Sweden’s four messy months of right-wing government
Why far-right populism won the Swedish election, but is making the right lose its credibility
After five weeks of complicated negotiations, on 18 October 2022 Sweden’s Parliament (Riksdagen) elected the most far-right government in the country’s history. The centre-right Moderates, along with their junior partners, the Christian Democrats and the Liberals, depend on support from the far-right Sweden Democrats to govern. The Sweden Democrats (Sverigedemokraterna) actually received more votes than any other party on the right, but didn’t join the government. Instead, they used their kingmaker position to insert many of their electoral promises into the government programme, and place political operatives in ministries at all levels, checking on the government parties’ work.
GOVERNMENT NOT DELIVERING
Under the Sweden Democrats’ influence, the new government’s positions on restrictive immigration policy and repressive criminal policy are extensive and creative: revoking permanent residency on several grounds; investigating the possibility of “overseas prisons”; dropping Sweden’s annual refugee quota from 5000 to 800; allowing “stop-and-search” zones in areas with social problems; doubling punishments for gang-related crimes, allowing anonymous witnesses, and more. The Sweden Democrats’ influence is also visible in some social issues, like the absence of the traditional right-wing policy of lowering unemployment benefits, although other things the Sweden Democrats had promised, like better pensions and sick leave conditions, were left extremely weak and vague. Some promised social reforms, such as a price cap on dental care and increased state responsibility for health care, will simply be “investigated”.
In fact, apart from repressive and racist policies – and major tax cuts for high-income earners – the government has hardly delivered at all on its economic promises. Nor is it compensating the regions or communes – who run most of the welfare sector – even close to enough to meet rising costs, making huge cutbacks likely in 2023. At the same time, the government has failed to appease Turkey over its conditions for Sweden’s entry into NATO, despite bending over backwards trying in unpopular and clumsy ways that have provoked criticism at home and abroad.
As a result, by 15 February only 36 % of Swedes thought the government was doing a good job, while 56 % did not think so. Unsurprisingly, the opposition now has a lead in the polls of close to 10 %. (See this summary of four different polls updated after a poll from 17 February).
The drop in support for the right-wing parties has hit the far right especially hard since they – and only they – were responsible for the marginal win in September, attracting voters the traditional right-wing parties normally could not. In fact, the right-wing parties now in the government all lost support at the 2022 election, winning a combined 29 % of the vote, a historically low figure, and could only take power by leaning on the Sweden Democrats’ 20,5 % support. Social Democrat voters won over by the Sweden Democrats appear especially disappointed with the right’s inability to keep its promise to protect voters from rising costs of fuel and electricity, and many have since returned to the Social Democrats.
A CONTESTED POLITICAL AGENDA
The political debate in recent years has been dominated by the far-right’s focus on crime and immigration. This framing has received increasing support from the traditional right, which has in turn largely abandoned its neoliberal rhetoric. The Social Democrats, likewise, have effectively accepted and adjusted to the far-right’s anti-immigration framing, dragging their junior government partner the Green Party with them. While the Centre Party rejects this far-right agenda, it does so based on its staunch neoliberalism. The Left Party remains the only party trying to shift the focus of the political debate from crime and immigration onto social and economic issues, around a sort of industrial “Green New Deal”. The gulf between the Centre Party’s and the Left Party’s economic policies also makes government formation that relies on both parties – as was the case until recently - extremely complicated.
Nonetheless, other political issues at times overshadow the dominant reactionary narrative. In 2021 the Left Party managed to shift the political focus, first by bringing down (and then reinstating) the Red-Green government to stop it from deregulating rents – one of many neoliberal reforms demanded by the Centre Party in exchange for its support. The Left Party then forced the government to commit to historically large increases in support for low-income pensioners and people on sick leave, as conditions for supporting the appointment of the new Social Democratic Prime Minister, Magdalena Andersson, in November 2021. Any political openings this conjuncture presented, however, were pushed aside in February 2022 by the Ukraine war and discussions on Swedish membership of NATO.
A “CULTURE WAR” ON ENERGY COSTS
By the summer of 2022, the right had managed to return crime and immigration to the centre of the political agenda, alongside a new, highly polarised, “cultural war” debate on electricity and fuel prices. The right sought to frame the debate around rising electricity costs by criticising the “premature” closure of Swedish nuclear plants, and blamed high fuel prices on “absurd” fuel taxes and biofuels to lower carbon emissions. The success of the right’s framing of the energy debate says a lot about the efficiency of its propaganda machine, combining the forces of the Sweden Democrats’ internet trolls and alternative media with the traditional right-wing media. But it also highlights the weakness and political division of the centre-left in not being able to counter such unconvincing arguments.
Even though Sweden exports more electricity than any other EU country, new nuclear plants will take many years to build, the right-wing parties actually opposed new and faster wind power, and surging fuel prices were mostly a consequence of the war, the right succeeded in convincing enough voters that it was more credible and responsible on energy questions. Over-eager to win, however, they could not stop themselves from also promising unrealistic actions to help citizens cope with energy prices. Those who define the problem have the advantage, and the right won the blame game on high-energy prices – until after the election, that is, when their promises blew up in their faces.
During the election campaign, all sides made commitments to support households facing high electricity prices, but the right was very precise on how fast these supports would be in place – promising measures would be in place by 1 November. Their pledges on fuel prices were even more ambitious: the Sweden Democrats promised a ten-crown (about one euro) reduction per litre on diesel, and the Moderates and the Christian Democrats were not far behind.
WEAK ECONOMIC POLICIES
Despite all this talk, the results so far have been very weak: the government did introduce an allowance for electricity costs, but only as of February, and only for southern Sweden. It maintains its commitment to deliver for the rest of the country, eventually. Evaluations of the draft policy, however, deem the allowances so beneficial to large consumers, profitable companies and the rich that the government has, unusually, made its distribution to individual citizens non-public. Sweden is also the only EU country to have failed to implement an EU directive on taxing excess profits of electricity producers from December or January, meaning the electricity companies get to keep profits of billions of crowns before the tax is finally applied in March.
When it comes to fuel prices, the results are even weaker. The promised ten-crown-reduction has crumbled to only 14 Öre (42 for Diesel), the equivalent of around 1 and 4 Eurocent respectively, in practice. The Sweden Democrats are fighting the Liberals in the government to change this in the future, but the damage is done and the disappointment – especially among rural voters, where the Sweden Democrats increased their vote – seems massive.
A Left Party’s proposal to delink Swedish electricity prices from the EU-market, so that shortages across the union would not drive up prices in Sweden was ignored by the other parties during the election campaign. Trade unions and house-owners unions supported it, however, and representatives from both the Social Democrats and the government have recently started to voice similar ideas, but – unwilling to challenge the EU or European energy liberalisation too much – without concrete proposals.
INCOMPETENT AND PRO-CORPORATE
After four months in office, then, the government appears incompetent and biased toward corporations, which includes not only the energy sector, but welfare, too. The education minister was recruited straight from a major private school cooperation board and no serious limits will be placed on Sweden’s unpopular policy of allowing corporations to make profits from public-financed schools and health and care service providers.
In recent years, Swedish industrial leaders and many politicians have celebrated a coming industrial boom, especially in Sweden’s far north where 100,000 jobs are expected (in a region with only 520,000 inhabitants). Many of these jobs are connected to the electrification of society and industry, and this boom is expected to require a doubling of electricity production until 2035 and a 33 % increase already by 2027. Where normally the right or the Social Democrats are the most eager to discuss industrial expansion, few politicians have embraced the opportunities this boom brings more enthusiastically than Left Party leader Nooshi Dadgostar. The Left Party has proposed an investment programme of 700 billion crowns over the next ten years, focusing on expanding renewable energy, infrastructure, housing and restructuring of industry. The rest of the opposition has also been enthusiastic, though less ambitious with state investments.
Meanwhile, the right-wing government’s energy policies – despite its talk of the need for new “reliable” energy – has environmentalists, centre-left politicians and industrial leaders worried. The right won the election by framing all energy problems as caused by “premature” closure of nuclear plants and by exploiting resistance to wind power. They have inserted their pro-nuclear agenda in their “cultural war” around rising energy prices, planning new nuclear power stations while cutting state support for huge wind energy parks, especially offshore. Since wind energy is widely seen as the fastest way to get a lot of new electricity, these policies have politicians, business and public worried that the foreseen industrial boom is at risk. The government is now trying to nuance its position a little, but continues to meet resistance both from within and from the Sweden Democrats.
MAKING A MESS OF SWEDEN’S NATO AMBITIONS
Last but not least, the government’s handling of Sweden’s NATO application has caused embarrassment, political problems and increased tensions. After 200 years of non-alignment, Sweden made a sudden U-turn after Russia’s attack on Ukraine. The Social Democrats had long pursued a policy of close cooperation with NATO, but their principled stance – as late as March 2022 – remained against NATO-membership. After the war began and it became obvious that Finland would apply for membership, a majority of voters started supporting NATO-membership for the first time. The Social Democrat-led government signalled a change, applying for membership in May. The Sweden Democrats also changed their party position on NATO around this time, leaving only the Left Party and the Greens opposed.
While most NATO members were enthusiastic about Sweden’s application, Turkey complicated matters. It demanded Sweden distance itself from the (NATO-allied) Kurdish-dominated YPG-government in northern Syria; agree to cooperate with Turkish security services against the PKK; permit Swedish arms sales to Turkey; ban supposedly PKK-related symbols, organisations and protests; and, finally, extradite several oppositional Turks and Kurds with residence in Sweden to Turkey. The Social Democratic government agreed to most of the first points but said the rule of law would have to apply on extraditions and bans.
The new right-wing government adopted the same strategy but more enthusiastically, including on extraditions and bans, distancing itself even further form the YPG (leading the YPG government threaten to repatriate hundreds of Swedish IS-militants from its prison camps). After several very submissive meetings between the Swedish and Turkish governments, and several extraditions, a poll showed in January that as many as 79 % of voters did not want Sweden to compromise on its democratic rights to get Turkey’s approval, even if it delayed NATO membership.
Major anti-NATO and pro-Kurdish demonstrations, and freedom of speech-motivated newspapers in general, began openly mocking President Erdogan and a far-right provocateur, Rasmus Paludan, aided by Chang Frick, editor-in-chief of News Today (“Nyheter idag”, a Sweden Democrat-related web-paper), burned the Koran outside the Turkish embassy. In response, Erdogan stopped all NATO-talks, and anger and protest against Sweden exploded in many Muslim countries and communities.
While the right-wing government and its far-right partner got off to a lousy start, and their credibility and support have suffered, the opposition remains divided over how to respond to the situation. The main beneficiary of public discontent is the Social Democrats, with 35 % support – their highest in years – and a popular party leader. They seem content to just wait their turn, however, without challenging the repressive or racist policies or pushing for major social or economic reforms – an approach that closely resembles the strategy that lost them the election. The Green Party and the Centre Party are still trying to find their footing in the new situation.
Only the Left Party – the second strongest opposition party, which has tripled its membership in the last 12 years – has a clearer political project of state-led investments in jobs, the welfare sector and a “Green New Deal”, without giving in to the racist or repressive agenda of the right. However, as during the election campaign, the Left Party is practically alone in challenging the right’s political discourse. In fact, the current challenge is in some ways greater than half a year ago, with the Social Democrats “leading” the opposition, mouthing some left-wing rhetoric, but neither investing the political will nor making commitments to the necessary financial resources to make that rhetoric deliver.
In this context, while the right has definitely lost the initiative – and much of its credibility – its efficiency in negative campaigning, as demonstrated in the run up to the 2022 election, should not be underestimated. It might be sufficient for it to regain momentum, if not challenged by a strong positive alternative from the left.