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Sweden Shifts Right as It Prepares to Lead the Council of the EU

Gunilla Herolf (Swedish Institute of International Affairs)

The results of the Swedish parliamentary elections on 11 September 2022 were met with bewilderment and concern in many countries as well as among many in Sweden. The reason for this reaction was that the big winner (increasing its share of the vote from 17 to 20 percent) were the Sweden Democrats (SD), a party which, when founded in the 1980s, included some neo-Nazi supporters among its founders. The success of the SD meant that it replaced the Moderates as the second largest party behind the Social Democrats.

For a long time other parties kept their distance from the Sweden Democrats. However, the hard line against them was broken when first the Moderates in 2018, later followed by the Christian Democrats, stated that they could imagine cooperating with the SD on issues where the views coincided, but would not join a government together with the party. When in 2022 the Liberals also joined the other two in being open to cooperation with the SD, the four parties stood a realistic chance to depose the coalition of Social Democrats which, supported by the Green and the Left Party, had ruled since 2014,.

The importance of this situation is related to the fact that Swedish politics is highly based on party blocs. This has meant that traditionally Swedish governments have consisted of either a coalition between the four non-socialist parties or of a Social-Democratic government supported by the Left and the Green Party. Except on the local level there are no historical cases of any grand coalitions between the traditional major parties, for example the Social Democrats and the Moderates, in order to get a majority government. For the Moderates and the Christian Democrats cooperation with the SD, a party they had themselves declared to be very far from their own values, was in the present situation their only chance to come into power.

For the Liberals the decision was, however, very painful. While they favoured a change of government and cooperation with their previous partners, the Moderates and the Christian Democrats, their policy was closer to the left than either of the other two. The party leadership, after a long process of internal discussions, finally declared they would side with the other two in cooperating with the Sweden Democrats but this would only take place in such a way that would not lead them to a compromise their own values. However, this did not convince all its members and voters. Some members have left the party and others voted for other parties, many of them supporting the liberal Centre Party, which had decided to support the Social Democrats. The internal discussion is still very heated.

The Election

The results of the elections were that the Social Democrats got 30,33% of the votes, the Sweden Democrats 20,54%, the Moderates 19,10%, the Left Party 6,75%, the Centre Party 6,71%, the Christian Democrats 5,34%, the Green Party 5,08% and the Liberal Party 4,61%. This gave the right-wing parties a narrow victory over the left-wing ones. The voter turnout was 84,21%.

The outcome was not totally unexpected in Sweden. For some period before the election much of the political debate had focused on the increased level of gang violence in the country. Unlike the established parties the SD had for a long time focused on this problem. As the number of deaths increased, and the shootings of gang members often took place without regard for the safety of other people, it finally became a major issue for all parties, but the SD still had the benefit of having reacted early.

Furthermore, among the established parties it was for a long time taboo to mention the fact that the members of these gangs were primarily of foreign descent, whereas for the SD this was an important issue. While other parties did not share the SD’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies, the discussion during the summer among all parties came to focus on asking why integration policies had not succeeded better. The fact that Sweden during the crisis of 2015 had received far more people per capita than any other European country (except for Turkey) and still is among the top recipients of asylum seekers in Europe, also became part of the discussions.

The Agreement

Even though the SD had received a larger share of the votes than any of the other opposition parties, it was inconceivable for all concerned that their leader, Jimmy Åkesson, could become prime minister. None of the other parties – the Moderates, the Christian Democrats and the Liberals – would have accepted this and even if they had agreed, the parliament would have voted against it. The Moderates were therefore given as the party to appoint the prime minister.

On 19 October Ulf Kristersson, the leader of the Moderates, presented his new government, which consists of 13 Moderates, six Christian Democrats and five Liberals. The SD were not represented in the government but they were part of the Tidö Agreement, in which the policies of the new government were laid out. Their highly important position can be exemplified by the fact that the four party leaders together will annually decide about the cooperation projects for the coming year and in doing this they will all have the same influence. Furthermore, the SD will have civil servants in the government office.

In the Tidö Agreement, seven areas are singled out for cooperation among the four political parties. These are: economy; crime; migration and integration; climate and energy; health care; school and the education system; and democracy and culture. It is important to note that foreign and security is not part of the agreement. Moreover, on issues like Ukraine and NATO there seems to be unanimity between the new and the old government.

The Tidö Agreement comprises 60 pages and is very detailed. Some of the agreements are the following:

Migration and integration: The proposals of the Tidö Agreement signal a sharp diversion from the previous policies. These propose to remove the system of permanent residence permits, to tighten the requirements for Swedish citizenship and to deport people of “bad character”.

Climate and energy: In this field the new government has a strong focus on nuclear power whereas wind energy at sea seems to be less favoured.

Crime: Double punishment for crimes linked to criminal networks and a system of anonymous witness will be introduced. Furthermore, the possibility to send prisoners to serve their sentences in prisons in other countries is one of the ideas to be studied.

The Extent of Change in Sweden

The question now is whether these and other ideas will actually fly, considering that there are many hurdles ahead. First, many of them are formulated as policy suggestions for which  studies are first needed, which means that they are unlikely, even in the most favourable case, to take place within a short time. Others are meeting resistance in the parliament even among members of the coalition parties. Since the four parties have only a very small majority, only a few missing votes would be needed for a proposition to fail.

The need for a new migration policy is, however, recognized by all, even the Social Democrats. Sweden´s previous very generous policies simply made integration too difficult. Many of the proposals suggested by the government will, however, meet strong resistance in the parliament.

The same goes for new policies against crime. While all parties agree that gang violence must be stopped, there is disagreement as to how to achieve this. Some of the measures proposed have already been introduced by Denmark in particular and the results are seen as mixed.

What will be the importance for Europe?

Sweden will assume the presidency of the Council of the European Union (EU) during the first half of 2023 and even though the presidency is not as powerful as before the Lisbon Treaty, it still has important tasks in bringing the issues forward to common conclusions. While the new government has not yet stated its priorities, it is seen as unlikely that they will be far removed from those that were presented in May 2022 after discussions between several parties –  in which, however the SD were not included.  These priorities concerns the need to create security for the citizens in the EU and to strengthen the role of the EU in the world, increase the speed of the response to climate change, strengthen European competitiveness and protect the European fundamental values. All of these are traditional Swedish issues.

Another priority is the need to stop organized crime, which is not surprising since this is one of the major issues within Sweden. The degree to which the issue of climate change will be emphasized by the new government is at this stage hard to ascertain, considering some measures that it has undertaken which have been highly criticized.

In the European Parliament the gains made by the SD benefited the ECR party group, whereas the Moderates’ losses affected the EPP. In the discussion following President Ursula von der Leyen’s State of the Union address MEPs warned the EPP asking them to realize the consequences on climate change and democracy in view of the recent changes of government in Italy and Sweden.

In the Liberal group, Renew Europe, the reactions against the Swedish Liberals for cooperating with the SD were strong. While the only Liberal, Karin Karlsbro, was allowed to remain in the group, the Swedish Liberal leaders would no longer be invited to the meetings. For the Liberals, the most EU friendly party in Sweden, this is an ironic and sad situation. As expressed by the party leader, Johan Pehrson, the party has great respect for the fact that representatives of other parties may want to ask questions about this cooperation. However, he wants to point out that the Liberal parties in Norway, Finland, Estonia and the Netherlands have made similar choices.

This government is of a kind never seen before in Sweden and many would not have believed it to be possible. The question is whether it is. Some parts of the agreement are now criticised even by members of the government and due to the meagre majority in the parliament only a few defectors are needed for the opposition to defeat government proposals.

 

Gunilla Herolf is Senior Associate Research Fellow at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs. She holds a PhD in political science from Stockholm University. Her main fields of research are European integration, European security policy cooperation with a focus on France, Germany and the UK, EU and NATO, Nordic security policy and transatlantic relations. Much of her research has been pursued within European networks.

Photo Credits: Government of Sweden

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