Sweden’s New Government Shows How Liberals Sold Out to the Far Right

Four years ago, Ulf Kristersson promised a Holocaust survivor he’d never cooperate with the anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats. Now he’s prime minister of a government dependent on their support — an unholy alliance of liberals and the far right.

Leader of the Sweden Democrats Jimmie Åkesson (L) and leader of the Moderate Party Ulf Kristersson address a press conference on the formation of a coalition government in Stockholm, Sweden, October 14, 2022. (Jonathan Nackstrand / AFP via Getty Images)

The political results of the Swedish election are in, and they bear all the hallmarks of a bad dystopian novel. The new government will be comprised of the Moderates, the Christian Democrats and the Liberals, and — in all ways except appointed ministers — the far-right Sweden Democrats.

Broadly speaking, the Moderates get all the central functions of government, including the roles of prime minister, ministers of finance, justice, and foreign affairs, while the Christian Democrats get social issues and health care, with the Liberals filling up the remainder. The Sweden Democrats will not have ministers in the government, but the Pyrrhic victory of “keeping them out” was bought at the price of them basically getting everything they wanted in terms of policy, as well as a coordinating office within the government office itself.

This means that a party founded, in 1988, out of the far-right, racist precursor organization Keep Sweden Swedish now has civil servants in the highest office of Sweden. It is hard to convey the rapid shift in the way this fact is being received in general discourse. While it would have been unthinkable five to ten years ago, most of the news media and talking heads are now portraying the party’s involvement as par for the course. This normalization process is the result of the other conservative right parties opening their arms to the Sweden Democrats.

Sellout to the Far Right

As pointed out previously, current prime minister Ulf Kristersson of the Moderate Party met with Holocaust survivor Hédi Fried four years ago for a profile piece in one of Sweden’s biggest newspapers. He promised her he would never cooperate with the Sweden Democrats. At the end of the recent election race, the Moderates bought the Google search result for this article in order to redirect it to an explanation of how this was not really how he had meant it.

Other accommodations to enable the new government deal include the Christian Democrats compromising on their traditionally progressive views on asylum rights, and the Liberals giving up most, if not all, of their traditional liberal principles. Such concessions were presumably made easier by the fact that both parties spent the last year hovering around the 4 percent threshold for entry into parliament.

The Liberals in particular have seen a great deal of both internal and external criticism for this agreement. Current leading members, as well as former leaders and party grandees, have condemned the development — even starting proceedings against it with the party’s own review board — and the liberal Renew group in the European Parliament was even considering the party’s expulsion.

The Tidö Agreement

The platform for the new government is known as the Tidö agreement, after the castle where the negotiations took place. It is a list of proposals that, if carried through, would mean a sharp departure from the basic framework of Swedish politics, and even from the rule of law.

The agreement is comprised of sixty pages, but one only needs to read the first paragraphs to see the political character of the policies. It states that this agreement will face up to the current seven major problems of Swedish society, then starts by listing crime, migration, and integration. Only afterward come economics, education, health care, and — as an afterthought — a dutiful mention of energy and climate.

It is evident in both policies and phrasing that this is a sweeping victory for the Sweden Democrats. The agreement explicitly states in the opening paragraphs that all parties signing the agreement have full and equal influence over the political areas included, at all stages of the political process in Sweden, for example legislation or regulatory letters.

So far, the most discussed concrete policies in the agreement are repressive measures aimed at organized crime and at immigrants. Keep in mind, however, that there are currently official inquiries into all of these to determine whether the passing of such laws is compatible with the constitution. In many cases, legal scholars have already argued that the discussed measures are likely going to be at odds with the Basic Laws.

Straight From the Sweden Democrats’ Program

The list of new measures includes doubled sentences for organized crime; the criminalization of gang membership; introducing stop-and-frisk zones; allowing anonymous witnesses; a residence ban for convicts; the extradition of people without citizenship; and seizing of property of anyone connected to gang milieus (but not convicted of a crime). In particular, the criminalization, possible extradition, and seizing of property of people who are not themselves convicted of crimes has come under harsh criticism from lawyers.

So, too, has a proposal to introduce the anachronistic concept of dubious morals (bristande vandel) as a ground for extradition. The Tidö agreement provides that an inquiry will be made into the possibilities of extraditing foreign citizens based on such grounds. “Dubious morals” include, among other things, not “following rules”; having a drug habit; being associated with a criminal network or clan; prostitution (not currently a crime in Sweden); participating in social milieus that “threaten Swedish values”; and having “unequivocally established remarks regarding their way of life.”

In the future, Sweden will accept only the lowest possible quota of asylum seekers, enforce the shortening or outright banning of temporary residence permits, and make it much harder to achieve citizenship in a myriad of ways. These include requiring eight years of residency; a test of cultural, political, and linguistic knowledge; financial self-sufficiency; the abovementioned morality clause; and, finally, a declaration of loyalty to Sweden.

Changed Beyond Recognition?

The first order of business for the foreign minister was to denounce the earlier “feminist foreign policy.” He also declared that Sweden will satisfy — to the letter — every demand raised by Turkey in its ongoing NATO application. The Department of Environment is decommissioned and will henceforth fall under the Department of Commerce.

The new minister of education comes from the board of a private school corporation, and she had not even sold her shares at the time of accession to government. There is an inquiry into a cap on benefits and also one into tax deductions for financial assets. While the list goes on and on, these examples give a clear indication as to the political direction of the coming four years.

Any explanation as to why the parties of the conservative right, and especially the liberals, agreed to this deal has to take into account the level of the bourgeoisie’s hatred of social democracy in Sweden. Eager to oust the Social Democrats, they accepted a policy agreement that, if not stopped by legal scrutiny, will either corrupt them beyond the point of recognition or break the Liberals internally.

Ironically, while the Sweden Democrats have had their way in the fields of rights, identity, citizenship, and culture, they are also allegedly responsible for stopping some of the worst neoliberal reforms in social security proposed by members of the new government. This should come as no surprise — large parts of their Rust Belt voter base are dependent on said social security system.

A Long Time Coming

This fundamental change of Swedish politics is impossible to comprehend without looking at the failure of the Social Democrats to safeguard welfare systems in the face of globalization over the last decade. The “third way” Social Democrats eagerly opened up Sweden’s welfare system to privatization and increased competition. According to the accompanying narrative, anyone who loses out in the new competitive economy has only themselves to blame — treating them, quite literally, as losers.

This development coincided with secular lowering of taxes and concurrent cuts to welfare sectors. Unwilling to actually tax the rich and finance the renovation of the welfare sector, the Social Democrats styled themselves as more effective capitalists, while culturally more tolerant than the Right. This failed to persuade a large part of working-class voters, however. The Sweden Democrats, on the other hand, have a conservative critique of globalization and a simple — albeit false — solution to the problem of increased competition: get rid of immigrants.

There are, of course, overdetermined issues of national identity at play where the threat of globalization has also been sublimated into culture; where genuine insecurity caused by the loss of social security is felt as an insecurity caused by those with different traditions, languages, and customs. There is little talk about foreigners taking jobs, if for no other reason than because they so visibly take jobs no one else wants. Instead, the chatter focuses on foreigners’ unwillingness to adapt to a Swedish way of life. This is reminiscent of Antonio Gramsci’s quote that when “political questions are disguised as cultural ones,” they “become insoluble.”

Luxury Problems?

This is largely the same development seen in other European countries, Italy being the latest in a long line of examples of a populist right replacing the collapsing center left. After the Swedish election, there was a lot of gloating on the European far right that the last bastion of social democracy had fallen, but it is unclear whether this actually means anything besides a good talking point. Rather, the underlying tendencies are the same across countries, so the normalization of the far right in Sweden should come as no surprise to anybody.

Even though Sweden started from a more robust welfare state and has more of its institutions still intact, the general development has been the same as, for example, in Spain and Italy. Young Swedes can still enjoy state subsidies and free education, but they enter into a highly fragmented labor market, where intense competition is sold as the way to rise above precarious jobs in the gig economy. In the capital, Stockholm, it is hard for anyone to find housing, let alone eighteen-year-olds wanting to get away from home.

The failure to address these problems with welfare expansion means that competition for jobs and housing is presented or perceived in racialized and anti-migrant terms, as competition between nonimmigrants and immigrants. This is something the populist right has been exploiting for years.

What Room for the Left?

For the Left Party, there is still the possibility for a rejuvenation in oppositional politics. Anti-racism will of course be an urgent necessity the coming years, but, unfortunately, it will mostly be a defensive struggle. There is a potential organizational basis in the excellent results for the Left in the outskirts of major cities, and the capacity of this base will be put to the test with the coming repression mainly being meted out to people of color in these areas.

There is also the common European problem that even a center-left coalition seems unlikely in the near future with the ongoing decline of the mass parties of social democracy and historical communism. This means that the issue of alliances and compromises will be urgent during every election race. There should be a Europe-wide debate on this, in line with the “return to strategy” proposed by Daniel Bensaïd some years ago.

Notwithstanding, this is secondary to the program of first developing a consistent left program for the medium and long term, to which questions of alliances can then be attached. What economic and political institutions are most important for the formation of common sense and subjectivity — and how can these be safeguarded and expanded in the near to medium future?

Hopes Left

The Left Party polled best last year when they threatened to bring down the Social Democratic government on the issue of market rents, whereas its support dropped precipitously when trying to appear fit for government. There is an argument that this latter strategy almost kept the current government out, as, in the end, the election was extremely close.

However, there is a need to establish an independent political project that is not tied to other coalition partners of a social democratic government. This might become easier, given how the political maneuverings of the previous mandate period will be out of play. There will be no possibility of issue-based voting with the Right or trying to force the center party into a coalition that includes the Left Party. The ability to disrupt the current government will only be possible through popular mobilization and the development of a distinct political project.

The four-year political cycle is an effective hindrance for strategic projects. However, the closing of the near horizon makes possible the formulation of a project that would embed the “losers” of globalization in a restructured national economy. The hope of the Left Party coincides, of course, with the hopes of regular people in all parts of the country for a livable wage in a livable environment.