New government sets out priorities

Following Sweden's general election held on 15 September 2002, the Social Democratic Party has again formed a minority government, supported by the Left and Green parties. The new government will make tackling ill-health a key priority, along with more support for immigrants, and a number of changes to employment law are planned.

A general election was held on 15 September 2002, following four years of government by a minority Social Democratic Party (Socialdemokratiska Arbetarepartiet, SAP) administration that operated with the help of the Left Party (Vänsterpartiet) and the Green Party (Miljöpartiet de Gröna). In the election, the SAP retained its position as the largest party, increasing its share of the vote from 36.6% to 39.8% and its number of seats in the 349-member parliament (Riksdag) from 131 to 144. Its former cooperation partners had mixed fortunes, with the Left Party slipping to 8.3% of the vote (from 12%) and 30 seats (from 43), while the Green Party slightly increased its vote to 4.6% (from 4.5%) and its seats to 17 (from 16). The opposition parties to the right of the SAP - the Liberal Party (Folkpartiet Liberalerna), the Christian Democrats (Kristdemokraterna), the Centre Party (Centerpartiet) and the Conservatives (Moderaterna) - gained 158 seats in total (down very slightly from 159), with the Liberals gaining substantially and the Conservatives losing ground. The turn-out in the election was 80.1%, somewhat less than in 1998. The new parliament has the highest representation of women ever, at 45% (158 members).

Given that it did not gain an overall majority, the SAP was again obliged to seek support from other parties in order to form a government. Over 1998 to 2002, the cooperation process with the Green Party and Left Party involved continuous negotiations and, for the two smaller parties, some influence on decisions but no representation in the cabinet. Two weeks of intense bargaining took place after the election, with Prime Minister Göran Persson ruling out having any ministers in the government with a negative attitude to Sweden's current membership of the European Union, or to future membership of EU Economic and Monetary Union (EMU). The Green Party insisted that it should have one or two ministerial posts as a condition for support.

On 1 October 2002, the first session of the new parliament opened and immediately the Conservative Party's leader, Bo Lundgren, called a vote of no confidence, given that negotiations had so far failed to resolve the issue of how the SAP would govern. However, on the night before the vote of no confidence was due, the SAP and the Green Party announced that they were going to resume cooperation for another term, possibly together with the Left Party. The smaller parties were not going to have any ministers in the cabinet, but were promised eight advisers each in the cabinet office. The Social Democrats and the Green Party also agreed a list of 120 issues on which they would cooperate during the coming four-year period. A few days later, the Left Party signed up to this list. The opposition then lost the vote of no confidence.

As was the case over 1998-2002, issues relating to foreign affairs, defence and security policy and the EU are excluded from the cooperation between the SAP and the other two parties. The SAP will be solely responsible for these areas.

New government's priorities

On 1 October, the Prime Minister made a statement of government policy, and on 8 October the government presented the state budget bill for 2003. The cooperation between the three parties includes the budget and economic policy, and many of the items on the list of issues agreed by the SAP and its cooperation partners are covered in the bill. The main points of relevance to the labour and social areas in the government's statement and budget bill include the following:

  • the existing upper limits on public expenditure will remain in place;
  • the goal of an employment rate of 80% will be achieved, at the latest in 2004. The rate is currently about 78%;
  • the need for social welfare among the poorest part of the population will be halved;
  • issues relating to the coming referendum on Sweden's EMU entry will, it is hoped, be resolved unanimously;
  • the state budget will in future always have an equal opportunities section;
  • a right for part-time workers to move to full-time employment will be introduced;
  • a national action plan will be implemented to eliminate discriminatory gender wage differentials;
  • paid parental leave will be prolonged by two months to 18 months. A survey is planned to examine how parental leave may be used more by both parents and in a more flexible way;
  • more teachers are to be employed in schools and pre-schools. The goal is 15,000 new teachers and 6,000 new pre-school teachers;
  • the current very high level of sickness absence (SE0202103N) will be halved by 2008, and the fight against ill-health has the highest priority in the government's work. The government will invite the other political parties, the social partners and experts to talks about further measures;
  • the issue of immigration is given high importance. Unemployment is high among immigrant workers, and further labour market measures are seen as being required - such as improved education in the Swedish language and a faster evaluation of occupational skills acquired in other countries;
  • a nationwide sabbatical leave pilot scheme will be carried out at the latest in 2005, under the same conditions as the current experimental scheme in 10 municipalities (SE0202102N);
  • individual workers will be given more influence over their working time, in accordance with recent proposals from the governmental working time committee (SE0206105F). Experiments will be conducted with cuts in daily working time;
  • an experimental scheme will be introduced, providing paid time off for workers who want to cut down their working hours and move to part time; and
  • the current possibility for employers to give notice of dismissal to workers during parental leave, using the leave as notice period, will be abolished

The trade unions were all quite satisfied with the government's plans, as might be expected. The employers, on the other hand, reacted somewhat differently. Göran Tunhammar, managing director of the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise (Svenskt Näringsliv), stated (in the Svenska Dagbladet newspaper on 29 September 2002) that for employers the top priority is to tackle ill-health and the current very high level of sickness absence. Their second priority is the coming referendum on Swedish EMU entry, the date for which has yet to be set.

The government also plans to present proposal for changes to various aspects of labour law in late October 2002, based on preparatory work which started in summer 2000 (SE0008158N).

Commentary

Immediately after the general election, the political situation was quite uncertain and some of the opposition parties on the right started to prepare for a possible invitation to form a government. However, after two weeks of negotiations with its previous partners, the Green Party and the Left Party, the Social Democratic Party finally succeeded in persuading the Greens to continue their support. The Green Party may thus achieve some of its policy aims, though it has no ministers in the government, the Prime Minister having remained firm on this issue.

The social partners have remained calm and undisturbed after the announcement of the new government arrangements. The political situation in the immediate future is not likely to change in any fundamental way compared with that of the last four years. The Prime Minister has already announced talks on actions to combat ill-health, to which he will invite the social partners. The issue of immigration may also be dealt with in similar talks, with a possible point of controversy being inviting more foreign workers to come to Sweden. The Prime Minister will, however, face some organisational problems as at least six of his previous Ministers are resigning during the autumn, including the influential Minister of Industry, Employment and Communications, Björn Rosengren. (Annika Berg, Arbetslivsinstitutet)

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