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Working with the far-right? What a watershed vote means for Swedish politics

The second smallest party in the Swedish parliament, the Liberals, is again dominating the headlines after it approved proposals to campaign for a centre-right government in next year's general election, opening the door to cooperation with the far-right Sweden Democrats.

Working with the far-right? What a watershed vote means for Swedish politics
Liberal leader Nyamko Sabuni. Photo: Henrik Montgomery/TT

What’s happening? 

The Liberal party’s national committee voted 59-31 in favour of campaigning as part of a right-wing alliance in the 2022 general election, approving a proposal from leader Nyamko Sabuni. 

The committee also voted that the party’s leadership can negotiate with the populist Sweden Democrats on policy, and even involve them in budget negotiations. 

Why is that controversial? 

The first part of the vote – campaigning alongside the Moderate Party and Christian Democrats – is in itself no surprise. The three parties have been allies through several election cycles as part of the right-wing Alliance, together with the Centre Party. 

But the Alliance fell apart after the 2018 election, when neither they nor the centre-left bloc received enough votes to govern alone. A right-of-centre government would have relied on accepting support from the Sweden Democrats, a populist party with roots in neo-Nazi groups in the 1980s, which would likely only have been given in return for some level of policy influence.

The former leader of the Liberal Party, Jan Björklund, argued that the party’s values precluded negotiating with the Sweden Democrats, as did the Centre Party and its leader Annie Lööf.

Instead, the Liberals and Centre Party agreed not to vote against Social Democrat prime minister Stefan Löfven, allowing him to govern in exchange for policy influence as agreed in the so-called January Agreement between the four parties. This meant the centre-left government agreed to liberal policies such as cutting tax on the highest earners and reforming Sweden’s ‘first in first out’ labour laws. 

The Liberal party remains deeply split on the issue of cooperating with the Sweden Democrats, with Christer Nylander, the second vice-chair of the party, who has been one of the staunchest opponents of ending the ‘cordon sanitaire’ around the Sweden Democrats, announcing after that vote that he would not put himself up for election in 2022. The vote on March 28th took place after several hours of debate, and several prominent figures in the party were staunchly against the proposals from leadership.

What limits does the new party policy set on deals with the Sweden Democrats? 

The resolution which passed says that the budget propositions should “initially” be prepared by borgerliga, or ‘right-wing’ parties (which would exclude the Sweden Democrats). 

The resolution also said that the party would not support “budget cooperation of the sort which took place between the parties in the January Agreement”, with any ytterkantsparti, or ‘outer-rim party’, which would include both the far-right Sweden Democrats as well as the far-left Left Party. However, a proposed formulation that closed the door entirely on budget cooperation with the Sweden Democrats was voted down.

To placate those uncomfortable with the new policy, the resolution, A New Start For Sweden, asserts that the Liberal Party’s mission was to go into “hard conflict with the present day’s illiberal ideas, no matter which party, from left or right, is promoting them”. 

In her speech to the meeting, Sabuni reminded her party that she had battled racism throughout her career. 

“I got involved in politics during a wave of xenophobia in the middle of the 1990s, when skinheads murdered refugees and the laser man was running around with a rifle,” she said. “For nearly 30 years, I’ve stood up against racism and for the liberal model of society.”

But the resolution also embodied the harder line on crime and on immigrant areas that Sabuni has brought to the party, promising to push for “a Sweden without parallel societies, where the criminal justice system is strong and no district is a free zone for criminals”. 

The Sweden Democrats’ leader Jimmie Åkesson has said it will be more difficult for his party to support a bloc including the Liberals. Photo: Janerik Henriksson/TT

How have other parties reacted? 

The Sweden Democrats’ leader Jimmie Åkesson immediately cast doubt on whether the level of influence suggested in the Liberals’ resolution would be enough, saying neither he, nor his party, would be content to be a “support wheel for a government that doesn’t give us influence in proportion to our size”.  

Åkesson has in the past suggested a written agreement that would look precisely like that agreed with the January parties. 

Annie Lööf, the leader of the Centre Party – the other ‘January Party’ – was highly critical of the decision, writing on Facebook that she “regretted that the Liberals had chosen to open the door to an anti-liberal and xenophobic party”, hard words that double as an invitation to disgruntled Liberal voters. 

What will the decision mean for The Liberal party? 

The Liberal party were struggling in the polls even before Sabuni took over as leader in June 2019, but the party’s share of the vote has continued to fall, sometimes to under 3 percent, well below the 4 percent threshold needed to enter the Swedish parliament. 

By winning the backing of the party’s controlling board, Sabuni has strengthened a weak position and beaten her internal critics, making it more likely that she will continue as leader up until the 2022 election. 

The party can now expect to receive tactical votes from Moderate, Christian Democrat and even Sweden Democrat voters who want to push it above the four percent threshold, making it less likely that it will be ejected from parliament in the 2022 election. 

At the same time, there is a risk that the party loses both MPs and voters who oppose cooperation with the Sweden Democrats. 

What will the decision mean for Swedish politics? 

The decision of one of the two liberal parties to agree to negotiate and cooperate with the Sweden Democrats is a significant milestone in the normalisation of the populist party, which was long a pariah no other party of left or right could be seen to negotiate with. 

The Sweden Democrats’ leader Jimmie Åkesson has sought to make the party acceptable, both to mainstream voters and to other parties, promoting a zero-tolerance policy towards racist views, and seeking to attract Swedes with immigrant backgrounds as supporters, at the same time as pushing a hard line on immigration. 

The Liberals’ decision may make it easier for liberal-minded Moderate supporters to accept their party’s decision to cooperate with the populist. 

It seems unlikely, however, that it will win many more votes for the right-wing bloc. Any new voters the Liberals gain are likely to come from other right-wing parties, while the Liberal voters who oppose the decision may instead vote for the Centre Party, Green Party, or Social Democrats. 

Member comments

  1. ”….. a populist party with roots in neo-Nazi groups in the 1980s…” would be interesting to know the nature of these roots…going back to the ’80s … or are you just parroting the holier than though Lööf smear !

    Good to see the Liberals showing some pragmatic commonsense rather than burying their heads in the sand , which is why Sweden is in such a mess now !

    ” ….. SD , ett populistiskt parti med rötter i nynazistiska grupper på 1980-talet … ” skulle vara intressant att veta vilken typ av rötter … som går tillbaka till 80-talet … eller är du bara papegoja den heligare än om Lööf smet!

    Bra att se liberalerna visa en del pragmatisk sundhet snarare än att begrava sina huvuden i sanden, varför Sverige är i en sådan röran nu!

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EXPLAINED: Why is Sweden’s parliamentary speaker election so important?

Sweden's parliamentary speaker is second only to the King in terms of formal rank. The prospect of a Sweden Democrat speaker taking over the role from popular Moderate Andreas Norlén has sparked debate. Here's why.

EXPLAINED: Why is Sweden's parliamentary speaker election so important?

On Monday, Sweden’s newly-elected parliament will elect a new speaker – talman in Swedish, but it’s still not clear who is likely to take over the post from Moderate Andreas Norlén, who has held the position since 2018.

How is a speaker candidate usually chosen?

There is no formal rule on how a speaker candidate is nominated, with the Social Democrats usually insisting the largest party supplies the speaker, and the Moderates arguing that the largest party in their bloc should provide the speaker.

Until now, that has meant that the Social Democrats believe the speaker should be a Social Democrat, and the Moderates believe the speaker should be a Moderate.

However, with the Sweden Democrats now the second-largest party in Sweden’s parliament, they have made claims on the speaker post, as they are now the largest party in their bloc, meaning under the Moderates’ rules, they should supply the speaker.

This has made the question of who should take over as the new speaker unusually charged.

Often – but not always, the speaker has been from the same party or bloc as the government. However, there are examples, such as in the case of Norlén, who has held the post despite there being a Social Democrat government for the last eight years, as there was a majority supporting him in parliament.

Moderate Party leader Ulf Kristersson sits down for a talk with Andreas Norlén, speaker of the Swedish parliament. Photo: Anders Wiklund / TT

How is the speaker elected?

The first time parliament meets after an election, members of parliament (MPs) decide which MP will become the parliamentary speaker and which three MPs will become the deputy speakers. These four speakers are elected in separate ballots, first the speaker, then the first deputy speaker, the second deputy speaker and the third deputy speaker.

The candidates are nominated by parliamentary party groups, after which a secret ballot is held where each MP votes anonymously. To be successful, a speaker candidate must secure a majority of votes – 175.

If no candidate secures a majority, another vote is held, where a candidate must still gain 175 or more votes to win.

If no candidate is successful, a third vote is held, where the candidate with the most votes is elected – they do not need a majority.

If the third vote ends in a tie between two candidates, lots are drawn to determine which candidate is elected speaker.

A speaker is elected for an entire election period – they cannot be removed by parliament during this period, and the role can only change hands after a new parliamentary election, which usually means that a speaker sits for four years at a time.

What does the speaker do?

The speaker – aside from being the second-highest ranking official in the country after the King – holds a prestigious position.

They do not have political influence and, if elected, must resign from their role as a member of parliament. But they have an important role to play in building a government, nominating Sweden’s new prime minister after an election and dismissing the prime minister if they lose a no-confidence vote.

Although there are checks on these powers – a new prime minister must be approved by parliament before they take power – a speaker could, theoretically, nominate four prime ministerial candidates to parliament in succession, knowing that each would lose a parliamentary vote, and thereby trigger a general election.

The speaker, currently Andreas Norlén (left) regularly welcomes foreign dignitaries alongside Sweden’s King Carl Gustaf. Here seen with King Carl Gustaf (left) and Finland’s President Sauli Niinistö (centre).
Photo: Anders Wiklund/TT

The speaker could also theoretically refuse to nominate a prime ministerial candidate despite them being the leader of the largest bloc, although this has never happened in practice.

It is also impossible for parliament to remove a speaker once they are elected, unless a new parliamentary election is held and an entire new parliament is elected, meaning that if a speaker were to misuse their powers, it would be difficult for parliament to replace them.

The speaker is the main representative of parliament, leading and planning parliamentary activities. The speaker is chairman of meetings in the parliamentary chamber and is an official representative for Sweden at home and abroad.

Why would it be controversial if the Sweden Democrats supplied the speaker?

Electing a Sweden Democrat speaker would be a win for the far-right party, as a confirmation that the party has finally been accepted into the corridors of power.

According to a source at newspaper Aftonbladet, the four parties backing Moderate Party leader Ulf Kristersson to become Sweden’s next prime minister have already agreed on stricter migration and crime policies, as well as who should be voted in as speaker of the country’s parliament when the role goes up for a vote on Monday. 

Multiple parties in the left-wing bloc have objected to a Sweden Democrat supplying the speaker, with outgoing Social Democrat Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson stating that her party is willing to collaborate with the Moderates and reelect Andreas Norlén as Sweden’s speaker instead in order to avoid a Sweden Democrat taking on the role.

Andersson said her party would be willing to “make an exception” to its principle. “We think there are arguments at this time, to have a speaker who can be appointed with very broad support in the parliament. What’s important is that it’s someone who can bring people together, either a Social Democrat or a Moderate”.

“I can state that Andreas Norlén enjoys great respect, both in the parliament, and among the Swedish people,” she said. “He has handled his duties creditably and during a turbulent time, and a problematic parliamentary situation.”

She said she was offering to discuss the issue with Kristersson to avoid the risk of a Sweden Democrat speaker, something she said would be “problematic”.

“This is a party whose whole rationale is to split rather than unite. This is also about the picture of Sweden overseas.”

Moderate Party leader Ulf Kristersson has not responded to Andersson’s comments.

Sweden Democrat former deputy speaker Björn Söder (left) and party leader Jimmie Åkesson (right). Photo: Jessica Gow//TT

There are also some MPs in the Liberal Party – who have agreed to support a Moderate-led government alongside the Sweden Democrats – who have stated they will not approve a government with Sweden Democrat ministers, and may also vote against letting them have the role of speaker.

Sweden Democrat Björn Söder, who held the role of deputy speaker between 2014-18, is a possible candidate for the far-right party. Söder is a controversial figure, having previously stated that Jewish people and Sami are “not Swedes”, leading to calls that he is not suitable for a role as a representative for all of Sweden.

Söder has also previously likened homosexuality to pedophilia and bestiality, stating in an article on the Sweden Democrats’ official online news site that “these sexual aversions are not normal and will never be normal”.

A public petition against electing Björn Söder as parliament’s new speaker had over 65,000 signatures as of September 23rd.