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Politics recap: What you need to know about the party leader debate in Sweden

Sweden's party leaders faced each other in a televised debate on Sunday evening for the first time since January's government negotiations transformed the political landscape. The leaders talked crime and security, jobs and welfare, climate policy, and the issue of immigration and integration. Here are six key take-aways from the two-hour debate organized by Sweden's public broadcaster.

Politics recap: What you need to know about the party leader debate in Sweden
Sweden's party leaders debated for two hours on Sunday evening. Photo: Henrik Montgomery/TT

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1. New political alliances

History was made in January when the centre-left Social Democrats and Green Party entered an agreement with their former opposition rivals, the Centre and Liberal parties, in order to get the support they needed to govern. The debate on May 5th was the first televised formal meeting of all the party leaders since this so-called January Deal (januariavtal in Swedish).

Previously, the Centre and Liberal party leaders stood alongside the leaders of the other two centre-right Alliance parties, the Moderates and Christian Democrats, and joined their centre-right allies in debating the leaders of the governing parties. But this time, Centre leader Annie Lööf was quick to defend the Social Democrats, at one point saying the centre-left budget allocated more cash to the legal system than the Moderate-Christian Democrat proposed budget.

Moderate leader Ulf Kristersson said as the debate opened that it felt strange not to be alongside his old Alliance partners, but added: “This is also the strangest government formation in Swedish history.”

Also participating in the debate were the leader of the far-right Sweden Democrats, Jimmie Åkesson, and Left Party leader Jonas Sjöstedt. Neither party is part of any alliance; another change from previous debates, when Sjöstedt stood alongside the Social Democrats and Greens, since his party worked with theirs on the budget.

From left, Stefan Löfven (Social Democrats), Isabella Lövin (Greens), Annie Lööf (Centre), Jan Björklund (Liberals), Jonas Sjöstedt (Left), Jimmie Åkesson (Sweden Democrats), Ebba Busch Thor (Christian Democrats), Ulf Kristersson (Moderates). Photo: Henrik Montgomery/TT

2. Law and order top of the agenda

Crime was the first topic the leaders discussed, with Prime Minister and Social Democrat leader Stefan Löfven opening the debate by saying the crime rate was too high, and that people needed to feel safe in Sweden.

Kristersson immediately went on the attack, saying the government “talks, but does almost nothing”. He called for tougher sentences, particularly for gang-related crime.

Löfven responded by saying his government had introduced tougher sentences for around 30 different crimes, and had led to an increasing number of police officers undergoing training.


Stefan Löfven is interviewed following the debate. Photo:  Henrik Montgomery/TT

3. A controversial rape judgment

The leaders also discussed a recent Supreme Court judgment which ruled that a convicted rapist should not be deported from Sweden due to his ties to Sweden. As The Local reported at the time, the court has overturned a decision to deport the man after ruling there was no “extraordinary reason” to expel him from the country.

Christian Democrat leader Ebba Busch Thor was the one to bring up this judgment, challenging Green Party leader Isabella Lövin: “Why should foreign rapists who commit serious crimes be allowed to stay here?”

Lövin responded by saying that the Swedish legal system allows for criminals to be deported, without going into the details of the particular case. She also listed actions taken by the government against sexual violence, such as a new law on sexual consent, while Löfven said the government was working on a comprehensive strategy to reduce violence against women.

Annie Lööf said the parties were “in agreement” on the fact that more foreign criminals should face expulsion, and also said that violence against women was an area where Sweden “needs to do much more”.

Christian Democrat leader Ebba Busch Thor was critical of both the government and her former Alliance partners. Photo: Henrik Montgomery / TT

4. 'Ready to topple the government'

The leader of the Left Party repeated earlier threats made during the government-building negotiations that he was prepared to bring down the government over working conditions, if there was a deterioration in job security. Kristersson said the Moderate Party would be prepared to vote with the Left Party on a no-confidence motion in the government.

Löfven responded by saying: “If Sjöstedt thinks it would be easier with a Moderate-led government, he should do that.”

Left Party leader Jonas Sjöstedt speaking to media after the debate. Photo: Henrik Montgomery / TT

5. Climate debate

Most of the party leaders described the climate situation as “serious”, although the Sweden Democrats' Åkesson criticized them for acting on “panic” and “desperation”.

Left Party leader Jonas Sjöstedt replied: “It is a panic. It's a national and an international emergency situation.”

Annie Lööf meanwhile was critical of the flight tax, which was first introduced by the government during the previous term of office and has been reintroduced after a Moderate-Christian Democrat budget proposed scrapping it.

Sweden Democrat leader Jimmie Åkesson accused the other parties of “panic”. Photo: Henrik Montgomery / TT

6. But what about the EU elections?

One subject was conspicuous for how little it was touched on during the debate: the upcoming EU Parliamentary Elections.

These elections take place in just a few weeks on May, yet recent surveys have shown many Swedes are unaware of this. And it didn't appear to be the most pressing questions on the minds of party leaders, with the EU first mentioned at the 20-minute mark by Liberal Leader Jan Björklund, who proposed a European equivalent to the FBI.

Although the EU was brought up again in relation to immigration and integration, and during the section on climate, it was not mentioned at all during the discussion on jobs and welfare. 

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For members


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.