Ahead of the Swedish general election this year Bonniers published a box of paperback biographies of the 22 men who have been prime minister since 1905. The final volume in the series is naturally about the current Prime Minister, Fredrik Reinfeldt, and has been written by Björn Elmbrant, who was for many years a well-known political journalist and is also the author of biographies of the former prime ministers Olof Palme and Thorbjörn Fälldin.
Elmbrant’s task has been a bit different from that of the other authors in this series in that he was the only one not to write about a finished premiership. At the time the book went to press it was an open question whether or not Reinfeldt would be re-elected and thus whether the four years described in the book would be his entire premiership or just the first half (or beginning). Now we do of course know the outcome of the election – Reinfeldt lost his parliamentary majority, but remains in office as the leader of the largest block in Parliament.
The book begins with the election night in 2006, when Reinfeldt, his conservative Moderate Party and their centre-right coalition partners wrested power from Göran Persson and the Social Democrats, but then goes on to chart Reinfeldt’s background and early political career.
He was not always a favourite of the party leadership, particularly not after he co-authored a book which, following the party’s electoral defeat in 1994, was seen as a personal attack on Carl Bildt, the party leader and outgoing prime minister, an incident which caused Bildt to give Reinfeldt a sound verbal whipping at a meeting of the parliamentary group (Bildt is now foreign minister in Reinfeldt’s cabinet).
Following the disastrous election result of 2002 – the Moderate Party received only 15.2 % - Reinfeldt was elected leader of the party, which he in Blairish fashion rebranded “the New Moderates”. Elmbrant sees this as the break-through of PR politics and states that this has caused “the ability to communicate” to become at least as important in politics as content and economic possibilities.
Elmbrant considers the election victory in 2006 the result of good preparations and hard work, but is apparently not much impressed with Reinfeldt’s early leadership. Two of his ministers were forced to resign within a week after their appointment and were shortly thereafter followed by a state secretary who was one of the Prime Minister’s key advisers.
Reinfeldt did not handle the scandals very well, which Elmbrant in part ascribes to the fact that he had declined the opportunity a new government has to postpone the budget in order to push through his wide-reaching reforms as soon as possible and that this gave him little time to handle the ministerial crises. Three weeks after the government took over it lost its majority in the opinion polls to the opposition.
The following two years were beset with problems and difficulties for the government. Elmbrant considers the handling of the controversial FRA law, which gives the authorities wide powers to control telephone and Internet traffic and which was pushed through in Parliament by a narrow margin, particularly bad. This he sees as an example of how Reinfeldt has not been able to create political agreements across the blocks on big issues, which has been something of a tradition in Swedish politics.
(Interestingly, Reinfeldt has in the past weeks shown himself to be more adept at this since losing his majority and by brokering a deal over Afghanistan with the Social Democrats and the Green Party managed to reach a compromise at the same time as the right-wing extremists the Sweden Democrats were kept away from any influence and the three so-called red-green opposition parties and their formalised cooperation were split apart as the Left Party did not wish to support the compromise).
Elmbrant also considers Reinfeldt’s professed commitment to climate issues quite hollow when held against the government’s actual politics, but accords him credit for having stood up for his politics when he pushed through the very unpopular limitations in social security. And he points out that the government has actually made good of most of their electoral promises from 2006 and not fallen apart, which is in itself an achievement when one considers the history of previous coalition governments.
Elmbrant’s assessment of Fredrik Reinfeldt and his premiership seems mostly fair, although one can read behind the lines that the author is no supporter of the current government. And although he mostly tries to be constructive in his criticism there is at least one statement which reflects badly on the author himself. “Most of them are born in the seventies, many come from the PR profession, and can be suspected of favouring fast, shallow results rather than wise, practical and juridically waterproof reforms”, he writes about the government’s political advisors. This seems like an elderly man’s sweeping generalisation of an entire generation.