The timing is difficult to understand, but the desire to go is not. After eleven years as party leader, eight of which as prime minister, it surely feels quite attractive to wear down the opposition bench.
Regardless of wherever Reinfeldt moves onto in spring, he can look back on a reign of many good results: Sweden has weathered the economic crisis better than comparable countries, government debt is low, the tax burden has become more bearable and employment is high. Around the time of the election, came a survey by the German Bertelman Foundation, which places Sweden first in Europe in terms of social justice. The election campaign’s harsh words about how cold Sweden has become, and how far it has fallen, does not correspond with reality (which is also confirmed by the weak election results for S, MP and V, who excelled in their outpourings about how welfare has been hollowed out).
But if Reinfeldt and the Moderates have done so well, why did it go so badly for them in the election? A first explanation is that the electorate, after eight years, had simply grown tired and wanted to try something new. Few European governments are re-elected nowadays. A second is that the alliance lost its majority in 2010 and it then got a lot harder to take and retain the political initiative. A third is that they bet on fair phrases and pious hopes rather than integration policies, prompting disgruntled voters to go to SD. Mismanagement of defence hardly improved matters.
Before the main opposition party begins to find its way in a world without Reinfeldt, Borg and government power, however, I suggest another possible reason for the setback on 14 September: the one who grasps after much loses everything. That the Moderates have become so much less is due not least to the fact that they tried to be so much greater.
The autumn of 2011 was a crucial period. Hakan Juholt’s short honeymoon period was over and his leadership already felt shaky compared to the duo of Reinfeldt-Borg. In October, it was time for the Moderate party conference in Örebro and the Prime Minister went into a higher gear. Now, it would no longer be enough for the Moderates to be an equal competitor to S, but they would take over and become the new society-supporting party.
In an amazing DN-interview (21/10 2011), Fredrik Reinfeldt signalled that it was time to become something much bigger than a large bourgeois party. When asked how big the Moderates could be, he set the crossbar to the world record height: "The Moderates’ task must be to be an attractive proposition for all voters. There will basically be no voters who would say less than 'yes, I would vote for the Moderates'."
All voters included. Not one voter on the other side. The entire people's party.
What was required to get there? Well, the doors must be opened wide: "To divide right from wrong ideas goes against my idea of the need to reconcile this with pragmatism and listening."
No one would feel excluded because they had a certain opinion. Everything was about solving practical problems anyway. In the people's party.
Obviously, the Moderates, nor Reinfeldt, went quite so far in practice. But, the concept has survived and had a major impact. Being a leading ideas-party was too unambitious and exclusive. If the Moderates were to be really big, other things needed to be applied: accountability, competence, public interest and focus on commonalities. Tough debates should be stayed far away from, in case one was not sure to win quickly -- this would only confirm an outdated image of the party as for the special interests of a few, not the general public interest.
Three weeks after the party congress, DagensNyheter published articles about nappy weighing at Carema’s elderly care homes, and from the Moderates we heard silence – in the best case. We were presented with standing up for freedom of choice and enterprise. The risk was imminent that they would be dragged off their new pedestal. The drive continued undisturbed, and the Moderates found themselves hopelessly on the defensive and have been there ever since. The public was not fully convinced that the party was ideology-free but still liked the diversity and private alternatives, but thought that the representatives had been too cowardly to say it.
The eagerness to win "all" got the Moderates to take down their own defences, and made it almost impossible to develop the offensive issues with real substance. For, in reality, all content is more or less controversial. This was Fredrik Reinfeldt's big mistake, and the new leaders will do well to think as much about that as about his success.