Seeking safety in the center

SCANDINAVIA has long captured the imagination of outsiders -- for both its rugged, scenic terrain and the sturdy independence of its people. Nations that have evolved out of the rambunctious Viking tribalism of centuries back have become models of parliamentary government -- each in its own distinctive way seeking to strike a balance between modern industrial societies and the welfare state. This past weekend's national election in Sweden and the recent national election in neighboring Norway underscore the extent to which Scandinavians wish to maintain a careful equilibrium within this balancing act. Extremes, whether of left or right, were rejected. In both nations voters have sent messages that they wish the main outlines of their national welfare states to be left intact. At the same time, voters seem to be suggesting that there is a limit on the extent to which they are willing financi ally and politically to support extensive national welfare programs -- and that in both Sweden and Norway the limits may well have been reached, for the moment at least.

``We've won the victory for the welfare state'' is how Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme put it after being reelected to a three-year term. Mr. Palme, of course, is correct in his essential observation. Polls earlier this year had shown significant voter erosion for the feisty prime minister. In capturing some 45 percent of the total vote, Mr. Palme's party can be said to have resisted efforts by conservatives to dismantle welfare programs advocated by the left.

But Mr. Palme's victory was hardly sweeping. Indeed, his Social Democratic Party lost seats in Sunday's election to the Riksdag, the Swedish parliament. In fact, all major parties lost seats except the centrist Liberal Party, which came close to tripling its showing from the last election, in 1982.

One result of the election is that Mr. Palme's Socialist coalition is now more dependent than ever on the small Communist Party. That could be important in matters touching on security and defense.

Although Norway reelected a conservative coalition last week -- the government headed by Kaare Willoch, an economist and businessman -- it did so only by the merest margin. And Mr. Willoch would have to be considered a centrist, more eager to cap Norwegian social welfare spending than to end the welfare state. In that sense the Swedish result, with the Socialists returning to power but by a reduced margin, suggests something similar, the eagerness of Scandinavians at this time to avoid extremes.

Mr. Palme's Socialist coalition has its work cut out for it. Inflation is running high. The government has borrowed heavily and would have little financial margin to keep costly welfare programs going in event of a worldwide trade slowdown. One element is certain: Both Sweden and Norway, which are worldwide trading-nations, need to continue to modernize and upgrade their industrial bases, particularly regarding high technology.

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