Pictured: Magdalena Andersson. Via Frankie Fouganthin, Wikipedia Commons.

Things appear to be looking up for social democracy in northern Europe. Four of the five Nordic countries are now led by the traditional centre-left. Sweden, where the political wing of the labour movement dominated politics for much of the 20th century, has had a Social Democratic Prime Minister since 2014. It has just got another one. In replacing the retiring Stefan Löfven, Magdalena Andersson is the second woman to lead the party – and the first to lead Sweden.

The northern revival confirms the enduring relevance of European social democracy. Still, that revival should not be overstated. Every current Nordic prime minister relies on support from both within and beyond the left to fill out a parliamentary majority. Such heterogeneous support can pull a party in all sorts of uncomfortable directions.

Sweden offers the clearest example of these political contortions. Löfven ran consecutive minority coalitions of his Social Democrats and the small Green Party. That in itself was occasionally testing; the Social Democrats were not entirely heartbroken when the Greens opted against joining Andersson’s new government, while still supporting it in parliament. Much more difficult, though, had been the need for the coalition to strike legislative deals with liberal parties – and, concurrently, to maintain the compliance of an increasingly disgruntled radical-left party. This balancing act very nearly collapsed in the summer. The government’s parliamentary majority is now as thin and precarious as it
could possibly be.

Nor did the political contradictions end with a change of prime minister. In fact, they induced a day of political surrealism. The Greens’ departure from government was triggered – so they claimed, anyway – by parliament’s adopting the right-wing opposition’s budget, just hours after the same parliament had approved Andersson as prime minister. (One of the liberal parties, having painted itself into various corners, abstained on both votes. Because the decisions were subject to different voting rules, this created two different parliamentary majorities – one including the Social Democrats, one against them.) The Greens’ unexpected decision forced Andersson to resign immediately as Prime Minister–designate and endure a new vote of investiture a few days later.

Finally ensconced in office, Andersson’s intention then was simply to put up with working according to the opposition’s budget. It was hardly an auspicious start to her time in charge.

The parliamentary election next September will constitute a still more profound test. Opinion polls point to a tight race. The Social Democrats will want the campaign to revolve around the economy. They will snipe at the established opposition parties’ detente with the far right. The opposition, meanwhile, will seek to drag attention to law and order – and it is not hard to see why. Violent conflict between criminals in Sweden has reached drastic levels. Deaths by shooting have risen far above the European average.¹

The challenges from opponents and the demands of allies would be enough to cause any Social Democratic leader some serious headaches. How will Andersson address them? In what direction will she seek to take her party? The answers to such questions are supremely unclear. And that might turn out to be her biggest problem.

The end of (Social Democratic) history?

Who is Magdalena Andersson? Over seven years as Sweden’s Finance Minister, she has acquired a reputation as a clever, tough
and rather prickly custodian of the nation’s accounts. Journalists relate that she does not suffer fools gladly.

Yet little is known about her political skills. She has been an active Social Democrat since school, but her career, which tempted her away from doctoral research, has involved a succession of advisory and administrative roles within the party and its governments. She had stints at a think tank and at the Swedish Tax Agency. Before she became Finance Minister, she was more a “policy professional” than a politician. In fact, she has no real experience of elected public office. She did win a parliamentary seat in 2014, but immediately passed it to a substitute when she joined the government, in accordance with Swedish practice. She is certainly not much of an orator.

It might seem odd that Sweden, and its Social Democratic Party, are about to get a leader who has barely been involved in electoral or parliamentary politics. It is surely even odder that the country and party will be getting their second such leader in a row.

Before he shouldered the burden of political leadership, Löfven was a trade union boss. Most Swedish unions still enjoy close ties to Social Democracy, and his status helped him onto the party’s executive committee. After the Social Democrats descended into their worst-ever crisis in 2011–12, over how to deal with a disastrous choice of leader just a few months before, Löfven succumbed to the blandishments of his party colleagues and agreed to step in as replacement. He was not their first choice. One and possibly two former cabinet ministers, both of whom had left politics some years before, reportedly first declined the job. What all three had in common was that they had no known views on any contemporary political issues.

Löfven was, in other words, a neutral figure, a classic caretaker. The caretaker then led his party to power. How did he do it? By sitting still in – i.e. not rocking – the boat, to use a Swedish expression. Circumstances were favourable: the centre-right opposition was and remains fatally split over whether it can work with the far right in parliament.

In a way, the Löfven years have been good for Swedish Social Democracy. The party’s vote has declined, yes. After winning over 45 per cent in the 1994 election and nearly 40 per cent as recently as 2002, it took 28 per cent in 2018 and is currently polling below that level. But pretty much all the old mass parties of continental Europe have suffered electoral decline. The Social Democrats have held onto power and remained central to Swedish politics. They have offered Swedish voters stability. A good number have appreciated that.

Still, like any good thing, stability can come in excess. The Swedish media have not fully appreciated the intellectual stasis that has beset the Social Democrats. For sure, it would have been unreasonable to expect radical, transformative policy projects from weak minority governments. Yet there has been no serious policy initiative of any type from the party through Löfven’s entire tenure. Its only substantial proposal before the 2018 election, an extra week of paid holiday for families with children, has not yet been implemented. No other party on the left sees it as a priority. Even Social Democrats seem halfhearted about it.

Then again, they seem halfhearted about most policy questions these days. A long list of piecemeal measures to combat criminal violence, including moderately enhanced police powers and slightly tougher prison sentences, was presented in 2019.² Laws have been changed since, but often at a snail’s pace. There is little sense of anyone in government really driving the initiative and staking a reputation on its success.

Crisis management, meanwhile, has largely been farmed out to public agencies. A necessary condition for Sweden’s idiosyncratic response to the COVID-19 pandemic was that Löfven’s government ceded almost complete control to a handful of bureaucrats in the Public Health Agency, who happened to take rather eccentric positions.³

The row, about rent control, that nearly brought down the government in June pitched two of its support parties, a liberal one and the radical-left one, against each other. The liberal party had previously been involved in a dispute about labour-market rules, which employers and unions eventually resolved. The same party picked yet another fight, this one with the Greens, about building regulation. Immigration, still Sweden’s most sensitive issue, was finally reformed this past spring, just before a temporary law expired, but only after tortuous negotiations between the four supposed allies in the parliamentary majority. (Among other measures, the residence permits granted to refugees will normally be temporary rather than permanent. It may also become easier for certain migrants who are already in Sweden to stay, although exactly how the law will work in practice remains uncertain.)

In all these episodes, the Social Democrats, a party that is much bigger than its allies put together, acted like an arbitration service. It was as if they had no preferences of their own – other than on the need for compromise to preserve their parliamentary majority. The substantive content of the compromises seemed unimportant.

Parties’ primary interest, some political scientists say, has come to be in governing rather than in representing a particular segment of the electorate or in changing society in any particular direction. If the thesis is correct, the Swedish Social Democrats exemplify it. But how long can they continue down this path? It is hard to envisage exciting prospects for such a depoliticized political party.

A peculiar and fascinating method of choosing a leader

Could things now change? Could Andersson revive her party’s interest in policy? The Social Democrats’ own institutions complicate that task, notably in the party’s method of choosing a leader, which is peculiar and fascinating. A small committee – known as a valberedning – runs the process. Put simply, its job is to channel and conceal the internal competition that inevitably surrounds its decision. The committee will discuss the vacancy with regional branches, parliamentarians and affiliated trade unions. Meanwhile, no aspiring leader will mount anything like a personal leadership campaign, or even acknowledge being a candidate. Indeed, such an acknowledgement would immediately scupper the aspirant’s chances. The conceit is that the committee calls a certain individual to the role of leader. If the individual humbly accepts the invitation, the party congress confirms the appointment.

The system has its merits. No political organization enjoys advertising its internal disagreements to the outside world; there are good reasons for a party to try to avoid doing so. The Social Democrats’ valberedning, moreover, is less a unitary actor than a forum in which sections of the party bargain with one another. The valberedning cannot just disregard the preferences of the congress delegates. Rather, it must discern and anticipate those preferences. Failure to do so would risk, in extremis, a rebellion in the congress – a debacle that has occasionally occurred in other Swedish parties.

Like any selection method, however, this one has its downsides – and one of them may be particularly awkward for the party now. This problem is related to a new leader’s mandate.

The valberedning seeks to foster internal consensus around a new leader – almost at any price. But in contemporary Sweden’s disorienting, multidimensional political space, it is getting harder to find a leader whom (nearly) all Social Democrats can live with. A colourless leadership nominee, one whom no faction feels impelled to refuse, is thus increasingly likely to emerge from the process. Yet that sort of leader only cements the party’s impasse. Without an ideological platform or even much of an ideological reputation, the leader cannot subsequently claim a mandate to lead in any distinct direction.

In the latest selection process, talk of epic behind-the-scenes battles came to nothing. Andersson’s seniority in government made her a strong candidate from the start. That she is a woman, that her party is so self-consciously feminist, that it was embarrassed by Sweden’s being the one Nordic country never to have had a female prime minister – all this, combined with her credentials, made her unbeatable. Her rivals melted away. Every one of the Social Democrats’ 26 regional branches nominated her as its preferred candidate. And this means that she was chosen because of who she is and what she has done, not because of her ideas about the future. No one knows what her ideas are.

What might they be? Interestingly, the “woke” tendency that holds such sway over much of the anglophone left these days is less ascendant in Sweden; its influence seems to have peaked several years ago. That still leaves many possible political strategies, though. Occasionally, Andersson has strayed beyond her economic brief and hinted at wanting a tougher approach to crime. Recently, she suggested raising taxes on savings, thus pitching to the left. The two positions might even be compatible, as the Danish Social Democrats have shown in recent years.

Yet who knows how committed Andersson really is to one idea or another? Just as importantly, who knows what her party wants – or at least is prepared to accept? A leader-selection process that featured open competition between candidates might have exposed the fissures among the Social Democrats, but it could also have revealed where the party’s centre of ideological gravity lies. They never got that chance. No one knows where it lies.
Perhaps Andersson will confound such pessimism. She might turn out to have more political acumen than people realize. She might create her own mandate, her own scope to lead, maybe through winning the 2022 election. Or perhaps Swedish Social Democracy will remain paralyzed, incapable of renewing itself, just hanging around until Swedish voters eventually forget what the point of the party ever was.

This article was published as part of a larger elections feature for Inroads 50. To check out the rest, go to Elections Bring Change (Except in Canada).

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