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SCANDINAVIA: Voting for More or Less Marxism

6 minute read


“You workers, don ‘t forget that there may be countries where there are more rich people but nowhere are there so few poor! You old people, you were born in the poorest country in Europe, but now you live in the richest country in the world! You young people, our stand on the Viet Nam War did not make you want to pack your bags and take off!”

That was the message proclaimed by Olof Palme, 46, Sweden’s combative Social Democratic Prime Minister, in rally after rally this month as he appealed for a new mandate from the country’s voters. He sounded rather strident−and for good reason. The 5,000,000 citizens who trooped to the polls last week−a day after the death of King Gustaf VI Adolf at the age of 90−were voting not just on a new Parliament but on the future direction of Europe’s model welfare state. As the votes were counted at week’s end, it became clear that a majority of the voters were willing to travel again with Palme. The Prime Minister’s party won 176 seats in the new Parliament, the opposition took 174.

After 41 years in power, Palme’s Social Democrats−who, together with a scattering of Communists, have held a ten-seat majority in Parliament since 1970−faced their strongest opposition ever. It consisted of a nonsocialist coalition of the Center, Liberal and Moderate (conservative) parties, led by a ruggedly handsome farmer named Thorbjorn Falldin, 47. If he won a second three-year term as Prime Minister, Palme promised to embark on an intensified campaign to increase the scope of socialism. Falldin promised to halt that trend and to restore a measure of individual initiative to Sweden’s increasingly straitjacketed society.

The campaign proved to be the most acrimonious in Sweden’s generally placid political history. Palme accused his enemies of such dirty tricks as circulating anonymous letters claiming that he is subject to wild temper tantrums and has received electric shock treatments in mental hospitals: Coalition spokesmen, for their part, were angered by Palme’s inflammatory speechmaking.

One unusual factor in the election was the activism of Sweden’s business community, which feared that Palme’s plans might include expropriation of industries. Some corporate leaders stopped investing in plants, while others threatened to leave the country if he were reelected. Business has felt almost totally excluded from the running of the country. “Palme prefers confrontation to consultation,” complained one Stockholm banker, adding that the Prime Minister had destroyed the congenial spirit of cooperation that linked businessmen and the Social Democrats during the regime of Palme’s easygoing predecessor, Tage Erlander. “There is a feeling of uncertainty and unease about Palme,” says a leading industrialist. “Does he understand that, basically, a country depends for progress on its financial possibilities? We doubt it.” The direct, sensible Falldin, as another businessman put it, was looked upon as someone “who would immediately inspire much greater trust from all quarters.” Falldin still works his 460-acre farm in central Sweden, and, with a Sherlock Holmes pipe always close at hand, presented a down-to-earth contrast to the intellectual Prime Minister.

Falldin, who leads the Center Party, promised to create 100,000 new jobs through tax incentives and government grants. He also advocated a thoroughgoing decentralization of Swedish government. His allies in the Liberal Party hammered away mainly on reform of Sweden’s burdensome tax structure.* “It has to be worthwhile to work again,” said Liberal Leader Gunnar Helen. “The tax system has taken private initiative out of life.” None of the parties recommended any departure from Sweden’s long tradition of neutralism. Foreign policy will probably be the one aspect of Swedish life not affected by the election.

In reply, Palme argued that Sweden never had it so good, that the economy was turning up, that he had kept food prices relatively stable and held yearly inflation to an acceptable standard (for Europe) of about 7%. For the long term, he promised to move Sweden away from a mixed economy toward more Marxism. Palme has already pushed through Parliament a bill that enables the government to use Sweden’s $15.9 billion pension fund−the largest single source of capital in the country−to buy shares in Swedish companies. Another plan in effect provides for workers’ representatives to sit on the board of every Swedish company with more than 100 employees. Palme’s next project would be a law requiring corporations to negotiate all hirings and firings with the unions. Also in prospect was a new law that would force businesses to contribute part of their profits to a fund that the workers would use to buy shares−and ultimately ownership−of their companies.

By promising that kind of program, Palme had made the choice facing Swedish voters last weekend sharper than it had been for decades.

The voters of Norway also went to the polls, in the closest and most chaotic election of the country’s recent history. Last week after the votes were counted−and repeatedly re-counted−an unstable alliance of leftist parties emerged with a bare majority of one: 78 seats to 77 for six nonsocialist parties. Surprisingly, the bulwark of the victorious coalition−the Labor Party, which has dominated the country’s politics for 28 years−was the biggest loser. Its representation in Parliament fell from 74 seats to 62, forcing it to depend heavily on the Communists and left-wing Socialists to stay in power.

The election results were a distant echo of last year’s traumatic referendum, in which a majority of voters rejected Norway’s proposed membership in the European Economic Community. As a consequence, the Labor Party, which had supported membership, was forced to resign; in the ensuing period of recriminations and soul-searching, several new splinter parties were formed. Labor Party Leader Trygve Bratteli has vowed that his new government will not take orders from anyone, but he can not totally ignore the radical goals of other members of his alliance. These include increased taxation for wealthy Norwegians, a reduction in defense spending and eventual withdrawal from NATO.

* Swedes are the highest taxed people in the world, paying up to 42% of gross national product to the taxman (v. 30% in the U.S. and 19% in Japan).

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