The latest Swedish elections have seen the rise of the far right party, Swedish Democrats, but also the fall of the left-wing government. –The Swedish Democrats are almost entirely focused on immigration and law and order. During the last months of the impending energy crisis, the Sweden Democrats along with the rest of the right wing added energy populism to their repertoire. They tried to paint the left and environmentalists as a threat to ”ordinary hard working people who own a house and drive a car” – says Erik Anderson, member of the Left Party of Sweden who was part of the election campaign leadership in Vantör, on the southern outskirts of Stockholm.
Interview by Wojciech Łobodziński.
What is the context of the last Swedish elections? Are they really a political earthquake? What led to the results that shook European public opinion?
The background to this election result lies in the results of the last elections in 2018, which led to a very weak government of the Social Democratic Party and the Green Party, relying on acceptance from the Left Party, the Centre Party and the Liberals. The social democrats bent over backwards to appease the Centre Party and the Liberals, two different forms of right-wing parties. While the Centre Party has been vocal in its opposition to racism and the Swedish Democrats, it is a neoliberal party whose party leader is a big fan of Margaret Thatcher and Ayn Rand. When it comes to the Liberals, they have in the past few years been torn between a social liberal faction and another faction.
Was the war in Ukraine somehow a topic of this election? Was the question of joining NATO somehow contested or discussed?
Not really. The social-democratic government made a very conscious (and mostly successful) effort at burying the issue in good time before the election. Although Erdogan has continued to make noises of protest and demanded Kurdish activists be handed over, the issue is largely seen as a foregone conclusion. There is also very broad parliamentary support for Swedish NATO membership, with only the Left Party and the Green Party being in opposition. People are aware that the Left Party especially is opposed to NATO membership and it is not something that the party tries to hide, but has not been in the forefront. With time, the focus from the Left Party has more and more focused specifically on opposing extraditions of Kurdish activists.
What was the main force behind the campaign of Swedish Democrats?
The Swedish Democrats are almost entirely focused on immigration and law and order.
During the last months of the impending energy crisis, the Swedish Democrats along with the rest of the right wing added energy populism to their repertoire. They tried to paint the left and environmentalists as a threat to ”ordinary hard working people who own a house and drive a car”. This was aimed at manual workers in the countryside, where most of citizens live in houses and many of them are car-dependent.
This is part of a wider trend where class divisions have been replaced by divisions within the working class in a broad sense – between ”Swedes” and ”immigrants”, but also between the ”urban middle class” and the ”traditional working class in the countryside”. This is the same kind of culture war as in many other countries.
Have they somehow normalized their political image in the last years, like Meloni and in Italy, or Le Pen in France?
Rather, the other right-wing parties moved closer and closer to the political line of the Swedish Democrats over the last couple of years. The big change came a few years before that when the Swedish Democrats met with the Swedish employers association and dropped a number of their less right-wing stances such as their former opposition to private profiteering within the welfare state.
On social and economical issues, they used to position themselves somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, employing a form of welfare populism, saying ”Why don’t we take care of our own first?”. Over time, this has shifted to a focus more and more dominated by law and order, painting the country as in the midst of collapse and civil war.
I’d say at least ⅔ of the election campaign of the right-wing was based on this. It’s one of their few strong cards, because neoliberal policies are thoroughly discredited.
What was the response from the left-wing side?
The Left Party had a hard time affecting the agenda, and also had a run-up to the election plagued by internal conflicts around partly how to handle the war in Ukraine, but most of all how to tackle environmental issues in times of crisis.
When petrol prices started soaring, the party leadership controversially supported a general limit on petrol prices, and has also put forward a proposal for drastically cutting the electricity bills. Especially the issue of petrol prices gave rise to a lot of internal criticism, when combined with what was portrayed as a toning down of environmental policies and cheaply trying to win over conservative voters in the countryside.
The party leadership argued that the party had more radical policies against climate change than ever, but that a shift in focus from the individual to collective solutions was needed. This gave rise to quite a lot of conflict that could have been handled in a more constructive way, paving the way for policies that can unite both the urban centers and the countryside, and unite the working class in a broad sense. Instead, these conflicts within the Left Party contributed to the victory of the right-wing.
Were trade unions involved in the political campaign?
Unfortunately, they were largely invisible. The blue-collar (LO) trade unions have been plagued by division and dissatisfaction since the Social Democratic government forced them into a process which ended with some of the biggest changes to Swedish labor laws since the progressive changes of the 70s. The metal workers union and the municipal workers union signed a highly controversial deal with the employers association, thus breaking the coordination among the LO unions. The metal workers union did so mostly because they have a very “pragmatic” leadership, and the municipal workers union because they have very bad working conditions and thought that the minor concessions they got were worth it.
This whole process pitted different trade unions against each other, reflecting the differing realities in different sectors as well as the combativeness of the different trade union leaderships. As it happens, at the end of this whole process, the chairman of the municipal workers union became party secretary (the highest internal organizational officer) of the Social Democratic Party. In effect, this paralyzed the trade union movement as a unified actor in the political process.
It will be interesting to see if the dramatically changed parliamentary situation will affect the strategy of the trade union movement, which has been affected negatively by its loyalty to the Social Democratic party leadership. At the same time, there is also a risk that this process leads to further conflicts within LO which may become necessary in order to fight back against a coming onslaught from the bosses and the right wing, but which could also in some ways risk weakening the combined power of the trade union movement.
What are the main divisions on the Swedish left, what are the main differences that drive this side of the political spectrum?
One big discussion has been the question of the so-called “urban middle class” vs “the traditional working class outside of the biggest cities”. In my opinion, this is partly based on not very fruitful dividing lines and a certain degree of confusion.
To begin with, there is an incorrect assumption that the urban voters of the left are synonymous with “middle-class people”. I live on the southern outskirts of Stockholm city, and these are areas with a mix of “swedes” and “immigrants”, manual and white-collar workers, middle-class and poor. And here the Social Democrats achieved around 35% in the municipal elections, while 24% voted for the Left Party, with even higher support in some areas that are very far from well-to-do.
But there are also prejudices within the urban left against workers from the countryside and to a certain extent a refusal to take in the reality that they live in – that is, often living in houses and driving cars.
If the question is “should we put our money on the urban voters or those outside of the biggest cities?”, the answer should unequivocally be “Yes, BOTH”. We need to find an approach that can unite and mobilize instead of divide and demobilize.
What was the answer of civil society for the result of Swedish Democrats?
Dismay, some would say even “sorrow”, and even fright. There is a sense of losing the last illusions of being immune to a broader development across the world. We are gradually accepting this new reality and only beginning to plan the fightback and how to carry it out most effectively.
Is there going to be a minority government, or SD is going to participate?
On 15 October, the results of the negotiations between the three ”traditional” right-wing parties and the Swedish Democrats was presented. The Swedish Democrats will not have ministers, but will set up a ”coordination office” inside the government building to ensure that they are very much involved in day-to-day work. They will also have a number of high profile posts in parliamentary committees, including chairing the committees for foreign policy, justice, labor and business.
Politically, the Swedish Democrats have also made a heavy mark on the agreement, which includes a drastic reduction of quota refugees and foreign aid.
It’s hard to not get the impression that this all is in a sense a form of payment for being able to say that ”we kept the Swedish Democrats out of the government”. This shows that it is misguided to only focus on whether to ”cooperate”, ”speak with” or ”govern with” the Swedish Democrats.
The essence is the concrete policies, which are thoroughly reactionary. They are a way of blurring the real dividing lines in society and the anti-working class policies of the right.
What is the state of the so-called Scandinavian welfare state? Is it now in peril with these results of liberals and right-wing parties?
In some ways, one could say that the basic structure is intact, but it’s like a house that has become more and more worn down, threatening to cave in. Over time, it has become more difficult to get access to the security systems in place, and unemployment benefits have been cut while the cost of membership in an unemployment fund (which is needed to receive the benefits) has soared. This has become part of a wider development where more and more people, especially immigrants, are not covered by social security systems and work under very different conditions than more established workers and middle-class people. This in its turn has made it easier for the right-wing to pit people against each other, blaming all ills of society on those at the very bottom.
Right now there are big concerns ahead of the winter with an impending energy crisis. With inflation at 9%, the public sector would have to be compensated economically in order to maintain its current service levels. It is highly doubtful that the right-wing government till do this, and it could potentially lead to big cuts. Especially if combined with soaring energy prices leading to a recession with high unemployment. But this could also spur resistance and open up more fruitful dividing lines within society.
What will be the fate of Kurdish people? Is Sweden going to surrender its values in order to get into NATO?
It remains to be seen to which degree, but for example Sweden recently agreed to export arms to Turkey. When it comes to the threat of extraditions of Kurds who are victims of persecution, it also remains to be seen if the Swedish government will be able to fulfill Erdogan’s wishes.
Sweden has a big Kurdish diaspora with a great potential for mobilization, and also has a relatively strong presence in political parties (from liberal to left-wing). For example, just the other year when Turkey invaded the Kurdish areas of northern Syria, 10.000 people with banners from the PKK movement marched on the streets of Stockholm. Erdogan has made sweeping demands to outlaw any symbols connected to organizations such as for example YPG and YPJ. This is unheard of in a Swedish context.
A running joke within the Swedish left is that “Erdogan is our last hope of staying outside of NATO”. The biggest hurdle will not be the unwillingness of the coming Swedish government, but whether Erdogan will make demands that Sweden cannot fulfill. For example, the other week he complained that “there are terrorists in the Swedish parliament”. It is unclear which parliamentarians he was referring to, but of course the Swedish government cannot repeal the mandates of parliamentarians elected by popular vote.
What can we learn from these elections, when it comes to fighting with right wing populism?
First and foremost that you can’t defeat it simply by “uniting all the forces that are against right-wing populism”, because this includes forces that have helped nourish this monster. Such a starting point also risks giving further credence to the image of right-wing populists as being voices of the people against the establishment.
Wherever there is a possibility of uniting on concrete issues such as civil liberties, LGBTQ rights, women’s rights etc, it would of course be folly not to cooperate, but we have to maintain a clear distance towards neoliberalism.
But while the Social Democrats have maintained their stiff opposition towards the Swedish Democrats, they have started to adopt parts of their policies. Combined with their refusal to present any major reforms, it meant that the election campaign was dominated by the issues that the Swedish Democrats are comfortable with. Many progressives expressed dismay at the election campaign in general, as it was almost completely devoid of any focus on issues concerning the welfare state or economical policies. And although the Social Democrats achieved a decent result (30,3%) compared to last election, it was in fact their second worst result since the introduction of universal suffrage in 1921 (the worst was the one in 2018).
One got the impression that they were trying to get through the election campaign without any major incidents, hoping that they could win the election by coming off as statesmanlike in stormy times and sticking to the middle of the road on all issues. Considering their party leader Magdalena Andersson has wide support, this should be seen as a wasted opportunity.
Unfortunately, the Left Party and the Green Party did even worse, the latter being saved partly by support votes from Left Party voters.
What would have been needed would have been a broader offensive from the labor movement, from the trade unions to the Social Democratic Party and the Left Party, linking up with environmentalist movements and other social movements. This could have laid the foundation for forming a set of policies and an election campaign that could have united people instead of making us easy prey for those that wish to pit us against each other. Hopefully this will be one of the lessons we as a movement draw from this historical defeat.