Where did it all go wrong for ousted party leader Anna Kinberg Batra?

What could Moderate leader Anna Kinberg Batra have done differently, asks political scientist Nicholas Aylott.

Where did it all go wrong for ousted party leader Anna Kinberg Batra?
Anna Kinberg Batra announcing her resignation at a press conference. Photo: Fredrik Sandberg/TT

READ FIRST: Moderate leader Anna Kinberg Batra resigns

You'd have to be hard-hearted not to feel even a little sorry for Anna Kinberg Batra. She stepped down today as leader of the main Swedish opposition party, the Moderates. She lasted less than three years in the job, and never got to fight an election.

Rather like another conservative leader across the North Sea, British prime minister Theresa May, Kinberg Batra was often regarded as wooden in public appearances. In previous rounds of internal party criticism, she was often accused of being “unclear”, and she duly promised at the start of June to be “clearer” (tydligare) in her leadership.

Yet precisely what she was supposed to be clearer about was rarely specified. What could “AKB” have done differently?

From bad to worse

The immediate cause of her downfall is obvious enough. Her party's support in the polls is extremely weak.

In the 2014 election, after eight years of Moderate-led coalition government, the Moderates got 23.1 percent of the vote. That was a hefty drop from its previous score, so the potential for recovery in opposition was clear. What's more, the centre-left government that took office in 2014 looked very wobbly, and nearly fell after just a few weeks. In autumn 2015 it implemented a truly spectacular policy U-turn when it abandoned Sweden's generous reception of asylum-seekers, one of its parties' most cherished policies.

Yet the Moderates' support in the opinion polls did not recover. It sunk further. The final straw for many in the party was probably a poll published last weekend in Svenska Dagbladet, which put the Moderates on around 16 percent. That came less than a month after the government had once again found itself on the brink of collapse, this time because of its handling of data mismanagement at the public Transport Agency. Yet despite this huge scandal, the poll suggested that the Moderates had barely profited.

Frustration could no longer be contained. A lone call for her to go, by an obscure local politician, snowballed this week until the extent of Moderate opposition to her made it impossible for Kinberg Batra to continue.

So where did it all go wrong for AKB?

The problem of strategy

For many media observers (some of whom may now struggle to disguise their skadeglädje, Swedish for Schadenfreude), her fatal error was to announce suddenly, in January this year, that the Moderates would no longer isolate the far-right Sweden Democrats (SD). Instead, they would explore the possibility of an understanding with SD that could underpin a Moderate-led majority government. Certainly, the Moderates immediately lost more ground in the polls, presumably due to defections from sympathisers who saw SD as beyond the pale.

However, it is not obvious that maintaining what political scientists often call the cordon sanitaire around SD would have worked any better for the Moderates. Most of their electoral losses in the 2014 election had been to SD. Some have argued that the Moderates' adoption of a much more restrictive asylum policy during the refugee crisis of 2015, and then their withdrawal from the cordon sanitaire seven months ago, actually stemmed any further losses to SD among their supporters.

It's tempting, then, to conclude that Kinberg Batra's Moderates just couldn't win. Whatever strategy they pursued was bound to cost them support – and thus undermine the leader's credibility. But that is surely too fatalist. Parties are never entirely in thrall to their circumstances. There was, in fact, one additional path that the Moderates under AKB might have taken.

Goodbye, Alliance?

In 2004 the Moderates led the formation of the Alliance for Sweden, a proto-coalition of four centre-right parties. It was enormously successful. The previously dominant Social Democrats were kept in opposition for an unprecedented eight years. Yet the Alliance has, in my view, been moribund since 2014.

Some years ago, a colleague and I wrote about this sort of proto-coalition (which had also materialised in Norway). We argued that it really matters what a party wants most at a particular moment. A necessary condition for a proto-coalition is that each of its parties must prioritise getting into government over all other goals, such as maximising its vote.

And that condition simply no longer applies to the Alliance parties. The Liberals and, in particular, the Centre Party have made it pretty clear that they would rather stay in opposition rather than enter a government that is dependent on SD for parliamentary support. That was reaffirmed following the recent Transport Agency scandal, in which the Alliance's divisions allowed the Social Democratic prime minister, Stefan Löfven, to survive and even, amazingly, to enhance his political reputation.

Given this fundamental strategic disagreement between the Alliance parties, a really bold, authoritative Moderate leader could have drawn the public conclusion that the Alliance was dead; that the party would henceforth run its own electoral race; and that it would explore the possibility of co-operation with other parliamentary parties, including SD – but only after the 2018 election, not before it.

That, at least, would surely have been a “clearer” line for the Moderates, freeing them from a hopeless balancing act between previous allies to their left and a potential one to their right. It might also have led the Moderates to concentrate more fully on their own ideas and policies, rather than the endless strategising for which Kinberg Batra was also criticised.

The scope for leadership

Realistically, though, could she have taken such a step? Again rather like Theresa May, AKB was ushered by her party into the leader's job without any other candidate being seriously considered. Her party never had a chance to express, or perhaps even to consider, what it expected of her. She never had the opportunity to explain what she planned to do as leader, or perhaps even to work out what she wanted; and she thus never got a mandate from her party to do very much at all.

Kinberg Batra inherited a limited-aggression pact with the government parties, the December Agreement, that many Moderates had deep misgivings about. She soon allowed it to collapse. But could she really have gone further and abandoned the Alliance, the key to the party's historic success under her predecessor? Had she tried, she might just have been forced out even sooner.

It may be that AKB lacked some of the personal attributes that an aspiring prime minister needs. She also faced a very challenging brief, as the whole Swedish party system struggles to adapt to SD's presence now being a fact of political life. But in allowing her such limited scope to lead her party, the Moderates did their now former leader no favours at all.

Nicholas Aylott is associate professor of political science at Södertörn University in Stockholm. Follow him here on Twitter.


10 things the Covid-19 crisis has taught us about Sweden

Over the 14 months since the Covid-19 crisis began to affect daily life in Sweden, both the pandemic and the national response have revealed some important things about Sweden and the Swedes, writes The Local contributor Chiara Milford.

Only some people wear a mask on the tunnelbana in Stockholm
Only some people wear a mask on the tunnelbana in Stockholm. Photo: Jessica Gow / TT

1. Swedish people aren’t as good at following rules as we thought 

Sweden has primarily used non-coercive measures to curb the spread of the virus, relying on individual responsibility to socially distance. But many regions have repeatedly reported low public compliance with guidance. 

Take the tunnelbana in Stockholm during rush hour and you’ll likely be met with a carriage full of mask-less commuters, despite the recommendations to keep a distance and wear a mask at all times. 

During the pandemic, many citizens did reduce their contact with others, or went into self-isolation, but some went in the other direction and protested the relatively relaxed restrictions. 

Perhaps Swedes are more rebellious than we previously assumed. 

2. Nothing will get in the way of the right to roam 

Freedom of movement is enshrined in the Swedish constitution and a global pandemic wasn’t going to stop that. While some countries imposed lockdowns, curfews and mandatory quarantines, Sweden didn’t. 

Although people were asked to “think about whether travel is really necessary,” many still went on skiing holidays during the winter peak in infections.  

The Public Health Agency has said that if they hadn’t allowed domestic travel for the summer holidays, people would have done it anyway – but in an uncontrolled way. 

Proof that allemansrätten (the “right to roam”) applies to more than just hiking. 

3. We may never use cash again 

When was the last time you touched a 100 kronor bill? The transformation to a cashless society was already well underway before the pandemic began (Sweden launched its first cashless, unmanned shops years ago), but it has certainly sped it up. 

Now, even more supermarkets have added automated checkout options or ask customers to avoid cash if possible, while several banks have raised the threshold on contactless payments.

4. Even Swedes can fall out of love with the government… 

Criticism of the government’s treatment of the pandemic has been rife, and trust in the government has fallen dramatically. Only 34 percent of the population thought Prime Minister Stefan Löfven was handling the crisis well in June 2020.

Many people within Sweden’s scientific and medical community have written op-eds criticising the government’s strategy. At the very start of the pandemic, over 2,000 academics signed an open letter imploring the government to impose stricter restrictions.

Anti-lockdown protest in Stockholm.

Anti-lockdown demonstration in Stockholm. Photo: Carl-Olof Zimmerman/ TT

5. …but criticising authority isn’t without backlash

Freedom of expression is also protected by the constitution, but that hasn’t stopped critics of Sweden’s strategy facing fierce backlash in the public arena, leading some to say they have stopped speaking in the media on the topic or have even left the country as a result. 

Norway’s state epidemiologist Frode Forland reported abuse after he said he did not agree with the Swedish strategy entirely. Readers of The Local have reported receiving xenophobic social media abuse after criticising the government’s strategy. 

And public health officials have also reported facing threats for doing their job, showing just how polarised and toxic the debate has become.

6. Education is genuinely important

Throughout the pandemic, Sweden made keeping schools open a priority. Schools  were never stopped on a nationwide level from offering in-person classes for children under 16, despite multiple outbreaks. On the whole, schools have adapted rather than closed, though distance learning was a possibility in cases where local authorities judged it necessary. 

Thankfully, doctors at the Karolinska Institute have found a low incidence of severe Covid-19 symptoms among children.

7. Swedish society is not as equal as we thought 

Like everywhere, in Sweden the virus exacerbated existing inequalities to deadly consequence. Covid-29 took a shocking toll on the most vulnerable parts of the population.

Poorer suburban communities suffered some of the worst outbreaks. Foreign-born people were not only disproportionately affected by the virus, but have also been vaccinated at a lower rate than native Swedes, while there have also been significantly higher mortality rates among groups with lower incomes and lower levels of education. 

None of this is unique to Sweden, but as a country frequently thought of as one of the most egalitarian societies in the world, it feels starker to see inequalities laid so bare. 

A couple hug and laugh as they have lunch in a restaurant in Stockholm,  just as the pandemic begins in April 2020.
A couple hug and laugh as they have lunch in a restaurant in Stockholm, just as the pandemic begins in April 2020. Photo: Andres Kudacki / AP Photo

8. Swedes need social contact more than we thought

While Swedish workers have taken to working from home quite well, rates of loneliness among unemployed people have skyrocketed during the pandemic. 

Despite bustling bars and cafes, many Swedes did stay home and older people reported feeling increasingly isolated. 

Although early on in the crisis, it was a common joke that social distancing wouldn’t be a problem for Sweden’s reserved population, the restrictions on socialising have taken a toll on mental health.

9. Lagom doesn’t work in a crisis 

Rather than clear rules, there has been confusing messaging around mask-wearing, gatherings, and the exact distance you need to keep, placing the burden of making risk assessments on individuals (is it 1.5 metres, two, or an arm’s length? Or is it an arm’s length?). 

Sweden’s recommendations have stood out while the rest of Europe has mostly responded to the pandemic with decrees, laws, and precise guidelines. Balance and lagom is great in many situations, but less so during a global pandemic. 

10. International media likes to oversimplify what’s happening here 

This past year has seen articles from big publications around the world either lauding the so-called “Swedish strategy” or calling it a disaster, often based largely on which narrative suits their domestic agenda. Pundits on all sides of the political spectrum have jumped on Sweden as a case-study for good or bad.  

This phenomenon is not new; aspects of Swedish culture have been misrepresented overseas for years, whether it’s Swedish immigration policy used as a horror story by right-wing politicians, local news stories overblown to present an inaccurate picture, or popular culture perpetuating stereotypes.

As usual, the reality is much more complicated than black or white. It will likely be several years before we can know the full impact of the pandemic here and elsewhere.