Image: Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson. Via Frankie Fouganthin, Wikimedia Commons

How much influence the populist Sweden Democrats will have remains unclear

In mid-September an election took place in a very divided Sweden. The governing Social Democrats and their allies fell two seats short of a majority, opening the door to the right. A month later, Conservative Party leader and incoming Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson announced the signing of the four-party Tidö Agreement, named after the palace in which the negotiations were held. This agreement binds the Christian Democrats and Liberals, who join his government with six and five ministers respectively in the 24-member cabinet.

The fourth party to the deal is the populist Sverigedemokraterna or Sweden Democrats (SD). Though not in the cabinet, SD will have a secretariat in the administration, with a mandate to be involved in drafting bills, directing agencies and carrying on inquiries in all matters connected with crime and justice, immigration, economic growth and household economy, education, health care, climate and energy and a group of disparate issues. It will also have control of the annual government budget on par with the parties in the cabinet. Moreover, SD is well represented in parliamentary committees, several of which its members get to chair. There is an added wrinkle that is striking: the agreement sets out that there will be an “inner cabinet” consisting of the four party leaders. Membership in this inner cabinet will give SD leader Jimmie Åkesson added clout.

SD had a major impact on a number of topics dealt with in the agreement, especially immigration. For instance, repatriation of those who have entered as refugees was brought up, although this issue was not present in the electoral manifestos of the three parties in the cabinet, but has been on the SD agenda for many years.

Many prominent Liberals expressed misgivings about the influence of SD in the government, including one who was appointed to the cabinet – 26-year-old Romina Pourmokhtari, named Minister of the Environment (though it no longer exists as a separate ministry). One appointment that reduced concerns about the direction of the new government was that of a veteran Conservative, unlikely to change course, to head the foreign office. With these and other appointments, there have been mixed signals about the course of the new government. Nevertheless, the overwhelming attitude of the media and opposition supporters has been distrust.

As far as application of the agreement is concerned, the immediate step consists of comprehensive inquiries. The usual procedures are to be followed, which means that any implementation of the reforms will take time and may be put on hold. First on the list is an inquiry into the pros and cons of nationalizing health care. Since the four parties disagree on this issue, it is not likely anything along these lines will happen. Other, less controversial, reforms in health care can be expected. These could to some extent strengthen the position of the national government vis-à-vis the second tier of democratic government, the regions, which are responsible for carrying out health care management.

Though the agreement stresses the new government’s concern about climate change, the energy section’s emphasis on lowering the price of electricity tends to run counter to that objective. There is some focus on research on emerging energy technologies such as carbon capture and storage, but the main emphasis is on nuclear power. A very large sum, 300 billion Swedish kronor ($30 billion USD), is set aside for loan guarantees for nuclear power, while other nonfossil forms of energy such as wind power will need to charge a price based on the full cost of production, including transmission of electricity through the national grid.

Nothing is said about the existing general agreement on climate policy passed by parliament, which includes several programs that especially affect industry, agriculture and forestry. In that agreement, goals are set for five-year cycles of net CO2 emissions gradually working their way to zero. How this will be attained is left vague.

Policies on crime are focused on gangs, shootings and juvenile delinquency. After Ulf Kristersson introduced the new government at a press conference, SD leader Åkesson read out the bits of the Tidö Agreement his party liked best: longer prison sentences, temporary zones in which police have special powers, anonymous witnesses, more frequent deportations. Can a law-abiding society rely on searches of people’s homes without any solid basis of suspicion? Many Liberals, including Romina Pourmokhtari, are uncomfortable with this part of the agreement. The Stockholm district of the Liberal Party has called for a party conference to discuss the agreement, since it violates several “red lines” that the Liberal Party congress decided on prior to the election.

Immigration is, of course, the centrepiece. The agenda includes expelling immigrants from Sweden for breaking the law, belonging to a gang, using drugs and similar actions. Illegial immigrants are to be detected and deported, and immigrants are to be encouraged to return to their ”home countries.”

It is stated in the introduction that asylum should be reserved for those fleeing Sweden´s neighbouring countries, and then only temporarily. People from countries such as Afghanistan, Somalia and Ukraine are out. Asylum should be restricted as far as possible, down to the minimum requirements of European Union legislation. The number of UN-quota refugees welcomed will be no more than 900 a year (down from 6.400). There is a lot more that will discourage fleeing people from coming to Sweden, including a requirement to stay in ”transit centres” as long as the judicial procedure goes on. Asylum seekers will be required to pay for their health insurance, and for interpreters.

If all these reforms are implemented Sweden will get closer to being a police state, one in which anyone can be stopped and searched anywhere at any time. There is, however, some hope that the inquiries planned to take place in advance will temper the actual application of the reforms.

When it comes to education, the schools have come in for criticism for being focused too little on ”facts” and too much on reasoning, critical analysis and independent inquiry. This is where the Liberals, who have pushed for ”fact-based” schooling, have had the most input. Since many of the specific measures are in line with what some Social Democrats have proposed, educational policy will not be a very controversial matter.

Economic growth is to be fostered by limiting household subsidies – though because of the current inflation caused by Russia´s aggression against Ukraine, there will be subsidies to households to compensate them for rising prices of food, electricity and loans. In addition, the program calls for lower income taxes for low- and middle-income earners, while at the same time reducing social benefits. Since lowering social benefits is something SD opposes, it remains uncertain what will come out of this. Various efforts will be made to promote economic efficiency and competitiveness in the form of administrative deregulation (nothing much happened after previous such efforts were undertaken). While there has been talk of reducing corporate taxes, nothing specific is included.

A series of lesser reforms are noted at the end. One is of special interest for anyone who has worked with public administration: reintroduction of a strict code of civil servant responsibility – including being penalized for giving false information.

— Richard Murray and Henry Milner

The debate in the Liberal Party

I circulated a draft of the above to several Swedish colleagues and incorporated their suggestions, most of which were minor. Here I present excerpts from my correspondence with two colleagues who disagreed strongly about the likely consequences of the new government’s taking power. They reflect the divisions within the Liberal Party.

— Henry Milner

An awkward compromise, but not a puppet government under SD

A few reflections from a – probably – dissident liberal.

The governance agreement seems to be the only possible solution to the election outcome. Until now, the growth of SD from an insignificant and extremist party to 20 per cent backing has been extremely unfortunate in that it caused an almost total refusal by all the other parties to grapple with the obvious chaos in the immigration situation. Now the centre-right parties, supported to some extent by the Social Democrats, seem to have endorsed a restrictive policy. It is a compromise and some parts seem awkward, especially to Liberals, but to describe it as a puppet government under SD (as some in the new opposition do) is just rubbish.

The campaign against the three coalition parties, especially in Dagens Nyheter, has been worse than rubbish. SD has been called a fascist, neofascist, protofascist party with Nazi roots by people who seem to think that everything nasty is fascism. There are even allegations of antisemitism – based on false interpretations of the minority laws. There are many reasons to be cautious about SD and some of its followers are simply ignorant, but unfortunately, many more than just the 20 per cent who voted for them favour a tougher immigration policy and are not put off by the party’s antagonistic message.

Listening to Social Democratic leader Magdalena Andersson, I was happy to hear something of a repudiation of the worst accusations against SD for being authoritarian. The loser of this sad story is Annie Lööf and the traditionally agrarian and now environmental-protection-focused Centre Party. Her concentration on ostracizing SD took attention away from the party’s own political program. One such attack was on the SD’s Björn Söder’s statement that the Sámi were Swedish. But in fact, Söder is right: the Sámi in Sweden are a national minority with exclusive rights. They can decide themselves if they want to call themselves Sámi or Swedes or both, but unlike the Kurds in Turkey, they are not expected to be assimilated into the majority population.

— Thomas Lunden

A surrender to the main goals of SD

The Tidö Agreement is not a compromise, as Thomas and the right-wing parties maintain. It is more or less a surrender to the main goals of the Sweden Democrats (SD). Migration, crime policy and denial of the climate threat – those are the main profile issues of the agreement. Admittedly, the Social Democrats were also influenced by the right-wing tendencies – they support allowing searches of people´s houses without any clear suspicions, more control of individuals, intruding ”trojans” in private computers, etc. – still far from what the new right-wing government is planning.

Thomas maintains that the critique the largest morning paper, the Liberal Dagens Nyheter, has presented against SD for being neofascist with Nazi roots is ”worse than rubbish.” But that is exactly true! The leadership has its roots in neo-Nazi groups in the 1980s. As late as January and February 2022, the SD’s very strategic leader, Jimmie Åkesson, could not choose between favouring Putin or Biden! But after February 24 he got quiet …

Thomas maintains that the right-wing coalition with strong SD influence was ”the only possible solution.” Well, certainly for those Liberals who identify as “borgerliga,” bourgeois, as some sort of friendly half-conservatives. But strong social Liberal leaders such as Bertil Ohlin and Bengt Westerberg never labelled themselves borgerliga – they saw their party as a third force.

Unfortunately the right-wing Liberals were able to take over the party in 2019, rejecting the possibility of forming a ”middle” force, as Annie Lööf proposed. So she was left alone to defend Liberal values and stand up against any form of cooperation with the SD. The Centre Party lost many of its traditional regional strongholds outside the big cities to the populists in SD. In my view it was not so much the liberal social values that Annie Lööf stressed that were rejected, but the rather neoliberal economic policy of the party.

Finally, on foreign policy, I think we should be more concerned. The new Conservative Foreign Minister states that Swedish policy will no longer be labelled “feminist” and will concentrate on neigbouring countries and the EU. Moreover, SD will have more influence since it will chair the justice and foreign policy committees and provide the vice-chair of the defence committee – this despite the Conservatives’ promise to keep SD away from foreign policy and defence.

— Olof Kleberg

Last word

Richard and most of my correspondents tended to side with Olof, but my own view is closer to Thomas’s. As I wrote to Olof,

Perhaps because I have been observing Sweden from the outside for 40 years, I am inclined to expect (hope?) that when it comes to action rather than words – which in a multiparty agreement are typically chosen to allow each party to interpret them somewhat differently – more moderate choices will be made. Thomas points out that the new Minister of Justice, Gunnar Strömmer, a respected lawyer and a moderate, has underlined that no law will be enacted without careful and lawful scrutiny of all aspects.

— Henry Milner