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Working with the far-right? What a watershed vote means for Swedish politics

The second smallest party in the Swedish parliament, the Liberals, is again dominating the headlines after it approved proposals to campaign for a centre-right government in next year's general election, opening the door to cooperation with the far-right Sweden Democrats.

Working with the far-right? What a watershed vote means for Swedish politics
Liberal leader Nyamko Sabuni. Photo: Henrik Montgomery/TT

What’s happening? 

The Liberal party’s national committee voted 59-31 in favour of campaigning as part of a right-wing alliance in the 2022 general election, approving a proposal from leader Nyamko Sabuni. 

The committee also voted that the party’s leadership can negotiate with the populist Sweden Democrats on policy, and even involve them in budget negotiations. 

Why is that controversial? 

The first part of the vote – campaigning alongside the Moderate Party and Christian Democrats – is in itself no surprise. The three parties have been allies through several election cycles as part of the right-wing Alliance, together with the Centre Party. 

But the Alliance fell apart after the 2018 election, when neither they nor the centre-left bloc received enough votes to govern alone. A right-of-centre government would have relied on accepting support from the Sweden Democrats, a populist party with roots in neo-Nazi groups in the 1980s, which would likely only have been given in return for some level of policy influence.

The former leader of the Liberal Party, Jan Björklund, argued that the party’s values precluded negotiating with the Sweden Democrats, as did the Centre Party and its leader Annie Lööf.

Instead, the Liberals and Centre Party agreed not to vote against Social Democrat prime minister Stefan Löfven, allowing him to govern in exchange for policy influence as agreed in the so-called January Agreement between the four parties. This meant the centre-left government agreed to liberal policies such as cutting tax on the highest earners and reforming Sweden’s ‘first in first out’ labour laws. 

The Liberal party remains deeply split on the issue of cooperating with the Sweden Democrats, with Christer Nylander, the second vice-chair of the party, who has been one of the staunchest opponents of ending the ‘cordon sanitaire’ around the Sweden Democrats, announcing after that vote that he would not put himself up for election in 2022. The vote on March 28th took place after several hours of debate, and several prominent figures in the party were staunchly against the proposals from leadership.

What limits does the new party policy set on deals with the Sweden Democrats? 

The resolution which passed says that the budget propositions should “initially” be prepared by borgerliga, or ‘right-wing’ parties (which would exclude the Sweden Democrats). 

The resolution also said that the party would not support “budget cooperation of the sort which took place between the parties in the January Agreement”, with any ytterkantsparti, or ‘outer-rim party’, which would include both the far-right Sweden Democrats as well as the far-left Left Party. However, a proposed formulation that closed the door entirely on budget cooperation with the Sweden Democrats was voted down.

To placate those uncomfortable with the new policy, the resolution, A New Start For Sweden, asserts that the Liberal Party’s mission was to go into “hard conflict with the present day’s illiberal ideas, no matter which party, from left or right, is promoting them”. 

In her speech to the meeting, Sabuni reminded her party that she had battled racism throughout her career. 

“I got involved in politics during a wave of xenophobia in the middle of the 1990s, when skinheads murdered refugees and the laser man was running around with a rifle,” she said. “For nearly 30 years, I’ve stood up against racism and for the liberal model of society.”

But the resolution also embodied the harder line on crime and on immigrant areas that Sabuni has brought to the party, promising to push for “a Sweden without parallel societies, where the criminal justice system is strong and no district is a free zone for criminals”. 

The Sweden Democrats’ leader Jimmie Åkesson has said it will be more difficult for his party to support a bloc including the Liberals. Photo: Janerik Henriksson/TT

How have other parties reacted? 

The Sweden Democrats’ leader Jimmie Åkesson immediately cast doubt on whether the level of influence suggested in the Liberals’ resolution would be enough, saying neither he, nor his party, would be content to be a “support wheel for a government that doesn’t give us influence in proportion to our size”.  

Åkesson has in the past suggested a written agreement that would look precisely like that agreed with the January parties. 

Annie Lööf, the leader of the Centre Party – the other ‘January Party’ – was highly critical of the decision, writing on Facebook that she “regretted that the Liberals had chosen to open the door to an anti-liberal and xenophobic party”, hard words that double as an invitation to disgruntled Liberal voters. 

What will the decision mean for The Liberal party? 

The Liberal party were struggling in the polls even before Sabuni took over as leader in June 2019, but the party’s share of the vote has continued to fall, sometimes to under 3 percent, well below the 4 percent threshold needed to enter the Swedish parliament. 

By winning the backing of the party’s controlling board, Sabuni has strengthened a weak position and beaten her internal critics, making it more likely that she will continue as leader up until the 2022 election. 

The party can now expect to receive tactical votes from Moderate, Christian Democrat and even Sweden Democrat voters who want to push it above the four percent threshold, making it less likely that it will be ejected from parliament in the 2022 election. 

At the same time, there is a risk that the party loses both MPs and voters who oppose cooperation with the Sweden Democrats. 

What will the decision mean for Swedish politics? 

The decision of one of the two liberal parties to agree to negotiate and cooperate with the Sweden Democrats is a significant milestone in the normalisation of the populist party, which was long a pariah no other party of left or right could be seen to negotiate with. 

The Sweden Democrats’ leader Jimmie Åkesson has sought to make the party acceptable, both to mainstream voters and to other parties, promoting a zero-tolerance policy towards racist views, and seeking to attract Swedes with immigrant backgrounds as supporters, at the same time as pushing a hard line on immigration. 

The Liberals’ decision may make it easier for liberal-minded Moderate supporters to accept their party’s decision to cooperate with the populist. 

It seems unlikely, however, that it will win many more votes for the right-wing bloc. Any new voters the Liberals gain are likely to come from other right-wing parties, while the Liberal voters who oppose the decision may instead vote for the Centre Party, Green Party, or Social Democrats. 

Member comments

  1. ”….. a populist party with roots in neo-Nazi groups in the 1980s…” would be interesting to know the nature of these roots…going back to the ’80s … or are you just parroting the holier than though Lööf smear !

    Good to see the Liberals showing some pragmatic commonsense rather than burying their heads in the sand , which is why Sweden is in such a mess now !

    ” ….. SD , ett populistiskt parti med rötter i nynazistiska grupper på 1980-talet … ” skulle vara intressant att veta vilken typ av rötter … som går tillbaka till 80-talet … eller är du bara papegoja den heligare än om Lööf smet!

    Bra att se liberalerna visa en del pragmatisk sundhet snarare än att begrava sina huvuden i sanden, varför Sverige är i en sådan röran nu!

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For members


Sweden Elects: I’ve got election pork coming out my ears this week

The Local's editor Emma Löfgren rounds up this week's key talking points of the Swedish election campaign.

Sweden Elects: I've got election pork coming out my ears this week

There’s an old Swedish Word of the Day in The Local’s archives: valfläsk (literally “election pork”, or pork barrel politics).

This week, there’s been enough of it to feed a Swedish town large enough for both a Biltema and a Dressmann store and still have half the pig left!

You could say it started the week before last, when the Social Democrats’ Immigration Minister Anders Ygeman floated a test balloon loaded with a 50-percent cap on non-Nordic residents in troubled neighbourhoods (it went down among the other parties like it was made out of lead).

Then last week, the Liberals threw their hat in the ring by proposing mandatory language assessments for two-year-olds who don’t attend preschool, and then make preschool mandatory for the toddlers whose Swedish isn’t deemed good enough. This, they said, was meant to help integration in areas where bilingual children don’t speak Swedish at home.

“Studies show that early preschool benefits children whose mothers are low-educated and whose parents are born abroad,” their manifesto read.

Liberal leader Johan Pehrson’s statement that in the most extreme cases – where parents clearly refuse to let their children learn Swedish – led to a social media storm that conjured up images of crying toddlers being taken into care for failing to distinguish between en and ett when quizzed.

For any parents of multilingual children (who know better than most how language works in early childhood – I’m raising a multilingual baby myself, but I’ve only just started so if you have any tips, do let me know!), I should stress that the proposal is less extreme than how it was first presented.

This is typical for valfläsk, by the way. Take something that’s perfectly obvious and hard to argue against (of course mixed neighbourhoods and children being encouraged to learn languages are generally good things) but dial it up a notch, insert something immigration-related, promise to get tough on whatever it is you want to get tough on, and propose either something that already exists or would be near-impossible to implement.

Then the Stockholm branch of the conservative Moderates proposed that entire school classes in vulnerable areas should be screened for ADHD through optional rapid tests, in order to increase the comparably lower rate of medication among foreign-born children and prevent them from falling into a life of crime.

“Detached from reality,” said their Social Democrat rival and pointed out that the partly Moderate-run region was planning to cut the number of psychiatric care clinics for young people.

The Christian Democrats, never ones to be outdone, wanted to chemically castrate sex offenders, give police access to healthcare biobanks, and let police take DNA samples from people stopped in internal border checks.

But while many of the election pledges that get tossed around this close to the election (less than a month to go, now!) tend to range from the radical to the ridiculous and are unlikely to ever be implemented, they’re still worth paying attention to. They give us an indication of the direction the parties want to take, and could well reappear in a more watered-down format later on during the governmental cycle.

They may also become part of post-election negotiations, where even small parties hold key cards as the larger parties fight to cobble together viable government coalitions.

They also say something about Sweden and the direction of the political sphere as a whole, where the parties are currently racing to outdo each other on who can be toughest on immigration and law and order.

The Local’s reporter Becky Waterton has gone through all the parties’ election pledges to see how they specifically would affect foreign residents in Sweden – in case you’ve missed her article, click here to read it.

Also in the world of Swedish politics, a new poll by SVT and Novus has the Moderates and the Sweden Democrats neck and neck, Moderate leader Ulf Kristersson promised lower taxes in his summer speech and Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson tougher sentences on gang criminals in hers, and Sweden Democrat leader Jimmie Åkesson suggested changing the name of the Swedish Prison and Probation Service (Kriminalvården) to the Penal Office (Straffverket).

Sweden Elects is a new weekly column by Editor Emma Löfgren looking at the big talking points and issues in the Swedish election race. Members of The Local Sweden can sign up to receive the column plus several extra features as a newsletter in their email inbox each week. Just click on this “newsletters” option or visit the menu bar.