to cheat the system.
She’s not the first to be singled out.
In 1985, then-Prime Minister Olof Palme drew heat for not reporting his son’s Harvard scholarship to authorities. Film director Ingmar Bergman went into self-imposed exile in 1976 after running afoul of tax collectors and stayed away for nine years, until tax evasion charges were dropped.
Tax auditors have broad access to people’s bank accounts and personal information from government agencies. They find flaws in 6% to 7% of about 7.5 million tax returns filed every year.
The zeal of the tax authorities is often criticized by interest groups like the 170,000-member Swedish Taxpayers Assn. and occasionally by celebrities.
Beloved children’s author Astrid Lindgren, creator of Pippi Longstocking, is believed to have swung the 1976 election against the governing Social Democrats when she chided the tax system in her fairy tale “Pomperipossa in Monismania.”
Journalists often use public information from auditors to build media assaults on politicians suspected of squandering public money on themselves.
Newspapers added to Schyman’s woes with scathing editorials and multipage spreads scouring her 2002 tax return krona by krona.
Reporters also found out that she had claimed reimbursement for taxi rides to Stockholm’s Arlanda airport, although lawmakers can ride for free on a train between the airport and the capital. Parliament rules say lawmakers should take taxis only when public transportation is hard to come by or could result in delays.
“Our sense of justice is very economic,” said Lena Mellin, political commentator for the tabloid Aftonbladet.
Although Swedish journalists dream of uncovering improper financial affairs, extramarital ones are considered part of a politician’s private life. The same goes for divorces and marriage problems, which elicit little, if any, moral judgment.
No one questioned the prime minister’s morals when he filed for divorce from his wife, Annika, before Christmas, or when he appeared in public a few weeks later with a new woman by his side.
Instead, concern arose about a possible conflict of interest: Persson’s rumored love interest, Anitra Steen, heads the state alcohol monopoly, Systembolaget.
Goeran Eurenius, a former city council member in the southwestern town of Haerryda, 280 miles from Stockholm, was expelled from the Left Party for acting in pornographic movies. But it wasn’t the nudity or the sex that was problematic; it was his unabashed promotion of an industry that the party claims exploits women.
“Everyone deserves a chance to take part in the democratic process,” said Eurenius, 51, who quit porn and was readmitted to the party this year.
Swedes say their liberal view on sexuality makes sex scandals less of an issue in politics than in some other countries, including the United States.
Democrat Gary Hart dropped his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1988 after reporters discovered that he was having an extramarital affair.
By contrast, Social Democrat Mona Sahlin lost her shot at the Swedish prime minister’s post in 1995 after acknowledging that she used her government cash card to buy $70 worth of chocolate, diapers and perfume.
Since then, she’s been ostracized for failing to pay her car tax and parking tickets on time, and holds a relatively low-profile position as minister for democracy and integration issues.
Politicians can even get in trouble for having too much income.
Last fall, migration and asylum minister Jan O. Karlsson, one of the richest members of the Social Democratic government, was accused of being greedy for accepting a $113,000 pension from his former employer, the European Union, on top of his government salary.
Karlsson caught more flak after the tabloid Expressen reported that he held a crawfish dinner at his house and sent the $450 bill to the government.
The media painted the meal as a kraeftskiva, a traditional Swedish crawfish party associated with festive hats and heavy drinking until dawn.
Karlsson says the dinner ended quietly by 10 p.m. Although he quickly agreed to pay the costs himself, he said he wonders if the uproar has tainted his legacy.
“I guess there will be three crawfish hanging on my gravestone,” he said.