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Who is Sweden’s Social Democratic Prime Minister Stefan Löfven?

While Stefan Löfven concentrates on keeping one of Europe's last centre-left governments in power, he faces criticism both from the left and the right.

Who is Sweden's Social Democratic Prime Minister Stefan Löfven?
Prime Minister Stefan Löfven on the campaign trail. Photo: Sören Andersson/TT

Sweden's Social Democratic Prime Minister Stefan Löfven has probably never stood so alone: roasted by the right for leaving the door wide open to asylum-seekers and lambasted by the left for later slamming it shut.

Either way, like German Chancellor Angela Merkel he has faced some hard decisions on immigration and lost support in his own camp since shutting Sweden's borders at the end of 2015, after taking more than 240,000 asylum seekers since 2014.

At 61, Löfven, a former metal worker and union leader, faces the biggest challenge of his career: to keep one of Europe's last centre-left governments in power.

As the son of a poor single mother who came into politics after rising through the ranks of the trade union movement, he can truthfully claim to understand the challenges faced by “ordinary” voters.


Born in Stockholm in 1957, poverty forced his mother to give him up when he was 10 months old to a foster family in Sollefteå, 500 kilometres north of the capital, where the father was a factory worker. He became a welder and spent 15 years working in a defence factory, joining the union in the early 1980s and ending up as head of the metal workers' union Metall from 2006 to 2012.

Boxer's nose

“I'm sometimes described as a right-wing socialist because I think industry is important. I find that very bizarre,” retorts the politician with the square build and nose of a boxer to those who accuse him of turning his back on the party's base.

Ahead of Sweden's September 9th legislative elections, he has tried to court everyone from the left to the centre, one eye firmly on the thorny negotiations likely to lie ahead to form a government.

His Social Democrats, which have dominated Swedish politics since the 1930s, are leading in the polls, but they look set to post a record low score, just ahead of the far-right Sweden Democrats and conservative Moderates, who are battling for second place.

Migration U-turn

Despite some internal dissension, “Stefan Löfven has managed to keep the party united, his leadership isn't questioned,” Ulf Bjereld, a University of Gothenburg political science professor and a member of the Social Democrats' executive committee, told AFP.

After allowing large numbers of asylum seekers into the country after 2014, Löfven announced on November 24th, 2015, that Sweden was aligning its asylum policy with the European Union's minimal levels, cracking down on family reunifications among other things.

“It pains me to say that Sweden can no longer take in asylum seekers at the same high level… Sweden needs some breathing room,” Löfven told a news conference, his then Greens Party deputy prime minister Åsa Romson at his side, tearing up.

Just two months earlier he had said: “My Europe doesn't build walls, my Europe takes in refugees.”

“Even Angela Merkel in Germany had to do a U-turn on immigration. But no leader in Europe did an about-face as brutal as Stefan Löfven,” wrote Sweden's paper of reference Dagens Nyheter in May.

'Genuine'

Löfven's detractors say his stance on immigration and integration is “naive” and “irresponsible”. To counter that he has taken a hard line, repeatedly stressing that new arrivals in Sweden have both “rights and responsibilities”.

And with cars being torched and gangs settling scores in Sweden's disadvantaged suburbs, he regularly calls for “law and order” – a phrase more commonly used by the right-wing.

Seen by some as a poor orator who lacks charisma, he is nevertheless popular with many Swedes who see him as “genuine”. A recent Skop poll showed a majority of Swedes would rather break bread with him than with his Swedish Moderate Party challenger Ulf Kristersson.

He and his wife Ulla – who lead the sort of simple, modest lifestyle seen as a virtue in Sweden – were recently featured in the pages of a celebrity magazine, and on television, an unusual move for Social Democratic politicians.

If elected to a second term, Löfven is likely to have to contend with a downturn in the domestic and international economy, as forecast by experts after Sweden's long period of growth.

Article written by AFP's Gaël Branchereau

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SWEDEN ELECTS

Sweden Elects: I’ve got election pork coming out my ears this week

The Local's editor Emma Löfgren rounds up this week's key talking points of the Swedish election campaign.

Sweden Elects: I've got election pork coming out my ears this week

There’s an old Swedish Word of the Day in The Local’s archives: valfläsk (literally “election pork”, or pork barrel politics).

This week, there’s been enough of it to feed a Swedish town large enough for both a Biltema and a Dressmann store and still have half the pig left!

You could say it started the week before last, when the Social Democrats’ Immigration Minister Anders Ygeman floated a test balloon loaded with a 50-percent cap on non-Nordic residents in troubled neighbourhoods (it went down among the other parties like it was made out of lead).

Then last week, the Liberals threw their hat in the ring by proposing mandatory language assessments for two-year-olds who don’t attend preschool, and then make preschool mandatory for the toddlers whose Swedish isn’t deemed good enough. This, they said, was meant to help integration in areas where bilingual children don’t speak Swedish at home.

“Studies show that early preschool benefits children whose mothers are low-educated and whose parents are born abroad,” their manifesto read.

Liberal leader Johan Pehrson’s statement that in the most extreme cases – where parents clearly refuse to let their children learn Swedish – led to a social media storm that conjured up images of crying toddlers being taken into care for failing to distinguish between en and ett when quizzed.

For any parents of multilingual children (who know better than most how language works in early childhood – I’m raising a multilingual baby myself, but I’ve only just started so if you have any tips, do let me know!), I should stress that the proposal is less extreme than how it was first presented.

This is typical for valfläsk, by the way. Take something that’s perfectly obvious and hard to argue against (of course mixed neighbourhoods and children being encouraged to learn languages are generally good things) but dial it up a notch, insert something immigration-related, promise to get tough on whatever it is you want to get tough on, and propose either something that already exists or would be near-impossible to implement.

Then the Stockholm branch of the conservative Moderates proposed that entire school classes in vulnerable areas should be screened for ADHD through optional rapid tests, in order to increase the comparably lower rate of medication among foreign-born children and prevent them from falling into a life of crime.

“Detached from reality,” said their Social Democrat rival and pointed out that the partly Moderate-run region was planning to cut the number of psychiatric care clinics for young people.

The Christian Democrats, never ones to be outdone, wanted to chemically castrate sex offenders, give police access to healthcare biobanks, and let police take DNA samples from people stopped in internal border checks.

But while many of the election pledges that get tossed around this close to the election (less than a month to go, now!) tend to range from the radical to the ridiculous and are unlikely to ever be implemented, they’re still worth paying attention to. They give us an indication of the direction the parties want to take, and could well reappear in a more watered-down format later on during the governmental cycle.

They may also become part of post-election negotiations, where even small parties hold key cards as the larger parties fight to cobble together viable government coalitions.

They also say something about Sweden and the direction of the political sphere as a whole, where the parties are currently racing to outdo each other on who can be toughest on immigration and law and order.

The Local’s reporter Becky Waterton has gone through all the parties’ election pledges to see how they specifically would affect foreign residents in Sweden – in case you’ve missed her article, click here to read it.

Also in the world of Swedish politics, a new poll by SVT and Novus has the Moderates and the Sweden Democrats neck and neck, Moderate leader Ulf Kristersson promised lower taxes in his summer speech and Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson tougher sentences on gang criminals in hers, and Sweden Democrat leader Jimmie Åkesson suggested changing the name of the Swedish Prison and Probation Service (Kriminalvården) to the Penal Office (Straffverket).

Sweden Elects is a new weekly column by Editor Emma Löfgren looking at the big talking points and issues in the Swedish election race. Members of The Local Sweden can sign up to receive the column plus several extra features as a newsletter in their email inbox each week. Just click on this “newsletters” option or visit the menu bar.

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