A rift has opened up in the small Centre Party this past week, forcing leader Annie Lööf to cut short her holiday to explain the new ideas on immigration, polygamy and changes to compulsory education. What does the rift mean for the party and for Sweden?
Mikael Sundström, political scientist at Lund University, explains the ins and outs of the party’s current crisis to The Local.
What’s behind the Centre Party’s situation?
The Centre Party is in the middle of transition, which it has been for more than ten years, and is leaving it’s traditional political base behind. To simplify, it’s moving towards the right.
Where were they before that?
It started out as a farmers’ association so the base was rural, but as the number of farmers decreased dramatically in the 1970s, the Centre Party decided to move towards the more libertarian-leaning (frihetlig) profile. That still fit in with people in the countryside as there are many small business owners there, but it also fit in with many urban voters.
This latest crisis shows a certain degree of confusion within the party. There is the old socially liberal group, which is by far the biggest faction with roots in the old party programme, but then there is a smaller, more libertarian wing that is derogatorily referred to as “Stureplan Centre”, where individual freedoms are very much in focus. They want a small state with a lot of freedom-of-choice yet they dislike being call neoliberal. (Editor’s note: Stureplan is a posh Stockholm night life district).
Why do they dislike being called neoliberals?
This hesitance appears more odd to us political scientists than it does to anyone else, because for us it’s simply a way to describe a certain kind of liberalism. Yet in Sweden it’s almost become a cuss word.
If you look at the US for a comparison, calling yourself a liberal is almost impossible because the word has extremely negative connotations among the voters. And that’s exactly what has happened here.
Is the internal divide bigger than in other Swedish political parties?
There are other divides but it’s more dangerous for the Centre Party because it’s so small. The division means they risk losing their seats in parliament.
When the Moderates moved from being quite far to the right to becoming more centrist, there were irritated members but it’s such a big party that there was never any risk they’d eliminate themselves.
Where does party leader Annie Lööf fit into this ideological divide?
Before she took over as head of the party she was outspoken with her libertarian-leaning sentiments. Her political instincts are libertarian. But she has tried to tone them down since taking over because she has to represent the entire party.
And where does the extremely critical op-ed from a group of local members in Färglanda that was published last week fit into all this?
I think those members had a very extreme take on the topic, and they gave expression to immigration-critical views that are not in tune with the Centre Party normally.
Does the divide between socially liberal and libertarian members follow an urban-rural divide?
It’s certainly been presented that way, by referring to the Stureplan Centre. And maybe members from let’s say Jokkmokk (in Sweden’s far north) don’t have as strong a voice within the party. Most voters are outside the cities but Maud Olofsson, Lööf’s predecessor, tried to attract urban voters more than previously.
The divide isn’t crystal clear, I think there is more to it ideologically than city versus countryside.
What are the traditional core issues for a Centre Party member?
Well, the problem has been to convince voters what they stand for. After almost every election, Swedish voters are asked what the different parties stand for, and very few feel they know what the Centre Party stands for.
It’s the most unclear party in Swedish politics.
Olofsson’s and now Lööf’s aim has been to become more clear.
And this ideas programme was part of that?
Yes, absolutely. The working group most certainly thought it was going to make things extremely clear. Then the media picked up the most extreme examples, but they were examples to illustrate wider ideas and I can understand Lööf’s and the working group members’ frustration at how it has been portrayed.
What will this do to the Centre Party’s performance in the 2014 parliamentary elections?
The Centre Party lives below the 4-percent threshold that is required in the elections to get into parliament, as do the Christian Democrats. I am very curious to see what happens now in upcoming opinion polls.
Moderate voters are the ones who save the Centre Party through tactical voting in the elections. By the Centre Party’s own account, a third of its voters were actually Moderates. It’s around the same figure for the Christian Democrats, who are also a minority partner in the government coalition.
Yet, the current crisis could benefit the Centre Party. If there are swing voters with very clear libertarian leanings they now know where to go. It means they could also poach disgruntled members from the Moderates.
I’d say there are more voters to be fished from the libertarian pool, than there are disgruntled traditionalist party members to lose.
If they leave the Centre Party, where would they go?
Because the Centre Party has always been so unclear about what it stands for, their supporters have probably voted for them for many different reasons, but it’s hard to know which ones. And therefore it’s hard to know where they’d go.