Under new leader Håkan Juholt the Social Democrats are hurting the incumbent centre-right government.

“Do you strike when your opponent is weakest, or do you strike when you are the strongest.” Håkan Juholt who has been leader of the Swedish social democrats since March 2011 was thinking out loud.

Juholt got elected after the party had experienced their worst crisis in modern history. 7 out of 10 Swedes had never heard of him and 2010 had been a setback of historic proportions.

The party had lost votes not just in one, but in three different directions: to the green party, to prime minister Fredrik Reinfeldt’s new “progressive conservatism”, and to the nationalistic Sweden Democrats.

It presented a threefold dilemma from which there seemed to be no escape. Young people in Stockholm were attracted to the idealistic and urban message of the growing green movement. However the same policies that might attract these voters back to social democracy, would antagonise the traditional social democratic base. And large part of that base is vulnerable to exactly the type of nationalistic fears that the Sweden Democrats are exploiting.

To make it even harder there is no longer a clear ideological opponent against which to define a revitalised centre-left. Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt has remade centre-right politics in Sweden by moving his party towards the centre and won two elections in a row.

So what do you do?

Håkan Juholt’s strategy has been to first and foremost take on Reinfeldt’s claim that he and his centre-right party is now the defining progressive force in Swedish politics.

In the last election Reinfeldt positioned himself as the stable and responsible alternative against what he named”the red green experiment”. Reinfeldt took on the role, traditionally held by the social democrats: defending strong public finances and promising stable and competent governing.

Instead of continuing to try and expose Reinfeldt as a wolf in sheep’s clothing, Juholt began his tenure by seemingly concluding that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. If Reinfeldt is imitating the Social Democrats, then the Social Democrats are still the defining party in Swedish politics. It is time to start acting like a leading force again.

Instead of reacting to what the government does Juholt has been trying to define the social democratic project. It is still very unclear what he means when he repeats his mantra of “knowledge based economy, social investment policies and value based growth”, but, nevertheless, the political weather in Sweden has changed. This, however, probably has more to do with the other part of Juholt’s strategy.

The Social Democrats decided that it was time to show the public that Reinfeldt was in fact heading a weak minority government. Reinfeldt’s centre-right coalition won a second mandate last September but fell two seats short of a majority. This has not been a big problem for him: the Sweden Democrats, which entered parliament for the first time, have been voting with the government 9 out of 10 times. However during the last couple of months Reinfeldt has started to lose key votes in parliament.

The government has criticised Juholt for the way he is using the parliamentary voting system but the strategy has worked. The big test waits this autumn. The opposition has found a gap in the budget law that makes it possible to stop what is being determined at the core of the government’s economic policy. If Reinfeldt does not back down and start negotiating either with the Greens or the Social Democrats Juholt might decide to push him towards dissolving the government and calling a new election. It is possible, but perhaps not that likely.

The government is paralysed over the recent development and would perform badly however the social democrats are also still weak; Juholt has not even had time to recruit a full office of staff. Hence his question: “Do you strike when your opponent is weakest, or do you strike when you are the strongest?”

A contribution to The State of the Left, a monthly bulletin from Policy Network’s Social Democracy Observatory

Katrine Kielos is lead-writer for Aftonbladet, Sweden and Scandanavia’s largest daily newspaper