Visby, the main town on the Swedish island of Gotland, has a schizophrenic life. In the winter, it’s quiet and isolated, with only 25,000 residents. In the summer, masses of holidaymakers – the young Stockholm party crowd and the slightly greyer but equally party-loving Stockholm cultural elite – arrive and turn everything upside down. And for one week in July, politicians, lobbyists and journalists take over, filling the town with speeches, debates and PR stunts.
Almedalen, as the week of politics is called, is always an interesting event in Swedish political life. Cynics claim it is just an excuse to drink lots of rosé and enjoy the sun, which shines more frequently on Visby than on the mainland. This year, however, it has been a more important affair. The political parties are doing everything they can to raise their profile as September’s parliamentary elections draw closer and the competition for votes increases.
If the latest polls are anything to go by, it’s going to be a close call. According to the opinion polling institute SIFO, the governing conservative alliance currently has 48.4 per cent of the voters’ support, while the red-green alliance has 45.6 per cent. In addition to the big parties, a group of smaller ones are fighting for their place in the sun.
This year’s Almedalen has also offered its fair share of scandals. We’ve seen a scuffle between a bishop from the Swedish Church and a representative of the far-right party, Sweden Democrats, who was holding court just outside the church tent. Sweden Democrats are the wild card of the upcoming elections, dangerously close to getting seats in the parliament, and constantly provoking other parties and organisations.
Another provocation came from the Feminist Initiative party, as its leader Gudrun Schyman, a grand old lady of Swedish feminism, burnt SEK100,000 (around €10,000) on a barbecue, claiming it to be the same sum that women lose every minute in Sweden due to discriminatory wages. How exactly burning the money helps remains unclear. As entertaining as the PR stunts are, they tend to steal the limelight from the bigger questions in the elections. If you listen closely, however, even those are being talked about. The most important issues are jobs, healthcare, taxes and the quality of the country’s schools.
Sweden’s economy is recovering from the recent crisis and the Central Bank recently raised its interest rate, but unemployment is still estimated to reach 8.9 per cent this year. The two blocks have two different strategies to draw voters: the conservative alliance promises to not raise income taxes, while the red-green alliance promises to raise them, at least for those with salaries of over €4,000 a month. A risky tactic that might backfire on the Social Democrats, especially as it comes alongside their promise to bring back a tax on family houses and scratch the popular tax deduction on domestic services such as cleaning or babysitting.
But the Social Democrats’ biggest risk factor seems to be their leader Mona Sahlin, whose leadership qualities are increasingly being questioned. If Sahlin is to convince the Swedes of her competence, she has a lot of work to do: 75 per cent of Swedes see prime minister Fredrik Reinfeldt as the best fit to lead a government, while a mere 25 per cent would entrust Sahlin with the same task.