AT THE start of the year the Social Democrats, who ruled Sweden for most of the 80 years up to 2006, were miserable. With a record-low rating, the party ditched its leader, Hakan Juholt, who had been ten months in the job. Fredrik Reinfeldt’s centre-right government smirked. After election wins in 2006 and 2010, Mr Reinfeldt looked forward to a hat-trick in 2014.
Yet the Social Democrats’ new leader, Stefan Lofven, a trade-union boss and former welder, has led a recovery that has surprised even his supporters. The party’s rating bounced up to 37% in a poll this week from Statistics Sweden, a rise of ten points from the previous poll in November. If they ally with the Greens and the Left, the Social Democrats could win a majority were an election held today.
Some of this stems from the removal of Mr Juholt, an untested maverick who made several blunders during his stint as leader. In contrast Mr Lofven, who knows Swedish industry well, is respected both on factory floors and by bosses. Mr Lofven claims the party has once again started to get its ideas across to voters. His main battleground is unemployment, which despite strong recent growth was still 7.8% in April, and much higher for youth and long-term unemployment. “The government has trusted the markets and lower taxes to solve the problem. It has obviously not worked,” he argues.
A failure to win back the urban middle class largely explains the Social Democrats’ defeats in the past two elections. But Mr Lofven insists that city folk want the same things as other Swedes. The job market may be better in the big cities, but unemployment is still a problem, he says.
He has also benefited from recent setbacks for Mr Reinfeldt. A weapons-export scandal led the defence minister to resign in March. Media reports of neglect in privatised homes for the elderly cast a shadow on the government’s other efforts to privatise parts of the welfare state. And Mr Reinfeldt’s brave claim that Swedes must work longer in future, perhaps until 75, did not go down well with voters.
On the plus side, his finance minister, Anders Borg, remains widely respected for his handling of the financial crisis and for maintaining strict fiscal discipline. GDP grew by a stunning 6.1% in 2010 and 3.9% in 2011. Growth has slowed recently because of slumping export demand, but the economy has avoided recession. In the first quarter of 2012, it grew by 1.5% year-on-year, beating analysts’ forecasts.
The Social Democrats know they cannot turn back the clocks on all the reforms introduced by Mr Reinfeldt and Mr Borg. Scrapping their income-tax cuts would put off voters who have jobs and are now used to the extra money. A tax break for hiring cleaning staff and baby-sitters, a hugely popular reform among the urban well-to-do, is also here to stay.
Critics of Mr Lofven say he avoids difficult choices. For example, as a union boss with members employed in heavy industry, he once embraced cheap nuclear energy. Yet in 2009 his party said that Sweden’s reactors should be phased out. Mr Lofven has not spelt out his views now. But perhaps evasion makes sense. The election is two years off, so there is no need for Mr Lofven to show all his cards yet—especially not the weak ones.