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ELECTION

Have Sweden’s politicians totally lost their sense of direction?

With Sweden's election year of politicking picking up speed following the holidays, liberal commentator Nima Sanandaji looks at whether the country's politicians have forgotten the difference between right and left.

Have Sweden's politicians totally lost their sense of direction?
Do we really do live in a time when it's hard to distinguish right from left? File photo: Monica Arellano-Ongpin

Jonas Sjöstedt, leader of Sweden's Left Party (Vänsterpartiet), recently said that his party knows “the difference between right and left”. This remark, made during the opening speech of the party’s convention, was clearly aimed at Social Democrat leader Stefan Löfven who a few months ago proclaimed: "I find the concept of right and left so difficult; I don’t think anybody can define what is right and what is left."

No one doubts that the Left Party, which evolved out of Sweden's own Communist party, knows the difference between right and left. After all, the party's programme still explains that as “socialism realizes the human right to control one’s own work, the ownership of means of production will be repealed altogether”. In virtually all issues, the Left Party stays true to its name, taking stands to the left of all other parliamentary parties in Sweden.

Sjöstedt is, quite cleverly, trying to ride on the left-wing wave in Swedish politics by attracting left-leaning Social Democrat voters. Löfven, on the other hand, knows too well that one of the main obstacles for him to becoming Sweden's prime minister after the September elections is that many centrist voters are repelled by the radical ideas of the Left Party. With that in mind, the Social Democrat party leader is attempting to move his party to the center of the Swedish political spectrum. Löfven is signaling that he would like to co-operate with center-right parties like the Liberal Party (Folkpartiet) rather than the Left Party.

The quotes by Sjöstedt and Löfven are interesting because they tell us much about how the parties are maneuvering in hopes of optimizing future electoral success. But the quotes are also a sign of how it's becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish left from right in Sweden's political landscape today – at least when it comes to slimming down the size of central government administration.

Recently, the Social Democrats promised to cut the scope of the Swedish central government by 10 billion kronor ($1.5 billion). This move is smart, since it is about giving voters what they desire.

Public opinion surveys conducted in 1997, 2002, and 2010 paint a clear picture of Swedes' attitudes toward government and municipal administration. Six out of ten voters want to reduce the tax money aimed at these parts of the public sector, whilst merely three percent want to see an increase. It is also smart since it attracts the attention of voters with liberal, free-market sympathies who are particularly sceptical of government waste. Sweden's Social Democrats can, for example, point to the fact that their party colleagues, the Danish Social Democrats, are already working to slim Danish government agencies.

Of course, cutting down the size of government was a promise made by the parties of Sweden's governing centre-right Alliance coalition way back in 2006. And as liberal author Henrik RS Olsson has shown in a book published in late 2012, the government has indeed cut the number of agencies somewhat since coming to power.

But the government has also created new agencies, and expanded existing ones. The end result is that Sweden's central government has actually expanded both in terms of the number of employees and operating costs. As the newspaper Barometern recently wrote, today Sweden has anywhere between 245 to 468 government agencies, depending on how you count.

By promising to slim down central government, the Social Democrats are blurring out what is right and left on the Swedish spectrum. And the centre-right Moderates find it difficult to react to Löfven's new move. Moderate MP Anna Kindberg Batra, head of the Riksdag's Committee on Finance, criticized the idea by saying: “Ten billion is a lot of money. It can have consequences for thousands, maybe tens of thousands of public employees and lead to some agencies having to shut down”.

So, the leading left-leaning party aims for reducing the scope of government bureaucracy, whilst the leading right-leaning party opposes the same idea. We really do live in a time when right is difficult to distinguish from left. 

Dr. Nima Sanandaji, a Swedish writer of Kurdish origin, has written numerous books and reports about policy issues in Sweden. He is a regular contributor to The Local.

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NATO

EXPLAINED: How are Sweden’s Social Democrats deciding on Nato?

The Nato debate has put the party machinery of Sweden's Social Democrats in the spotlight. It's fairly clear the leader, Magdalena Andersson, wants Sweden to join, so why is it all so complicated?

EXPLAINED: How are Sweden's Social Democrats deciding on Nato?

The party is currently consulting members and party district organisations across the country, with press secretary Tobias Baudin saying on May 9th that the party’s final decision on whether to back joining Nato will definitely be taken at a meeting in Stockholm on May 15th. 

According to Karl Loxbo, an associate professor at Stockholm University who wrote his PhD thesis on inter-party decision-making in the Social Democrats, the consultation process will not give the party rank and file a genuine a real say in the Nato decision. 

“This is about keeping up the appearance of being a movement of the people,” he says. “It used to be a mass movement for the people, building on principles of internal democracy and internal deliberation, with a view that decision making comes from below. Although it has never really been like that, it is still a main source of legitimacy for the party.”

The party leadership, he argues, has no choice about whether to hold such a process. “If they ignore this ‘ceremony’, as I would like to call it, it could backfire and lead to a lot of internal controversies.”

When it emerged last week that the Social Democrats’ women’s league, S-kvinnor, had voted in a board meeting against joining Nato, it started to look like the process might end up being more than a ritual.  

But Loxbo said he was certain that none of those questioning a decision to join Nato would end up getting their way. 

“At the end of the day, it’s what the people in government and in the absolute leadership of the party think that always determines the outcome,” he says.  “I see it mainly as a formality, although it’s less of a formality than it would be in a Conservative party.”

Here’s our attempt to explain the party’s decision-making process over Nato membership. 

What is the Social Democrat party’s current position on Nato membership? 

At the party’s national congress in November, the delegates voted to keep the party’s historic policy of non-alignment.

“Our security politics will be grounded on a credible national defence capacity, military non-alignment, deepened defence cooperation, especially with Finland, and an active, broad and responsible foreign policy,” the section reads. “It is absolutely central that we stand up for international law, human rights, and the principle of human security.” 

The national congress, held every other year, is the party’s “highest decision-making organ”, but it will not be reconvened to handle the Nato question.

What has the party’s leadership said officially? 

While it’s fairly clear that Magdalena Andersson, and perhaps also her ministers, have already decided to apply to join Nato, this is not something any of them will yet say officially. 

They continue to maintain that Sweden’s national decision will require, first, an assessment of the results of the inter-party security politics group, and second, a decision from the Social Democratic party. 

They have, however, already started to dismiss some of the most common arguments against Nato membership, arguing, for instance, that Sweden can continue to fight for nuclear disarmament from within the Nato alliance. 

Who will take the party decision on Nato membership and when? 

As the congress is not being reconvened, the decision has been delegated to the ruling party committee, or partistyrelsen, which will hold its meeting on May 15th.

“If a decision needs to be taken, it is up to the party committee, as the highest decision-making organ between party congresses, to take it,” reads the background document for the party’s internal discussions. 

 Who is in the Social Democrats’ party committee or partistyrelsen? 

The party committee includes all 27 members of verkställande utskottet, the party’s executive committee, which is led by Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson.

The members of the operating committee include some of the government’s most important ministers, such as Finance Minister Mikael Damberg, Justice Minister Morgan Johansson, Civil Service Minister Lena Micko and Social Security Minister Ardalan Shekarabi. 

It also includes Susanna Gideonsson, head of the Swedish Trade Union Confederation, and the leaders of the party’s five sidoförbunden, which are semi-independent organisations within Social Democracy. These are the Swedish Social Democratic Youth League SSU, S-studenter, the student organisation, HBT-S, the party’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) league, and Religious Social Democrats of Sweden, or Tro och Solidaritet.

In addition, the party committee also includes 39 members taken from the 26 party districts (of whom 15 are suppleanter or “substitutes”). There are also two additional union representatives, from the Seko and Byggnads unions. 

What is the internal ‘security policy dialogue’ the party has launched? 

The party on April 22nd launched a ‘security policy dialogue’. This will see 14 of the party’s most experienced figures within defence and foreign policy tour party districts to talk to ordinary members and local politicians about the changed security situation. 

In the background document to the discussions, titled “a safer Sweden”, five general topics of discussion are laid out to be discussed at the meetings. 

1. An active foreign policy pushing for peace and security

2. Strengthening Sweden’s total defence 

3. Deeper cooperation with EU countries 

4. Deeper cooperation with other countries  

5. Membership in Nato. 

How are the discussions being held? 

While the discussions are supposed to be open, they seem designed to lead party members to the conclusion that the security order which was the basis of Sweden’s non-alignment has been shattered by Russia’s invasions of Ukraine. 

Hans Dahlgren, Sweden’s EU minister, who has been active in foreign policy since the early 1970s, has, according to SvD journalist Torbjörn Nilsson, been touting a yellowing copy of the 1975 Helsinki Accords. 

As a 20-something foreign policy advisor, he was there at the signing of the accords, which saw the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact countries agree to refrain from the use of force and respect the territorial integrity of sovereign states, something Russia has singularly failed to do with its invasion of Ukraine. 

“This here is the European security order, that which has been broken. I have it here in my hand. I was there,” Dahlgren told Nilsson on a plane to May Day celebrations in Gotland. 

While Dahlgren will not come out openly in favour of joining Nato, the implication is that the security order that supported non-alignment no longer exists. 

Swedish speakers can see the sort of points Dahlgren is making in the video below. 

When are the party district meetings happening? 

The party district meetings are happening between April 24th and May 11th. You can see the full list of dates here

What other meetings are taking place? 

The party is also holding three digital meetings for members on May 9th, May 10th, and May 11th, all of which will feature former foreign secretary Margot Wallström.

In the first Wallström will be with Ann Linde and Matilda Ernkrans, in the second with Peter Hultqvist and Hans Dahlgren, and in the last with Kenneth G Forslund and Åsa Lindestam. 

Who in the party has so far come out against Nato membership, and does it matter?  

Perhaps the most powerful statement against joining Nato has come from Henrik Fritzon, one of the leading figures in the party in Skåne in southern Sweden and a member of the party’s ruling committee. 

He wrote a joint article in the Aftonbladet newspaper with Pierre Schori, a former assistant to Olof Palme who then went on to become aid minister. 

“Nato is an alliance with nuclear weapons, of which almost all are American and under the Pentagon’s exclusive control,” the two wrote. “If these doomsday weapons are ever used, we’re all going down.” 

“If we join Nato, we will be stopped from signing the UN convention banning nuclear weapons, or pushing the issue of nuclear-weapon-free zones, which the party congress has supported,” he added. 

So far, at least three out of the five sidoförbunden have also come out against joining Nato. 

“S-kvinnor has a long history of struggle in issues around peace, disarmament, detente, and military non-alignment, and we have in the league’s ruling committee decided to stick to the congress decision that Sweden should remain non-aligned and outside Nato,” the league’s chair Annika Strändhall told DN.

Lisa Nåbo, chair of the Swedish Social Democratic Youth League, told DN that her group remained sceptical. 

“For me, the most important thing is that the young members of the Social Democrats are allowed to speak, as it is ultimately we who may need to stand at some national border to protect our country, or some other country within Nato,” she told DN. 

Sara Kukka-Salam, chair of Tro och Solidaritet, said that such a decision should not be made at a time of war.

“You should not rush into decisions like this,” she told DN. “To change a position which has been in place so long requires a deep analysis.” 

Emma Fastesson Lindgren, chair of the student’s organisation, is not giving a position until the government’s security policy analysis has been published. 

“We are academics so we want to have facts,” she said. “We want to have full knowledge and then we will have an extra board meeting.” 

Does this opposition matter? 

It does, but not that much. Formally, everything comes down to the decision in the party committee, and according to Loxbo the party committee invariably supports the line taken by the party leadership. 

He predicts that opponents of Nato membership within the party will not put up much of a fight, judging by what happened, when, for instance, the party reformed the pension system. 

“They have always had to cave in to pressure from the party leaders,” he says. “Everyone can express disagreement and voice their opinion. That’s always the case. But they’re usually somehow co-opted because the Social Democratic Party doesn’t want those controversies to become public. Opponents are usually offered something to keep quiet.” 

This is not to say the leadership has nothing to lose. 

The more open opposition to Nato there is in the party, the more difficult it will be for members such as Annika Strändhäll to back a change in policy.  And if the party fails to convince its rank and file to back membership of the alliance, it risks losing votes in the coming election to the Left and Green Parties, which still oppose joining. 

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