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INTERVIEW: Ebba Busch has no regrets over Easter riot comments

In The Local's second pre-election party leader interview, Ebba Busch doubles down on her controversial comments about injuring Islamists, and she explains why the Christian Democrats want fewer immigrants.

INTERVIEW: Ebba Busch has no regrets over Easter riot comments
Christian Democrat leader Ebba Busch was treated like a celebrity at the National Day celebrations in Sundbyberg in the north of Stockholm. Photo: Janerik Henriksson/TT

“There she is! Look!”

A silver-haired supporter alerts his wife as Ebba Busch moves through the parting crowd at the National Day celebrations in Sundbyberg, north of Stockholm. Laughter lightens the expectant mood as two boys of no more than twelve congratulate her for trying to depose the justice minister, Morgan Johansson. Starstruck fans of all ages queue up to have their picture taken.

Busch is arguably Sweden’s most charismatic party leader, and the fans who cluster around her at the Golfängarna nature reserve are clearly captivated. But not everyone is so enamoured. From the moment she took over as party leader, a political swerve to the right put her on a collision course not only with traditional rivals but also with sections of her own party.

A case in point: the party’s former justice policy spokesman Peter Althin immediately left the Christian Democrats in protest. And recently the octogenarian made waves again by suggesting that the party rename itself Yttersta Högern, or “Extreme Right”.

Busch brushes off the criticism, claiming that the party is simply becoming more like continental Christian Democratic parties and still has “the same big warm heart for the ones that are the poorest, that have the toughest situation in life and in society in general.”

“We’re trying to make a shift in Swedish immigration policy from allowing a huge number of people coming to Sweden, a lot of them not qualifying for asylum, not qualifying as refugees, not qualifying to stay in Sweden, and still sort of making it possible for them to stay here,” she tells The Local in the second of our pre-election party leader interviews. 

“That needs to be tightened, we need to sharpen that a lot, and still make sure that we have the space and the opportunity and resources to help those in most need. Many times it’s the women, it’s the elderly, it’s the children that are left behind in refugee camps. And obviously we still have a very high profile when it comes to humanitarian aid and we’ll keep fighting for that in a centre-right wing government as well.”

READ ALSO: ‘We can’t be focused on the environment as a niche issue’

Back from the brink

Unlike big Christian Democratic movements in countries like Germany and Italy that grew rapidly after World War II and have strong ties with mainstream religions, the Swedish party is firmly rooted in the Swedish free church tradition. Founded in 1964 by Lewi Pethrus, a leading light in the Pentecostal movement, the party long struggled to gain a foothold and did not become a regular fixture in the Riksdag until 1991.

Since then the Christian Democrats have cleared the four percent threshold hurdle at each election. But by the time Busch took over in 2015, the party was on a downward spiral, shedding voters at every turn, from a high of 11.7 percent in 1998 to a precarious 4.6 percent in 2014.

The new leader grasped the nettle. Whereas her immediate predecessor Göran Hägglund was likeable but relatively passive, Busch thrives on conflict and bluntly announced that the Christian Democrats were a right-wing party. This enraged party stalwarts who liked to think of themselves as hovering benignly above the left-right spectrum.

A number of proposals cemented the rightward shift. For example, in 2020 left-leaning party members were horrified when Busch suggested earmarking some of Sweden’s international aid money to help build prisons abroad for foreigners found guilty of crimes in Sweden.

Christian Democrat leader Ebba Busch takes part in the National Day celebrations at Sundbyberg in the north of Stockholm. Photo: Janerik Henriksson/TT

‘Why don’t we have at least 100 injured Islamists, 100 injured criminals, 100 injured rioters?’

More recently, a wave of criticism followed comments made by Busch after the Easter riots which left more than 100 police officers injured. In an interview with Sveriges Radio, Busch wondered why the police had not opened fire on the crowd. ‘Why don’t we have at least 100 injured Islamists, 100 injured criminals, 100 injured rioters?’ she said. The comment provoked a furious reaction, most notably from the head of the police union, Lena Nitz, who said it had no place in a country governed by the rule of law.

With the benefit of hindsight, does she regret it at all?

“No, definitely not. Because I ask rhetorical questions on how Sweden possibly could have ended up in such a horrible situation where you have people taking to violence, being prepared to kill Swedish police and them being stronger than Swedish police,” Busch says. “And that is the actual state of affairs, that is the state of our country that we are in now, and we need to make sure that we stand on the victims’ side, that we stand on our citizens’ side, the ones that do everything right, just try to live their life in peace, by making sure that the police will always be stronger than the ones taking to violence.”

What about the risk of a massacre in a scenario where police open fire on a group of violent protesters?

“I did not in any way convey that I had an interest in people getting hurt,” she adds, insisting again that the comment was purely rhetorical and adding that she has the “deepest respect” for police officers in the firing line.

“How come Swedish police were set on defence? How come Swedish police were wounded? But the ones that took to violence, the ones that want to dominate with another rule of law, their own sets of laws and rules: they were the ones that were in power in these areas, and that is the question that I wanted to point out.”

Surviving scandals and welcoming the Sweden Democrats

Far from damaging Busch, her comments about the Easter riots appear to have strengthened her standing among the electorate as an outspoken law-and-order politician who is not afraid to speak her mind. In a Novus survey released last month, 31 percent of respondents said they had confidence in Busch as a party leader, a seven-point jump that saw her leapfrog Sweden Democrat leader Jimmie Åkesson into third place behind the Prime Minister, Magdalena Andersson and Moderate party leader Ulf Kristersson.

This surge in popularity marks a remarkable clawback after a string of notable scandals. Busch saw her stock drop significantly in 2020 after getting her bodyguards to take an influencer friend home from one of the house parties she attended at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, and in 2021 she received a fine after confessing to gross defamation in connection with a private house purchase – not a good look for a lover of law and order.

But now she’s back in business and apparently well-placed to garner more votes in the space she has occupied between the Moderates and the Sweden Democrats.

The rush to occupy this position happened fast. In the run-up to the 2018 election Busch told the Göteborgs-Posten newspaper that she could not see her party co-operating with the Sweden Democrats within the next 20 years. The neo-Nazi roots were still too visible. But just the following summer she sat for lunch with Jimmie Åkesson to talk about healthcare at the annual Almedalen policy fest. It was the first time a mainstream leader had engaged in direct policy talks with the far-right. The Sweden Democrat leader was finally in from the cold.

Tightening Sweden’s work permit law

This thaw in relations has coincided with her party’s harder line on immigration. According to the Christian Democrats, Sweden’s new work permit law that came into force at the start of June doesn’t go far enough in restricting who can come to Sweden to work. If elected, she would push for work permits to only be issued to applicants offered a monthly salary of at least 35,000 kronor, with some exceptions.

“A lot of the jobs that give you a salary below 35,000, which is the limit that we have set, are jobs that you don’t need a longer education, you don’t need to have studied at university for example. And those are jobs that we do not have a scarcity in.

“But we have a very high unemployment with a lot of the people being unemployed not having the education or the qualifications for a job that gives you a higher salary above 35,000. So we need to match our own citizens and the unemployed with the jobs that are in Sweden and those are in general under 35,000.”

If the Christian Democrats are inspired by other Nordic countries’ restrictive immigration stances, the same is true of their healthcare systems. Ebba Busch cites Denmark and Norway as examples when arguing that the Swedish healthcare system should be centralised rather than run regionally as it is now.

“The Swedish healthcare organisation is from 1862. It’s got 160 years of history and it was great at the time. It is not great for the modern healthcare that we can provide for Swedes today. And being a country of 10 million people, having 21 different regions that have that much power to decide for themselves, I mean it’s unheard of.”

“If you look at Great Britain for example, if you look at Norway, you look at Denmark, none of them have this kind of decentralised system for very advanced healthcare that Sweden has. And Norway and Denmark don’t have the type of massive queue that Sweden has.”

She is also concerned that Sweden has slipped in international school rankings and is quick to answer when asked what she would do to improve Swedish schools.

“We will stand behind the teachers and make sure that they get back their natural authority in the classroom. The teachers need to have more time to actually lead and interact with their pupils, to be present in the classroom. We have now six out of ten 15-year-olds going to Swedish schools saying that the order is so disruptive that it actually influences their capacity and ability to learn.”

Tougher criteria for citizenship

The sun beats down on Sundbyberg as new Swedish citizens prepare to take the stage. Soon the crowd will sing the Swedish national anthem as new Swedes proudly clutch their diplomas and yellow roses.

“This is one of the most beautiful days of them all. I’m proud to be a Swede and I’m proud to celebrate all the good that comes with Sweden, our nation, our strong values, our strong traditions.”

But citizenship needs to be earned, Busch believes.

“I think that we actually need to give more value, more weight, to citizenship. I think that it is something that should be a goal for people who come to Sweden. But I also think that the criteria should be tightened in terms of language, introduction to society, learning about our history and the values that we all need to share to live together in Sweden, that come with being a Swede.”

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For members


Sweden Elects: New finance minister under fire after first long interview

In our weekly Sweden Elects newsletter, The Local's editor Emma Löfgren explains the key events to keep an eye on in Swedish politics this week.

Sweden Elects: New finance minister under fire after first long interview


Elisabeth Svantesson has given her first long interview as finance minister, speaking to the Svenska Dagbladet daily just days after she presented her first budget on behalf of Sweden’s new, right-wing government.

The government has already faced accusations of deprioritising the climate crisis, and Svantesson conceded in the interview that its planned investment in nuclear power (which is a low-emission source of energy, but takes time to develop, so it pays off only in the long run) would also make it difficult to reach Sweden’s climate targets within the next decade.

Asked what will happen if Sweden does not meet its Agenda 2030 target, the sustainable development targets agreed by the United Nations, by that year, she said: “It would mean that we don’t meet the targets. If we don’t we don’t, but our ambition is to steer towards that goal.”

That quote, which was perceived as far more laissez-faire than the situation warrants, was met with criticism from the opposition.

“I’m astounded at how you sign agreements and vote for legislation in parliament only to ignore it when you feel like it,” said Green Party leader Per Bolund.

The Social Democrats’ former finance minister Mikael Damberg gave a diplomatic-or-patronising answer (a school of conflict avoidance that can be perfected only by a party that’s more used to being in power than not being in power) and guessed that Svantesson had perhaps not meant it like that. “Svantesson has had a lot to do this week, maybe she’s tired.”

Speaking of interviews, one Swedish newsroom has not yet been getting them, at least not with senior ministers. One of public broadcaster SVT’s top political interviewers, Anders Holmberg, points out that all four right-wing party leaders and several ministers have declined to appear on his “30 minuter”, a show famous for putting hard-hitting questions to politicians and senior decision-makers. It’s of course not mandatory to say yes to all interviews even as a politician, but it’s an unusual move.

It’s interesting that Bolund tried to attack Svantesson specifically on not following through on commitments. This has been a recurring piece of criticism since the new government was elected two months ago.

The budget was more conservative (in this particular case I mean conservative as in cautious rather than as in right-wing) than you might have expected based on the government’s election pledges, and it’s not the only campaign promise that they’ve been forced to backtrack on.

“The central thing is that they’re breaking most of their major election promises at the same time as as they’re not really managing to take care of the big social problems Sweden faces today,” Damberg told SVT.

To be fair, you would kind of expect him to say this (when has a political opposition party ever praised the government’s budget?), but significantly, the criticism hasn’t only come from the left-wing opposition.

Moderate Party politicians in the powerful Skåne region earlier this month slammed their party for failing to deliver the promised support to those suffering sky high power bills in the southern Swedish county.

“There are effectively no reforms, and they’re not putting in place the policies they campaigned for in the election,” the head of the liberal think tank Timbro told the Aftonbladet newspaper about the budget.

It will be interesting to see whether the label as “promise breakers” sticks, and whether that will affect the right-wing parties in the next election.

Did you know?

Parties make more and more pledges during election campaigns. Ahead of the 2014 election, a whopping 1,848 vallöften (election promises) were made, according to research by Gothenburg University, up from 326 in 1994.

You may not believe this, because the stereotypical image of the dishonest politician perhaps unfairly endures, but research shows that most politicians keep most of their election promises most of the time.

Swedish parties in a single-party government and coalition governments with a joint manifesto tend to deliver on between 80 and 90 percent of their vallöften, according to political scientist Elin Naurin. For coalition governments without a joint manifesto, it ranges from 50 to 70 percent.

In other news

the deputy mayor of the town of Norrtälje, who got 15 seconds – technically 26 seconds – of fame after he was left speechless when a reporter asked him to defend hefty pay rises for top councillors has resigned, saying he wants to take responsibility for what happened.

He also told SVT about his long and very awkward silence on camera that his brain had simply blacked out after having worked for 13 hours straight and gone nine hours without food in the post-election frenzy.

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