For nearly three-quarters of a century, the Social Democratic Party dominated Swedish politics—but not anymore. The party controlled the government for all but nine years over a seventy-four-year period before being ousted from power in 2006 by an alliance consisting of the Moderate, Liberal, Center and Christian Democratic parties. Last fall, the governing alliance—led by Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt of the Moderate Party—was re-elected. In the election, Reinfeldt’s Moderates received 30 percent of the vote and came close to becoming Sweden’s largest party, barely trailing the Social Democrats, who received 30.7 percent of the vote—their worst showing since 1914.

The re-election of Reinfeldt’s coalition was far from inevitable. During much of its first term, the opposition—consisting of the Social Democratic, Left and Green parties—led by up to 20 points in polls. This trend began to turn in autumn 2008 in conjunction with the global financial crisis and the formation of the three-party red-green opposition alliance, but it wasn’t until June 2010 that the governing alliance surpassed the opposition in the polls. One key reason for the Moderate-led alliance’s re-election was that it was perceived to be most capable of governing—traditionally seen as the Social Democrats’ strong suit. In particular, the alliance’s handling of the financial crisis went a long way toward increasing voter confidence.

But there was more to the alliance’s victory than simply a track record of good governance. At least as important was an overhaul of the Moderate Party’s platform launched by Reinfeldt when he took over eight years ago. Under his leadership, the party was transformed from a right-wing party perceived by many as elitist to a centrist party with broad appeal to the middle class.

Resurrecting a Troubled Party

In 2003, Reinfeldt became the leader of a seriously troubled party, which had lost one-third of its parliamentary seats in the previous year’s election. Inspired by other European parties that had successfully changed their images, such as Venstre in Denmark and Labor in the U.K., Reinfeldt launched the “New Moderates” concept. Gone were the persistent criticism of unions and demands for heavy tax cuts. In their place, the party’s new political messages were: People who work should benefit. We will improve government services such as education, healthcare and care for children and the elderly. We will have zero tolerance for crime.

The Moderates’ strategy was to challenge the Social Democrats on their own turf. The party abandoned unpopular positions, such as calling for reduced job security and elimination of rent control, which the Social Democrats had used against the Moderates in election debates for years. Rather than arguing that marginal tax rates should be lowered for those with high incomes in particular, the Moderates now proposed to decrease taxes for everyone, especially for those with low incomes. “Don’t pick the wrong fights,” Reinfeldt exhorted his fellow Moderates in a speech at the August 2005 party conference in Örebro. “We can’t win them all.”

To indicate that they aimed to improve conditions for workers, Moderate representatives started referring to their party as a “labor party,” co-opting a term traditionally applied to the Social Democrats and other left-wing parties.

Early on in the rebranding process, some Moderates criticized party leadership because they felt the party was straying from its principles. Some half-jokingly referred to themselves as “classic Moderates.” But Reinfeldt kept at it, and his critics soon realized that he was serious. Those who wanted to continue their career within the party had to get on board with his vision.

Party secretary Per Schlingmann’s management of the party’s internal communications was key to the rebranding efforts. He distributed a handbook entitled Words that the New Moderates Use that instructed party representatives how to frame various concepts. According to the handbook, Moderates were to say “improve” rather than “change,” “diversity” rather than “privatization,” and “individual companies” rather than “private enterprises.” Schlingmann also advised party representatives to leave the ties and pearl necklaces at home in favor of more casual outfits.

Another key strategy was to formalize the four-party alliance, uniting the Moderates with the Liberal, Center and Christian Democratic parties on a common platform. In previous elections, the parties had run separate campaigns and dealt with governance issues after the elections. But this time, they joined forces, set up a common Web site, held joint campaign events and refrained from criticizing each other. They even agreed in advance on who would serve as prime minister if the alliance won, typically a subject of great controversy. The new strategy proved successful, and after the 2006 election Reinfeldt formed the first Moderate-led government in more than a decade.

The leaders of the four parties in the governing alliance at a May 2010 rally.
From left to right: Göran Hägglund of the Christian Democratic Party, Jan
Björklund of the Liberal Party, Maud Olofsson of the Center Party, and Prime
Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt of the Moderate Party. The balloon reads, “Alliance
for Sweden.”

The Opposition Falters

Many observers believed that the alliance triumphed in 2006 thanks to the unpopularity of the Social Democrats’ leader, Göran Persson. Mona Sahlin, elected as the Social Democrats’ new leader in 2007, had a reputation as a political innovator and appeared to be the ideal choice to lead her party back to power, but she was unable to make the necessary changes.           

When she was elected party leader Sahlin believed that her party’s future depended on its alliance with the Green Party, which had strong support among progressive urban youth, and opposed a formal alliance with the formerly communist Left Party. But some of Sahlin’s party colleagues, who wanted to prevent the party from drifting too close to the middle, overrode her, and in 2008 the Social Democrats formed a red-green alliance with the Green and the Left parties.

“The red-green alliance signaled that Mona Sahlin was not the decision-maker, while the Social Democrats were sliding to the left,” says Niklas Nordström, former president of the Social Democratic Youth League and an internal party critic. Nonetheless, the Social Democrats had little problem motivating their party members to participate in the election campaign. Bo Krogvig, a campaign strategist for the Social Democrats and one of Sweden’s most experienced campaign managers, estimates that the party had not had as many activists working for it since the early 1980s, when it returned to power after six years in the opposition.

“Our face-to-face campaign succeeded beyond expectations,” says Krogvig. “More than 1,250,000 conversations were reported in our network-based campaign tool.” (Not bad, given that Sweden has just 7 million voters in all.) Krogvig believes the face-to-face outreach was key to motivating reluctant Social Democrats to vote and helped push the party’s share of the vote over 30 percent.

The red-green alliance also took inspiration from the Obama campaign’s use of social media. Its Facebook page received over 55,000 visitors, and 120,000 watched a speech by actor Stellan Skarsgård on YouTube supporting the red-green alliance and warning that changes implemented by the governing alliance such as privatization of state-owned companies and sales of government-owned housing could not be reversed.

Despite their successful outreach programs, the Social Democrats’ problem was that the party lacked support among highly educated middle-class voters in the big cities. In last fall’s parliamentary election, for example, the Social Democrats received only 21 percent of the vote in Stockholm, while the Moderates received 34 percent.

Television Campaign Ads Come to Sweden

A major difference between election campaigns in Sweden and the U.S. is that television campaign commercials have traditionally not been allowed in Sweden. But in last fall’s campaign, parties had the opportunity for the first time ever to broadcast commercials on TV4, a major national channel. Despite the ads’ novelty, experts generally agree that they had limited influence on the election’s outcome, in part due to restrictions agreed to by the parties.

“The rules were such that impact was hard to achieve,” says Krogvig. “We could not attack others, the format was predefined, and the commercials were not shown after the news and public-interest programs. In addition, we were limited to 750 target rating points, while a normal commercial campaign in Sweden has more than 3000 TRPs.”

The Moderates’ commercials argued that theirs was “the rewards of work, including increased self-worth, relationships with colleagues, and the joy of relaxing on the weekend after a hard week on the job. The idea was to further cement the image of the Moderate Party as a party for working people. The red-green alliance’s commercials depicted the choices facing voters as two different trains: one, representing the red-green alliance, chugged toward a modern, social-welfare society, and the other, representing the governing alliance, headed in another direction.

According to Schlingmann, personal conversations are still far more effective than television ads at reaching Swedish voters, so the Moderates launched the largest door-to-door campaign in its history. “Our goal was to knock on 300,000 doors,” he says. “We knocked on 540,059.” The door-to-door campaign underscored another key goal in the party’s rebranding effort: to counter the party’s reputation as indifferent to people’s concerns and convince skeptical voters that the Moderates were listening to them.

A Two-Party Election

While many people believe that campaigns are essential to determining the outcome of an election, others argue that Sweden’s 2010 election was decided much earlier, when the red-green alliance failed to develop a compelling alternative to the governing alliance.

“Its alliance with the Left Party forced the Social Democrats to swing left, which meant that they lost the middle voters,” says Carl Melin, a pollster and former opinion analyst for the Social Democrats.

The red-green alliance lacked credibility on issues such as job creation and managing public finances, says Melin, and unsuccessfully championed higher taxes and increased spending on social welfare programs. Even a well-run campaign couldn’t save the party from these deficits, he adds. Schlingmann contends that the 2010 election was unique in Swedish history because it pitted two formal alliances against each other, effectively transforming it into a two-party election. “In previous Swedish elections, various parties competed against each other rather than joining forces and presenting just two options,” he says. One consequence of this was that the Social Democrats could not distance themselves from the Left Party, as they had in previous election campaigns.

Schlingmann also thinks that the sitting alliance’s platform was a key to its victory. “The election became a crossroads election—a choice for the way forward, for example, between work or subsidies and responsible economics or more money for everyone,” he says. “We quickly understood that the election would be about two clear political alternatives and that it would be about who was best at managing Sweden’s economy,” says Pär Henriksson, the Moderate Party’s head of communications. “We maintained this strategy even when we were down in the polls over several quarters.”

Governing alliance party leaders holding flowers in Stockholm on
September 18, 2010, at the final campaign event before the election.
From left to right: Hägglund of the Christian Democratic Party, Björklund
of the Liberal Party, and Reinfeldt of the Moderate Party.

Moderates on the Rise

In the end, last fall’s election was a huge success for the Moderate Party, which enjoyed its best results since 1914. However, things didn’t go as well for the other governing alliance parties, each of which received between 5 percent and 8 percent of the vote. The resulting change in the balance of power among the governing alliance parties may create tension within the government. On the other hand, the election results left the Social Democrats leaderless and in disarray. Sahlin will step down at the party congress to be held this month, and at this point no one knows who will replace her.

Since the election, Moderate Party ratings have risen in opinion surveys, which indicate that it is now Sweden’s largest political party. The “New Moderates” concept has received extensive national and international recognition. The Moderates may have once hoped to emulate the rebranding of the U.K.’s Labor Party as “New Labor” in the 1990s. But now, along with the revitalized Tories under U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron, they have come to symbolize what Reinfeldt terms a “new type of right” that distances itself from old models of conservatism and wins broad support and the confidence of the public.

Jonas Hellman is a partner at Prime, one of Sweden’s leading public affairs agencies, where he has done work for the Moderate Party. He is based at Prime’s New York office.