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ANALYSIS: Why has Sweden never had a female Prime Minister?

ANALYSIS: Why has Sweden never had a female Prime Minister?
Three Prime Ministers that never were: former Moderate leader Anna Kinberg Batra, former Foreign Minister Margot Wallström and former Social Democrat party leader Mona Sahlin. Photo: TT
Sweden may be one of the most gender-equal societies in the world, but while every single one of its neighbours is currently run by a woman, Sweden has never once had a female Prime Minister. What's going on?

From the archives. This article was first published in September 2020.

“Human rights, women’s rights and gender equality are so high up on the agenda in Sweden that when you talk to people they are embarrassed that Sweden is the only Nordic country which hasn’t had a woman prime minister,” says Drude Dahlerup, a Swedish-Danish politics professor who has long researched the impact of gender on politics.

It’s not as if there’s a shortage of female talent. Finance Minister Magdalena Andersson, Deputy Prime Minister Isabella Lövin, and Foreign Minister Ann Linde are some of the most well-known members of the current government.

There’s arguably no one in Swedish politics who rivals Centre Party leader Annie Lööf as an operator.

But, if history is any guide, none of them will make it to the top.


Political scientist Drude Dahlerup. Photo: Claudio Bresciani/TT

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The pattern is for the leading female politicians in Sweden to either make the jump to international politics – taking a plum post in the European Commission or a UN agency – step out of the race and retire, or get knocked out by scandal or an internal party coup.

“My point of view is that this is something which is growing up within the party organisations,” Dahlerup says. “Is there really an open space for potential woman prime ministers? Are they really working at getting a woman prime minister? I would suggest – not really.”

Failed attempts

The last serious contender to be Sweden’s first female Prime Minister, Anna Kinberg Batra, was both the first female leader of the conservative Moderate Party and the first since 1907 never to compete in a national parliament election.

The previous contender, Mona Sahlin, was both the first female leader of the Swedish Social Democratic Party and the first since, coincidentally, 1907 to be ousted without first becoming Prime Minister.

The first contender, Foreign Minister Anna Lindh, the first woman ever to chair the Social Democrats’ youth organisation, was stabbed to death in 2003 while shopping in Stockholm’s NK department store.


Mona Sahlin after losing the election in 2010. Photo: Claudio Bresciani/TT

Jenny Madestam, an expert on Swedish party leadership at Södertörn University, believes Kinberg Batra and Sahlin both battled the same largely unconscious beliefs that the leader of their parties should be a man. 

“To make it to the top is difficult, because it’s the last little part in the puzzle you need to have,” she says.

“You need to confront the culture and the norms about what a leader is, and this is unconscious for people. It’s not that they think a Social Democratic party leader should be male, these are unconscious ideas.” 

She thinks there are similarities between what happened to the two women.

While Kinberg Batra drew fire both from within and from outside her party for raising the possibility of ending the total cordon sanitaire around the far-right Sweden Democrats and their party leader Jimmie Åkesson, Sahlin upset her party’s union-led left by planning to go into the 2010 election in a two-party alliance with the Greens.

“You have these parallels, because Anna Kinberg Batra was also something different from what the Moderates were used to, and she was outspoken and said ‘ok, maybe we should talk to the Sweden Democrats’, in the same way as Mona Sahlin did with the Red-Green Alliance.”

Sahlin was pressured by the unions into including the Left Party in her alliance, creating an unwieldy coalition that both made campaigning difficult and allowed the centre-right Alliance to argue that a vote for Sahlin would empower the far-left.  After losing the election badly, she resigned.


Political scientist Jenny Madestam. Photo: Jessica Gow/TT

Madestam believes that a male party leader would have found it easier to make the strategic jump Sahlin tried to take. 

“If Göran Persson [prime minister 1996-2006] or Stefan Löfven [current prime minister] had said ‘now we going to have an election and I want do this together with only the Green Party’, some parts of the party would be angry and upset,” she argues. “But I don’t think they would get to the point that they had to first accept this [a reversal of the strategy], and then, after the election was not successful, to resign.”

In her 2018 biography Inifrån, ‘From the inside’, Kinberg Batra makes a similar argument about her approach to the Sweden Democrats. 

“We’ll never know what would have happened if, for example, Ulf Kristersson or Anders Borg had said the same thing at the same time,” she writes. “But they probably wouldn’t have ended up with a graphic of her snogging Jimmie Åkesson in Dagens Nyheter. Like I did.”

As it happens, her successor Ulf Kristersson has indeed gone much further in the direction of the Sweden Democrats than she ever proposed to, while the Social Democrats have now ruled for two terms in coalition with the Greens.

‘Don’t look so serious’

In her book, Kinberg Batra is adamant that her difficulties did not stem from gender alone. She had, after all, also presided over a fall in her party’s share of the the vote in the polls from 23.3 percent in the 2014 election to as low as 15 percent.

“Gender is, as I’ve said, not everything, and I don’t myself want everything I do to be filtered through the gender I belong to,” she writes.

But it’s hard not to notice one quality of the Moderate Party heavyweights who came out in August 2017 to demand her resignation. Almost all of them were men.


Anna Kinberg Batra. Photo: Janerik Henriksson/TT

In the book, Kinberg Batra doesn’t identify the “coup-organisers” she believes planned her deposition, but she’s in no doubt that there was a conspiracy. 

“Someone had put a lot of work in over the summer to plan and organise most of what was happening now,” she remembers realising in August 2017, as party figures came out at regular intervals to denounce her. “Imagine if they’d been able to use that power for something else, like winning over voters.” 

Even before her resignation, she faced problems due to her gender, which she argues, “does affect which roles you are allowed to play and how you are depicted”. 

Men, she writes, can adopt a serious demeanour when serious issues are to be discussed, but not women. She remembers one of her top colleagues advising her to “look a bit more cheerful”.

“When a woman wins points from their opponents, stands up for herself or is challenging,” Kinberg Batra adds, “she’s neither strong nor sexy, but ‘sharp’, or even ‘a bitch’.”

Dahlerup argues that this is the classic problem faced by woman leaders.

“She was so anxious about making mistakes that she never smiled, she never showed any feelings in order to be serious, but then you have a double bind, because women are supposed to smile,” she says.

“I will fight for women’s right to be politicians without smiling. There are lots of male politicians who never smile.”


Denmark’s Mette Fredriksen with Sweden’s Stefan Löfven. Denmark, Iceland, Norway and Finland currently all have female prime ministers. Photo: Jessica Gow/TT

According to Dahlerup, the first woman to be party leader, or prime minister, of a country always faces what she calls the ‘uncomfortableness’ of the media and the public.

“It’s not because they are old-fashioned and think women belong in the kitchen, it’s that you don’t really fit into the image of what a leader should be, and this is a problem first and foremost with the first person,” she says.

Gender, she points out, has been much less of a challenge for Denmark’s current prime minister Mette Frederiksen than it was for her predecessor Helle Thorning-Schmidt.

Knocked out by scandals

By the time Mona Sahlin was ousted, she had in fact already been squeezed out once before and made a comeback. In the 90s, she was the likely successor to Prime Minister Ingvar Carlsson – until it emerged in 1995 that she had bought 50,000 kronor worth of private goods, including nappies and Toblerone chocolate, on her government credit card, and had failed to pay 19 parking tickets and several kindergarten bills on time.

The expenses scandal, dubbed as the “Toblerone affair” after one of the items she bought with the card, forced her to resign, making way for Göran Persson to become Prime Minister instead.


Mona Sahlin announcing her resignation in 1995, seated next to Prime Minister Ingvar Carlsson. Photo: Leif R Jansson/TT

Dahlerup argues that Sahlin was really being punished for not having a wife.

“These are all things that male politicians have wives to do. Their wives would be buying the diapers and paying the parking tickets,” she says. “It’s outrageous that a top politician should have a problem with buying diapers and paying parking tickets.”

It’s also far from certain that a similar expenses scandal would have forced a male politician to resign. In Denmark, former prime minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen was hit by a succession of expenses scandals, but nonetheless served two terms.

Sweden’s chief prosecutor dropped his investigation into Sahlin after concluding there had been no actual infringement, as the rules over using government cards were so unclear.

Also, would the media have covered it to the same extent? The 2015 findings of a government investigation into gender equality in Swedish politics suggests not.

“The media tends to cover political scandals where women are involved to a greater extend than those where men are involved,” the report reads, with an average of 35 articles on scandals where a man was the main person and an average of 68 for scandals involving a woman.

Women in Swedish politics, as elsewhere, also face online hate and threats far more than their male counterparts.

Party meetings

After a short break from politics, Sahlin nonetheless mounted an impressive comeback, first serving as a minister and then taking over as party leader from Persson in 2006.

But, like Kinberg Batra, she faced enormous difficulties.

“When the party finally got Mona Sahlin as party leader, they were very very proud and satisfied,” Madestam said.

“But it was very difficult for one part of the party – the labour unions and so on. That part of the movement was very sceptical about Mona Sahlin, both because she was perceived as more right-wing-oriented, but also because of her sex, because she was a woman.”


Current Social Democrat leader and Prime Minister Stefan Löfven. Photo: Anders Wiklund/TT

Madestam believes that the centre-left Social Democratic Party is the most difficult party in Sweden for a woman to lead, and she argues that its long dominance of Swedish politics is the key reason why the country has never had a female leader.

The Social Democrats in Denmark, Finland and Norway have never been so dominant.

“The party is very collectivistic in the way it works, so to have any career in the party you need to work in the party, to take part in the meetings and so on, and this has been much easier for men, because women have always been at home taking care of the house and having children,” she says.

“Men have been much more able to watch over positions and be part of these very important networks, and without having networks you can’t advance in the party.”

The lure of international politics

That may be part of the reason why the party’s female talent has so often opted instead for a career in international politics.


One of Sweden’s most well-known politicians, Margot Wallström, has repeatedly turned down the PM role. Photo: Pontus Lundahl/TT

Margot Wallström, who in 1988 became a government minister when she was just 34 years old, was in 1999 offered a Commissioner post in Brussels by the Social Democrat Prime Minister Göran Persson. She then ended up serving a second term in Brussels as Vice President of the Commission.

While often talked about as a possible Prime Minister, she has repeatedly said she is not interested, preferring to serve as Foreign Minister under Stefan Löfven than to take his place.

She is not alone. Every one of the five European Commissioners Sweden has appointed since joining the European Union in 1995 has been a woman.

Why women succeed at top of smaller parties

It is much easier for a woman to lead one of Sweden’s smaller parties.

This shown today by the successful tenures today of both Annie Lööf and of Ebba Busch, the leader of the Christian Democrats. And Nyamko Sabuni was appointed as leader of the Liberal Party a year ago.

But it has been true for decades, with Maud Olofsson leading the Centre Party from 2001 to 2011, and Gudrun Schyman the Swedish Left Party during one of its most successful periods from 1993 to 2003.

“Because these parties are so far away from power, these women are not threatening in the same way as women are in the two big parties, who are potential prime ministers,” Madestam argues.

“In a small party, it can be very positive to have a female party leader, because in some ways they get more attention because they have been more unusual.”

In her book, Kinberg Batra recognises that the greater attention women can get is not always bad, but she argues that there remains significant room for improvement.

“But then we need to start judging women in leadership roles for what they do and how we carry out our role, not for how we are as women,” she says. “On this issue, we, in one of the world’s most equal countries, still have a bit further to go.”

Will Sweden’s next prime minister be a woman?

Madestam believes that the climate for women in both the Social Democratic and Moderate parties has been improving.

“Perhaps when Stefan Löfven leaves, the next party leader might be a woman, and then possibly prime minister,” she believes. “So in the last ten years we have become much closer to having a female prime minister.”


Member comments

  1. Considering the decades’ long history with PM’s of both genders (although mainly men) in the other Nordic countries, all very similar to Sweden in most aspects, I think it is a coincidence and only a matter of time before Sweden has a female PM. As a Norwegian I can share that two of our longest serving PM’s have both been female and both very popular even outside of their own parties (Gro Harlem Brundtland in the 80’s and 90’s, and Erna Solberg today).

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