Swedish elections turn on clean environment, clean politics

When Swedes go to the polls Sunday in the first general election since the 1986 assassination of Prime Minister Olof Palme, they will have two main issues on their minds: cleaning up the environment and a government scandal. Environment is the hottest political issue in Sweden right now. Adding fuel to the fire is the recent death of 7,000 seals in the North Sea and Baltic due to a new virus. The Social Democratic government, traditionally a tough-liner on pollution, has promised to crack down even harder if it wins the election this fall. And all parliamentary parties are promising to make Sweden a cleaner place to live.

In a recent poll, the ruling Social Democrats were leading with 47 percent of the vote, compared to the right wing's 44 percent. But the new Green Ecology Party, with 9 percent of the vote in a recent poll, is being called a ``wild card'' by political analysts here. It could replace the small Communist Party as the ``swing'' vote that could make or break a Social Democratic government.

No party relishes the prospect of an environmental fight more than the Greens. Although unrepresented in the Parliament, the party is expected to win more than the 4 percent margin needed to gain parliamentary representation.

Currently, the left-wing coalition, controlled by the Social Democratic Party, holds just over 50 percent of the seats in Parliament. For all but six of the past 55 years, it has been in power.

It remains unclear how the Greens would position themselves in the parliament. Greens representatives say they support neither of the large political ``blocks.'' And neither the Social Democrats nor the nonsocialist opposition parties want to try to govern in coalition with the Greens.

Prime Minister Ingvar Carlsson says he may call new elections rather than try to form a minority government.

For many years, this Scandinavian land of more than 8 million inhabitants has successfully used grass-roots pressure to force strict government pollution controls. The National Referendum of 1980, for example, mandated the shutdown of all nuclear power plants by the year 2010 (Sweden currently gets about 50 percent of its electricity from 12 nuclear power plants). Restrictions on discharges of chlorinated organic materials from pulp and paper mills, Sweden's largest export industry, are the most stringent in the world.

Sweden's lack of major economic or social problems may be another reason for the importance of environmental issues. Unemployment is 1.7 percent, and the standard of living is one of the highest in Europe.

``In Sweden we have virtually no unemployment, which makes it easier than in other countries to place a high priority on the environment,'' Prime Minister Carlsson said in a recent speech.

Mr. Carlsson took control of the Social Democratic Party after the Palme assassination. He is given high marks on common sense and is considered less abrasive than his predecessor. The election will be a test of his ability to win popular support among younger voters who feel that the Social Democrats have ruled too long.

The opposition, however, has found it hard to work up a lather with unemployment under 2 percent and taxes, though high, considered acceptable to pay for the cradle-to-grave social services.

Thus Sweden's opposition parties, with a history of petty squabbling among themselves, have been forced to focus on incremental changes: slightly lower taxes, privatization of day care and other public services, commercial TV, stronger defense, etc.

A government scandal in June, however, provided the opposition with plenty to talk about. In June, an evening newspaper revealed that Justice Minister Anna-Greta Leijon had authorized an unofficial investigation into the Palme assassination. The opposition forced the resignation of Mrs. Leijon and called a public, Irangate-style hearing during the summer.

The constitutional committee investigating the affair recently announced that Leijon had violated the Constitution and had lied publicly.

From a political standpoint, the scandal has hurt Carlsson, who defended Leijon, promising to give her a new position should the Social Democrats win.

In June, according to a Swedish poll, 58 percent of those polled agreed that Leijon should be given a new position in the Government. But after the summer hearings, the figure has dropped to 35 percent, with 10 percent of those responding saying the scandal will influence their vote in the election.

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