Wildfires and migrants: the issues defining the Swedish election

OPINION: Anamaria Dutceac Segesten, senior lecturer in European studies at Lund University, examines the issues grabbing headlines ahead of the Swedish election.

Wildfires and migrants: the issues defining the Swedish election
Forest fires across Sweden brought climate change to the forefront of voters' minds this summer. Photo: Adam Wrafter/SvD/TT

Sweden is heading for a general election on September 9, with two pressing political issues driving the agenda. But a third, simmering problem could yet define the next parliament.

More than 50 wildfires raged across Sweden during the summer of 2018 – the warmest summer since 1756. So severe was the problem that the Swedish government had to request help from the EU. The gravity of the situation brought environmental questions to the fore, as the effects of climate change became more tangible than ever.

All this has provided new impetus to the struggling Green Party which had looked unlikely to secure the four percent of votes needed to secure seats in the national parliament but now looks likely to reach that threshold. A similar turnaround took place in the 1988 election, when a sudden outbreak of seal pest, a contagious disease that kills the young of the species, helped the Greens enter the Riksdag for the first time.

READ ALSO: The Local's coverage of the 2018 summer heatwave

But the event most defining these elections is the refugee crisis.

In the autumn of 2015, Sweden opened its doors to asylum seekers from Syria and elsewhere, taking in more than 100,000 people over a period of just a few months. Managing the influx of people proved difficult and the Social Democrat/Green coalition government had to introduce a much stricter version of its asylum policy as a result.

This effectively closed down Sweden's southern border with Denmark and temporarily suspended the Schengen agreement, which allows free movement through continental Europe. The switch from an open-door policy to a very restrictive approach to asylum, and the poor way in which new arrivals were managed cast a shadow of doubt over the competence of prime minister Stefan Löfven. His Social Democratic Party is now likely to see a significant drop in voter support.

The refugee crisis has had a major impact on Swedish politics. The Sweden Democrats, a staunchly anti-immigration party, has thrived on migration becoming a major concern for many citizens. Current polls show that the party is projected to win about 20 percent of the vote – its best ever result by a significant margin.

READ ALSO: The Local's coverage of the Swedish election

However, the crisis has had a far broader affect on political discourse. In February 2013, Tobias Billström, then immigration minister for the Conservative Party, was reprimanded by his party leader for proposing capping the number of non-EU citizens allowed to residency in Sweden. Today, the same Conservative Party, under the new leadership of Ulf Kristersson, has not shied away from proposing a very similar policy.

The refugee crisis has normalized the topic of immigration management, which has affected the agendas of every political party running in this election. All have been forced to take a position on the subject, which has, in turn, made it a deeply polarizing topic.

The political field has been divided into those who are in favour of a more generous immigration approach (Social Democrats, the Left, the Greens and the Centre Party) and those who prefer a stricter policy (the Conservatives, the Christian Democrats, the Sweden Democrats and to some extent, the Liberals). Disagreements over immigration may even lead to a split within the centre-right Alliance that held power in two consecutive governments (2006-2010 and 2010-2014), with the Centre Party defecting from the group position to embrace a more restrictive immigration approach.

While the event of the refugee crisis was the spark that ignited the recent debate on immigration, the topic is connected to longer-term transformations in Swedish society. Political parties are also seeking answers to the difficulties caused by an ageing population, synonymous with a large number of retirees and high demand on the healthcare and elderly-care systems.

Integrating non-EU migrants into the labour market has been a slow process. And, if you add into the mix the generous welfare benefits traditionally provided by the Swedish state (long parental leave, free education at all levels, subsidised healthcare), the dilemma faced by Swedish politicians is evident. The biggest issue of this (and coming) elections will really be the future of the welfare state. Parties must either find creative solutions to finance public services – or propose cutting some of them.

Anamaria Dutceac Segesten, Senior Lecturer in European Studies, Lund University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Gothenburg: is the dream of a new city turning into a nightmare? 

Sweden’s second city is the site of Scandinavia’s largest urban development project. But there is rising concern that the costs outweigh the benefits, says David Crouch

Gothenburg: is the dream of a new city turning into a nightmare? 

Last week, residents in the area of Fågelsången (birdsong), a quiet street at the very heart of Sweden’s second city, woke up to read the following news: “Explosions at Fågelsången: On August 8, week 32, we start blasting around Fågelsången and are expected to be done by week 40. When blasting, for safety reasons, no one is allowed to go out, open their windows or be within the blasting area. We will work weekdays 7am to 5pm.” 

Blasting deep holes in the granite – along with sprawling roadworks – has been the reality for central Gothenburgers for the past four years, as a vast rail tunnel is being dug to link the current terminus with other parts of the city and enable smoother connections with other routes. The aim is to triple rail passenger numbers and eliminate traffic jams on the main road through the city, at a cost of 20 billion crowns (€1.9 billion).

This railway, known as Västlänken (the West Link), is not the only big construction project in the city centre. It is just the largest element in a gigantic scheme to revive the docks area along the river, which was destroyed by a global shipping crisis in the 1970s. The great rusting cranes opposite the opera house and the disused Eriksberg gantry are an important aspect of Gothenburg’s skyline and self-image. The areas on the north bank were also home to many recent immigrants and a byword for poverty. The city’s mayor famously, and shamefully, referred to it as “the Gaza strip”.

So in 2012 the city launched an ambitious plan. Christened Älvstaden, the RiverCity, municipal investment aimed to build an attractive, modern waterfront while creating tens of thousands of homes and jobs. It is by far the Nordic region’s biggest urban regeneration project. A YouTube video commissioned by the city authorities a few years later neatly sums up both the breathtaking scope of this vision and the exciting / brutal (choose your own adjective here) nature of the transformation it would bring: 

The RiverCity revolved around two flagship projects: a new bridge over the river, the Hisingsbron (Hisingen Bridge), combined with major new office developments right in the centre; and Karlatornet, Sweden’s tallest skyscraper, which would literally tower over Gothenburg like a beacon of modernity in a city that traditionally has had strict rules against high-rise buildings. 

Add to all this a proposed high-speed rail link with Stockholm, and you have a recipe for quite spectacular urban upheaval involving billions of tons of steel and concrete. Visit Gothenburg today and much of the city seems to have been turned into a building site. There is a forest of cranes, while smart new office blocks puncture the skyline – a genuine metamorphosis is under way.

But many Gothenburgers are either uneasy or downright unhappy. The RiverCity is a vanity project to gentrify the docklands, they say. Karlatornet’s 73 stories of luxury apartments will be a scar on the landscape and a symbol of Gothenburg’s new love affair with finance and real estate, a slap in the face for the city’s proud industrial values. Västlänken is a vit elefant, a costly project that will deliver questionable benefits, many believe.  

Opposition to Västlänken was such that a new political party, the Democrats, took 17 percent of the vote in 2018 with its headline demand to stop the project immediately. This caused a revolution in local politics, overturning decades of Social Democrat rule. 

And now the gloss on these big-ticket construction projects is starting to fade. Karlatornet was the first to run into trouble. For most of 2020 building work was at a standstill, raising the threat that this flagship of regeneration would be nothing more than an unfinished stump, after American financiers pulled out of the project. The new Hisingen Bridge is open to traffic, but its construction was fraught with setbacks and the final cost to the taxpayer is still unknown. “There has been an awareness from the start that this was a high-risk project,” one of the project’s bosses said ominously this spring.

RiverCity is more than two billion kronor over budget, and facing accusations of mismanagement that evoke Gothenburg’s old nickname of Muteborg, or Bribetown, after a proliferation of municipal companies in the 1970s led to conflicts of interest, with politicians sitting on company boards. Opponents of the scheme argue that in any case it is unlikely to solve any of the city’s fundamental problems, such as the ethnic segregation that has created immigrant ghettos in outlying suburbs.  

In May, Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter published leaked minutes from Västlänken management meetings in which one of the main contractors on the project said it would be delivered billions over budget and four years later than its official 2026 deadline – in other words, four more years of earth-shattering explosions, roadblocks and associated upheaval. With local elections only months away, the Democrats have taken out advertisements on billboards and in local media demanding that top politicians tell the truth about what is going on. For opponents of the scheme, this is exactly what they have warned of all along

Next June, Gothenburg will officially celebrate its 400th anniversary, postponed from 2021 because of the pandemic. Visitors will experience a city on the move, with pristine new motorways and sparkling office blocks. So for Gothenburg’s urban planners, there is light at the end of the development tunnel. In the case of Västlänken, however, they will be hoping that the light is indeed that of an oncoming train. 

David Crouch has lived in Gothenburg for nine years. He is the author of Almost Perfekt: How Sweden Works and What Can We Learn From It, a freelance journalist and lecturer in journalism at Gothenburg University.