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POLITICS

What you need to know about Magdalena Andersson

Former Finance Minister Magdalena Andersson will become Sweden's new prime minister, after winning her second vote in parliament.

What you need to know about Magdalena Andersson
Magdalena Andersson has been approved by parliament and is now Sweden's first female prime minister. Photo: Jessica Gow/TT

1. What is her career and political history?

Magdalena Andersson has held her position of Sweden’s finance minister since 2014, retaining the position through all three Löfven governments.

In terms of politics, she has been a member of the Social Democrats since 1983 when she joined the youth branch of the organisation as a 16-year-old, being elected chairperson of the Uppsala branch four years later.

Her engagement with the Social Democrats continued alongside studies at Stockholm School of Economics, where she was elected chairperson of the Social Democratic Student Association in 1991.

After her studies, she worked in the prime minister’s office between 1996 and 2004, first as a political advisor, later as director of planning.

This was followed by two years as state secretary in the Finance Department, two years as advisor to then-leader of the Social Democrats Mona Sahlin, and three years as senior director at the Swedish Tax Agency. In 2012 Stefan Löfven appointed her to the role of economic-political spokesperson of the Social Democrats, a role she held until she was elected to the Swedish parliament (and government) in 2014.

2. What did she study?

Andersson is a trained economist, who has studied at Stockholm School of Economics, at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Vienna, and at Harvard University in the US.

She has a masters in economics and was working towards a PhD which she decided not to complete once she was offered the role as political advisor in the Prime Minister’s office.

She also met her husband during their studies at Stockholm School of Economics, where he currently works as a professor.

3. What are her plans as prime minister?

After being confirmed as the Social Democrats’ new leader, Andersson outlined three political priorities going forward.

She said she wanted to “take back democratic control of schools, healthcare and elderly care”, and move away from welfare sector privatisation.

She also said she aimed to make Sweden a worldwide role model in climate transition.

And she vowed to end segregation, as well as the shootings and bombings that have plagued the country in recent years – usually due to gangs settling scores or battling over the drug market – mainly affecting disadvantaged neighbourhoods with large immigrant populations.

Andersson was involved in a position paper earlier this year which could suggest that she is considerably further to the left than her cautious handling of Sweden’s accounts as finance minister would suggest. 

The document is titled Fördelningspolitik för jämlikhet och rättvisa, which translates roughly as “Redistributive policy for equality and justice”. 

It was created in collaboration with a number of other politicians as part of a working group headed by Andersson, and includes, among other things, a critique of neoliberalism. It also critiques the introduction of market forces and private interests into healthcare, education and other welfare services, which reflects her subsequent statements on this topic. 

It is debatable as to how seriously this document can be taken, with Mari Huupponen, an investigator with the Kommunal union, who has analysed some of the same topics around profit-making in welfare, previously warning The Local not to see the document as a set of serious policy proposals, let alone as Andersson’s political programme.

“It’s not as if it’s an official document that the party will now pursue. It’s just like a policy paper that one group working inside of the party has produced. I don’t think that this is a big picture of what the dreams of Magdalena Andersson look like,” said Huupponen.

EDITOR’S PICKS:

The paper also suggests that the authors want to limit labour immigration to jobs Sweden cannot fill with its existing workforce. This could make it tougher for, say, people who want to come to Sweden to work in restaurants or as care assistants.

A number of parties including the Social Democrats have recently called for labour immigration law reform, so it appears that this aspect of the paper may translate into policy, at least.

Magdalena Andersson and her predecessor Stefan Löfven in parliament. Photo: Henrik Montgomery/TT

4. What challenges is she facing?

Andersson has two immediate challenges. The first is next year’s budget, which sparked the departure of her Green Party coalition partners and Andersson’s own resignation before even taking office after she won her first prime ministerial vote last week.

The right-wing’s opposition budget – negotiated jointly by the conservative Moderates and Christian Democrats and the anti-immigration Sweden Democrats – passed, which means that Andersson will have to govern on this budget.

It will be the first time Sweden is run on a budget negotiated by a far-right party.

The other major challenge for Andersson is preparing for the September 2022 election, where the Social Democrats will be hoping to recover some of the losses made in its 2018 result, the worst in a century for the centre-left.

5. Who is she on a personal level?

Andersson was an elite swimmer and gymnast in her youth. Her former trainer, Christer Johansson, who is now a local politician for the Left Party in Knivsta, described her as “goal-oriented” to newswire TT. He recounts an episode where, after breaking her foot in gymnastics, it was placed in a plaster cast. Once the cast was removed, she came back to the swimming pool on crutches determined to train, ignoring advice to wait until her foot no longer hurt.

She was born in Uppsala in 1967 as the only child of teacher Birgitta and statistics professor Göran, and is described as having a secure upbringing. As a young girl she regularly watched the evening news, telling newspaper Aftonbladet that “it made me interested in what was happening around me, and I became outraged by injustices,” describing this quality as “a good gift I brought with me from home”.

Her father died in 2002 after a long period with Alzheimers, something she has previously described as a “long and painful journey for us all”. Her mother is still alive and they talk every day, always discussing the news.

She has two children in their 20s with her husband, choosing rarely, if ever, to share details of her family. She has previously stated that they are not a part of her public life.

Andersson, now 54, will formally become Sweden’s first female prime minister, elected by parliament 100 years after votes for women were introduced in Sweden, after a change of government cabinet meeting with King Carl XVI Gustaf.

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OPINION & ANALYSIS

Are Sweden’s Social Democrats ready to go as far as Denmark’s?

Prime minister Magdalena Andersson is caught between a rock and a hard place, argues David Crouch. To hold her bloc together, she must eschew the politics that brought the Social Democrats success in Denmark

Are Sweden’s Social Democrats ready to go as far as Denmark’s?

As Sweden’s election campaign trundles towards its culmination on September 11th, the country’s political gamblers are making their last throws of the dice. Recent weeks have shown clearly that the ruling Social Democrats are betting on voters who believe that immigration is to blame for violent crime.

Last weekend, prime minister Magdalena Andersson announced new punishments for gang-related offences, including much longer prison terms and a free hand for police to ransack people’s homes and cars in search of weapons and drugs, even if they themselves were not suspects. She linked the moves explicitly to ethnicity: “Too much migration and too little integration has led to parallel societies where criminal gangs could take root and grow,” she said.

The next day, integration and migration minister Anders Ygeman declared that municipalities would be forced to ensure that the three-year-old children of recent immigrants go to kindergarten, to tackle the segregation that is “tearing apart our country”. Earlier, Ygeman made headlines with by suggesting that no area should have more than fifty percent “non-Nordic” population.

These proposals from the Social Democrats are designed to appeal to voters averse to immigration. There is stiff competition for this demographic. There has been a chorus of “dog whistle” politics from Sweden’s centre-right parties, floating ostensibly rational (if harebrained) proposals that also “whistle” to this section of voters with a message that immigrants are the problem.

When Swedes go against their reputation for cuddly liberalism and get tough on immigration, the example of Denmark is never far away. “In the past, Denmark’s treatment of immigrants was an object of horror for Swedish political parties,” wrote political observer Ewa Stenberg in the liberal daily Dagens Nyheter last week. “Now it is an inspiration.”

For Sweden’s Social Democrats, Denmark’s radical approach to immigration seems particularly attractive, because for the past three years it has been championed by their Danish party namesake and its leader, prime minister Mette Frederiksen. By adopting the anti-immigrant demands of the far right – and adding some of her own – Frederiksen succeeded in winning back some of the Social Democrats’ traditional working class voters and engineered a collapse in the far-right vote. Could the same tactic work on this side of the Øresund Bridge?

Ygeman’s proposal to cap the number of “non-Nordic” people in Sweden’s problem areas is borrowed straight from the Danish playbook. Frederiksen’s government has made the proportion of “non-Westerners” the main criterion for whether a residential area should end up on the country’s list of vulnerable areas, often called the “ghetto list”. By 2030, no such area should have more than 30 percent of residents with a non-Western background. This also involves demolishing homes in these areas and building new, more expensive ones, to attract a better class of resident.

The policy has gone hand in hand with slamming the door shut on asylum seekers, so that Denmark received only 600 last year – the lowest number since 1992. Parliament last year passed a law allowing the processing of asylum seekers to be outsourced altogether to a third country, likely in Africa.

Whether or not one agrees with the Danish Social Democrats, there are some substantial reasons to suggest that their approach would not work in Sweden.

First, the Danish approach wasn’t an unqualified electoral success for the Social Democrats. Although they took votes from the far-right Danish People’s Party (DF), their 2019 total actually went down a little as they lost the support of voters unhappy with the new stance on immigration. However, these votes went to the Social Democrats’ coalition partners, enabling Frederiksen to lead the new government.

Second, there were specifically Danish circumstances that were favourable to the Social Democrats. The Danish People’s Party had been propping up an unpopular Liberal minority government, denting its own popularity, while it was also being undermined by rival right-wing populist parties.

Within Denmark’s Social Democrats themselves the ground had been prepared for a rightward lurch on immigration, which is unlikely to be the case in Sweden. Some Swedish opinion formers, such as Payam Moula, editor-in-chief of the periodical Tiden, have tried to claim that Denmark is the way forward for Social Democracy, but they have encountered stubborn opposition.

Third, Frederiksen’s coalition partners had a long history of governing in coalition with the Social Democrats, they were accustomed to it. This is far from the case in Sweden, where two parties that currently constitute the fragile centre-left “bloc” – the Centre Party and the Left Party – have little or no history of governing together with the Social Democrats. Indeed, there is considerable animosity between them; the Centre Party says flatly that it won’t support a Social Democrat-led coalition government with Left Party ministers.

This brings us to a key difference between Denmark and Sweden. Frederiksen’s Social Democrats recognised that polarisation was taking place at both ends of the political spectrum, and they lured Danish People’s Party voters with major investment in welfare, especially pensions. In other words, Frederiksen didn’t only shift to the right on immigration, she shifted left on welfare. It was the political equivalent of doing the splits.

In Sweden, left-wing welfare policies would be anathema to the Centre Party, upon whose support any chances of a centre-let coalition victory depend. The Centre Party’s leader, Annie Lööf, is implacably opposed to the far-right Sweden Democrats, but economically and socially liberal. Indeed, she caused a government crisis in November because the Social Democrats did a deal with the Left to raise pensions.

Finally, there is the question in Sweden of whether stealing the far right’s clothes makes any difference anyway. Whenever the Social Democrats try to out-do the far right with anti-immigrant bluster, it only seems to embolden them. “Every time the Social Democrats get nearer to the Sweden Democrats, the Sweden Democrats just take a step even further to the right,” says political scientist Ulf Bjereld, an outspoken critic of the Danish approach.

In apparent confirmation of Bjereld’s analysis, Magdalena Andersson’s tub-thumping speech on gang crime at the weekend was swiftly overshadowed by the storm around a Sweden Democrat tweet inviting immigrants to board “the repatriation express” (återvandringståget) – a metro train covered in the party’s logo. Suddenly the debate was no longer about harder penalties, but about sending immigrants back home – a central Sweden Democrat demand.

Magdalena Andersson is caught between a rock and a hard place. To hold her flimsy bloc together and have any chance of victory on September 11, she must eschew the politics that brought the Social Democrats success in Denmark.

David Crouch is the author of Almost Perfekt: How Sweden Works and What Can We Learn From It. He is a freelance journalist and a lecturer in journalism at Gothenburg University.

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