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2022 SWEDISH ELECTION

INTERVIEW: Sweden has been ruled for four years on ‘essentially the Centre Party’s programme’

In The Local's fourth pre-election party leader interview, the Centre Party's deputy leader Martin Ådahl celebrates his party's achievements over the past four years, rues the populist drift of the Moderates, and warns that the Social Democrats' work permit plan risks being a business catastrophe.

INTERVIEW: Sweden has been ruled for four years on 'essentially the Centre Party's programme'
Martin Ådahl at the start of Centre Party leader Annie Lööf’s speech at the Almedalen political festival. Photo: Henrik Montgomery/TT

It’s hard to imagine that Martin Ådahl is relaxing with his family at a summer house on the holiday peninsular of Kullaberg in Skåne. Within seconds of getting on the phone, the Centre Party’s deputy leader is churning out ideas and analyses.

So far in our party leader interviews, we’ve insisted on interviewing the actual party leader, but Ådahl, who founded Fores, Sweden’s green-liberal think tank before becoming an MP, is such an important generator of policy for his party that we made an exception.

Ådahl starts by running off what his party achieved in the January agreement it, together with the Liberal Party, struck with the Social Democrats to allow Stefan Löfven to take power again as Prime Minister at the start of 2019.

“I think it was absolutely a godsend that the Social Democrats got a new programme for their second mandate that was essentially the Centre Party’s programme — even if not enough was done,” he says.

READ OUR PARTY LEADER INTERVIEWS HERE: 

He draws out four strands of Centre Party wins. First, “the major reform of the labour market”, which he claims gave “both more flexibility but also much larger scope for retraining which is really necessary”. Second, the fact that “taxes, particularly on work and on hiring, have gone down”. This, he said, had been “very helpful during the pandemic, but also afterwards, to recover the labour market.”

Third comes reforms that benefit rural communities, the Centre Party’s base from the time it was Sweden’s farmers’ party.

It’s a little unclear which is the fourth. Ådahl mentions the party’s role in shifting green subsidies from “general small scale, and not-very-effective government programmes” to “those big industrial programmes that are now making real headway in reducing emissions in steel and mining.”

But he also points out its successes in watering down the government’s new immigration and work permit bills, perhaps the party’s most important achievement for readers of The Local. 

“It could have gone in an extremely restrictive and counterproductive direction,” he says of the immigration bill passed in 2021 and the work permit bill passed this April.

“But in the end, it allowed for the reunification of families, and also allowed for keeping humanitarian grounds for refugee status, and importantly, it did not at this point in time, totally and absolutely restrict labour migration, which was also on the cards because there was a majority for this in parliament.”

The way Ådahl tells it, the Centre Party more or less single-handedly blocked a Social Democrat proposal to bring back Labour Market Testing, the old restrictive rule for work permits, in the reforms which passed in April, and came into force at the start of last month.

READ ALSO:

“There were proposals on the table to very heavily restrict labour migration,” he says. “The Social Democrats wanted to have a kind of a board, as was done historically, that would approve migration from certain sectors, and the Moderates put forward a limit on what income you could have, and so on.”

Labour Market Testing, or a labour board system, as Ådahl calls it, was “an absolute catastrophe” in Sweden when last operated in the 1990s and early 2000s, he says. 

“When it was in place, it strangled many central competencies for Swedish business, especially in technical areas. It was extremely restrictive, and even a sort of guild-based kind of testing.”

READ ALSO: Swedish government’s work permit plan an ‘absolute catastrophe’ for business 

Businesses themselves, he argues, should be able to decide who they can hire internationally.

“If it’s the trade unions, and if it’s bureaucrats who are close to them who are also influenced by the immigration-sceptic labour debate, then they are almost certain to stop critical, necessary competence or skills for Swedish business.”

The liberal work permit system brought in by the Reinfeldt-led Alliance government in 2008, has, Ådahl argues, been extremely important for Swedish growth over the last fourteen years.

“What is generally not understood is that is that if you bring people from outside, it’s not because you’re somehow happy to have competition from abroad or something, it’s because you actually critically need those people,” he says. “Because it takes a lot of effort and sometimes a lot of money to bring people to Sweden to fill those gaps.”

The Social Democrat government has now launched a renewed effort to bring back the labour migration board, while the Moderates are still pushing for a much higher minimum salary for work permit applicants.

Ådahl rejects a suggestion from The Local that his party has gone quiet as the debate has turned more sceptical.

“We’ve been quite vocal when we have got the opportunity to comment on this in the media,” he says. “Our migration spokesperson and even our party leader have been clear that we do not agree with this, and that this is counterproductive.”

But he acknowledged that issues like work permits often took a back seat.

“The thing is that these kind of more liberal themes are really pushed back in the Swedish debate. Usually, when one of those restrictions on labour migrations are proposed, the opposition is saying that it’s not enough. And that is the voice that has been given air by the media.”

Even the Liberal Party, who used to campaign side-by-side with the Centre Party for liberal labour migration, has, he says, “completely reversed their position on this issue, and are now much more restrictive than they ever were historically”.

The Centre Party’s only remaining ally on the issue is Sweden’s business lobby.

“Some parts, at least, of Swedish business, are still pushing for [liberal labour migration] because they see the absolutely critical need for it. So they are still there, but they are also not very vocal.”

The Centre Party, I tell him, also seems strangely quiet during the current election campaign about just how much of the government’s policy programme over the past four years was dictated to it by the January Agreement.

He disagrees, crediting their reforms for Sweden’s economic recovery from the pandemic, and for its leading position on green industrial development. 

“If it hadn’t been for the economic reforms we pushed through, then I’m sure that unemployment would have peaked at a much higher level during the pandemic, and also would have not fallen as much as it has,” he argues. “And secondly, I think that you wouldn’t have had this focus on green business industrialisation that we have right now, which is really pushing down emissions, and especially the future emissions curve.”

The Centre Party’s website is positively bursting with policy proposals, with no fewer than 26 different categories, each with a succession of policies, so if it once again strikes a deal with a Social Democrat government, there’s no shortage of things it wants done.

There’s the unfinished business from the January Agreement, including tax breaks for former refugees and the long-term unemployed and reform of the Swedish Public Employment Service, both of which were blocked by what Ådahl calls “this unholy coalition” of the Left Party and the Moderates. There’s the liberalisation of rental controls on new-build apartments, which was shelved to win the backing of the Left Party for a prime ministerial vote.

There’s also the party’s longstanding plans for intensivåret, or “the intensive year”, which would see new arrivals in Sweden given a crash course in Sweden’s society and Swedish language, apprenticeships, a mentor, and new start jobs, with those who manage to handle the demanding programme given a certificate.

“This hasn’t really been implemented. It failed because the agreement collapsed just as we were finalising those things,” Ådahl says. “But in general, there are many more things to do, especially on job creation and on the green transition.”

He points to the party’s call for Swedish electricity production to be doubled by 2030 and increased by a third over the next mandate period. And he is damning of the Moderate Party’s moves, at a local level, to block wind farm projects, and of its success in portraying nuclear power plants, which will take decades to build, as an all-encompassing solution to Sweden’s energy needs.

“I would describe it as verging on the dishonest,” he says of the Moderates’ new energy policy. “In practice, what they are doing is refusing to increase wind power in the short term. And when we clearly say, ‘okay, we’re ready to compromise on nuclear power’, they misrepresent our position.”

Blocking wind farms is already harming Swedish industry, he continues. 

“This is going to be a real problem for Sweden very soon if they continue with this obstructionist line,” he says. “Normally Swedish business would stand clearly behind the conservative parties, but this time round, they’re really upset. They [the conservative parties] should take notice when Swedish business is asking them to just calm down and be honest about these issues.”

He cites energy policy, together with pensions, and Sweden’s fiscal rules, as the three areas where agreements across the political divide has provided much-needed stability in Sweden, and where the agreements have started to fray over the past four years.

“Unfortunately, both sides have now tried to circumvent this agreement to make pensions a potent electoral issue,” he says of the breakdown of the pensions group. The Conservatives had also, he complained, tried to make nuclear power into a “divisive issue”, while the pandemic had made Sweden, like other countries, “forget about fiscal discipline”.

His hope is that the cross-party consensus on all three of these policy areas can be revived after the election.

As for the Moderates, he seems genuinely upset at how far they have drifted to the populist right from the centrist position they had under their former leader Fredrik Reinfeldt.

“They have changed a lot from the optimistic, liberal and forward-looking party that was the centre of the Alliance between 2006 and 2014,” he says. “I think that the most dangerous thing when you have those far-right movements coming up is when the traditionally strong parties legitimise them. It’s when the traditional parties lend them a hand and give them power. That’s when they become really dangerous.”

The result, as he sees it, is a battle over what type of country Sweden is going to be.

“I think there’s a big fight for Sweden’s soul right now, for Sweden’s basic values. Sweden has traditionally not been this kind of country, which has been inward-looking, and mistrustful of foreign countries and foreign individuals, and it can still remain that way. But it’s now a bone of contention.”

His hope is that the Moderate Party fails to win a big enough majority to take power in September, even with the backing of the Sweden Democrats, and then tacks back to the centre ground.

To help that happen, his party hopes to win over the liberal “Reinfeldt Moderates” who formed the core of the party under its last Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, and who tend to dislike the party’s populist, anti-immigration shift.

“It’s pretty likely that they [the Reinfeldt Moderates] have moved from the Moderates, passing for a long period of time through the Centre party, but that they have now moved on to Magdalena Andersson, because she’s been a strong war leader,” he says.  “And some of the Reinfeldt Moderates are still stuck within the Moderate Party, but are essentially unhappy with their positions on the extreme right on many social issues.

“In both cases, it’s our ambition and our mission to make them realise the best place for them to put their vote, and make them migrate back to the Centre Party.”

If the Moderates’ plan succeeds, and they do form a government with the Sweden Democrats’ support, Ådahl is adamant that the Centre Party will neither support it or be a part of it, even if this might bring it more influence. 

“The point is that we’re not the ones who are going to get influence, that will be the Sweden Democrats,” he says. “This government will, in the end, be totally and utterly dependent on the Sweden Democrats for each and every vote, and particularly for the main votes concerning budgets and so on, so they will be forced to follow most of the diktats that the Sweden Democrats put forward.”

On the other hand, if there is a parliamentary majority for the Centre Party, the Social Democrats, the Green Party and the Left Party, there are questions about how a tax-cutting party like the Centre Party accommodate itself with a Left Party that is opposed to tax cuts. 

It’s not just on tax and spend that there could be conflicts. The Left Party’s leader, Nooshi Dadgostar, vowed at the Almedalen political festival not to allow Magdalena Andersson to reprise her position as prime minister unless the Social Democrats have agreed in advance to a bill to ban companies running state-funded free schools from making profits.

Ådahl dismisses this threat.

“Well, it’s very simple,” he says Dadgostar’s pledge. “She doesn’t have the majority to get that kind of change through. And the reason she doesn’t is that the Centre Party doesn’t want to put an end to school choice and free schools, so it’s not going to happen.”

“She’s tried before to use the issue of the influence of the Sweden Democrats as a hostage to get through whatever point of view that Left Party has, and it only works if the conservative parties join them in this action. And in this case, it seems unlikely.”

It’s a similar case for his party’s liberal economic policies. He believes it will be possible to find a majority by doing deals with conservative parties on the other side of the left-wing divide.

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More generally, he believes it is time to call Dadgostar’s bluff, to see if she is genuinely willing to let a Moderate Party government backed by the Sweden Democrats take power.

“Of course, it’s in her interest to just pursue this kind of logic, whereby if you don’t agree to everything within the Left Party’s policies, she will try to block a prime minister from the Social Democrats, but the answer to each and every one of these hostage takings is this: what is your alternative? Are you prepared to vote for the opposite side? And to give the Sweden Democrats direct power over a government in Sweden? And this, and we know this, is not going to happen.”

It remains to be seen how Dadgostar will respond to more hardball tactics. 

“My guess is that this is going to end after the elections, and, if it doesn’t, it’s going to be her problem and the problem of people who voted for her.”

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SWEDEN DEMOCRATS

How the Sweden Democrats grew even in their most turbulent stronghold

Sweden Democrat rule in the country town of Hörby has been so turbulent it's a little like Trump's America in miniature. And yet in this month's election, the party grew its share of the vote by four percentage points anyway. What does its success say about the far-right party nationally?

How the Sweden Democrats grew even in their most turbulent stronghold

There have been allegations of tax avoidance, tough policies for migrants, inappropriate drunken nakedness, and a mass departure of civil servants. There have been complaints of a biased media and an entrenched “deep state” resisting every effort to reform. 

The four years of Sweden Democrat rule in the Swedish municipality of Hörby have seen, if not all then at least a bit of, the drama of Donald Trump’s America, played out in and around a country market town of 15,000 people.

Yet when the Sweden’s Democrat’s performance was put to the vote, it raised its share of the vote here by four percentage points, winning an impressive 39 percent. 

“We were shrieking with joy. This was something we could only dream of,” says Cecilia Bladh in Zito, the town’s Sweden Democrat mayor,  when The Local meets her in her office, which is decorated with black and white photos of horses being traded at long-gone country fairs.

Hörby, in the Skåne countryside 40 minutes drive northeast of Malmö, was one of four towns the populist Sweden Democrats controlled at the time of Sweden’s general election two weeks ago. This month it grew its share of the vote between three and ten percentage points in every one.

“We are very, very happy about the trust that we got from our voters,” Bladh in Zito continues. “I strongly believe that [it’s because] the way we are dealing with questions is very real. It’s reality-based political issues. We have both our feet on the ground, and we listen to our voters and the people here in the municipality. What do you need, what do you want?”

The party has managed to keep open the small schools in the villages surrounding the town, which there had been plans to close and consolidate. 

“We said, ‘no, no, no, no way’, because if we take away the countryside schools, the countryside will die out or later,” she says.

It has hired security guards for the city centre, and cut the amount of spending on social welfare by a quarter, she claimed.  

“For the fourth year in a row now, we are increasing safety here in Hörby, so we have less problems now than we had before,” she boasts. 

Cecilia Bladh in Zito, the mayor of Hörby, holds a press conference about the fire in the town. Photo: Johan Nilsson/TT

Bladh in Zito and her team have certainly shaken things up, imposing a new organisational structure on the municipality. “We are driving through real change from the ground up, changing the way we look at costs, and changing a lot of the steering documents,” she says.

The SD-led council has tried to halve the municipal budget for “mother-tongue education”, where children with foreign backgrounds are given an hour’s teaching a week in their home language. It has stopped the gay pride rainbow flag from being flown on municipality buildings. It has scrapped an ambition to be “fossil-free by 2020”, and also claims to have slashed the budget for social benefits by a quarter, again by tightening rules for immigrants.

Some has taped a pride flag to the sign at the entrance of Hörby municipality as a protest. Photo: Johan Nilsson/TT

But it may be that people in Hörby voted for the far-right party itself more than for what it did in the town. 

“I think it’s a protest, a protest against those who sit and rule the municipality, who haven’t been listening to the problems people on the ground are facing, and anyway and there’s no one who could do it better,” says 81-year-old Kerstin, as she drags her shopping in a wheeled bag across one of the town’s two central squares.

She voted for the party both in 2018 and again this year because of what she sees as the complacency of the established parties.

The party grew its share of the vote in nearly nine out of every ten municipalities across Sweden, gaining both in its heartlands here in Skåne, and in the northern regions of the country traditionally dominated by the Social Democrats.

READ ALSO: What have the Sweden Democrats proved in four years of municipal rule? 

It overtook Sweden’s former farmer’s party, Centre, as the most popular party among agricultural workers, a trend that is likely to be seen Hörby, which is at the centre of some of Sweden’s best agricultural land. 

But as in Trump’s America, the party’s success has divided communities, with Hörby no exception.

“It’s completely crazy that so many people here vote for them,” complains Johan Tinné, co-owner of the central Café Innegarden, who puts the party’s growth down to gang shootings in Sweden’s big cities rather than the performance of Bladh in Zito and her team.

When asked if friends and family also vote for the party, he shakes his head. “The day they start voting for SD, I’ll end all my contact with them.”

Even supporters like Kerstin have misgivings: “There have been stories that haven’t been so nice, but they’ve ridden it out.”

First Stefan Borg, the party’s group leader, withdrew his candidacy for mayor after the activist magazine Expo revealed that he had been spreading pro-Russian propaganda, writing posts about “the last generation of Swedes” and “the great replacement”, and making homophobic statements on social media.Bladh in Zito then stepped in. 

Both Borg and Bladh in Zito are strangely cosmopolitan figures for small-town Swedish politics, and both have a connection to Russia (albeit only a slight one in her case). 

After retiring from his career as a fighter pilot, Borg spent years in Russia learning the language, and told The Local in 2018 he made his living as “a translator of Russian religious philosophy in the tradition of Dostoevsky”.

Bladh in Zito grew up in the town but spent her 20s and 30s working as a consultant and energy executive in Stockholm, Germany and Rome. According to her LinkedIn profile, she studied in 2000 at Saint Petersburg Electrotechnical University. 

At the start of 2020, seven unions representing civil servants, teachers and other municipal workers raised the alarm after a mass departure of top civil servants, and reports of a bullying culture.

“It’s a very toxic environment,” Maria Westlund, chief health and safety representative for the Saco union told the Telegraph. “The working environment has been hostile: People don’t get information shared with them, they get left out of emails. People talk crap about them when they’re not there. They’re not included in meetings.” 

Renaldo Tirone, leader of the local Social Democrats, accuses the mayor of “ruling by fear”.

But when the struggle was raging, Borg dismissed it in a Facebook post: ”What’s happening is an attempt by the Deep State, through the unions, to take back political power in Hörby.”

Bladh in Zito argues that it was a good thing that civil servants left the municipality if they were opposed to the structural reforms or didn’t want to enact the ruling parties’ plans. 

“Some people said, ‘ok, I don’t want to work in the new organisation’ because they had lost a title, or maybe even lost some power. That’s fine. That’s understandable. That’s very normal. The other thing is that we had some civil servants at the beginning, who said, ‘we don’t want to work in a municipality, where the Sweden Democrats are the rulers. We don’t want to work there’.”

She claims, however, that over the four years as a whole, the churn among council civil servants has not been larger than at other comparable municipalities. 

Then the civil servant in charge of the municipality’s social services had to resign after a naked swimming incident at a staff social event.

Most recently, this June, the Aftonbladet tabloid accused Bladh in Zito of paying Polish builders at least 2.5 million kronor in cash to avoid tax when renovating her historic house in the town centre. She claims her Italian ex-husband handled the payments.

She claims that her Italian ex-husband, who is conveniently nowhere to be found, was responsible for paying for the renovation, so she can’t say anything about how the builders were paid. But anyway, she claims, she is the victim of a biased left-wing media, with the journalist behind the story “as far left as you can go”. 

“They do not want Sweden Democrats to have the power, and they’ve been trying for four years, even before I was elected, to kick us out,” she says. “They asked my former employers if I did something wrong, they’ve been pushing me politically for three and a half years, and now, because they couldn’t find anything in my professional or political life, they going after my private side.”

For Westlund, Bladh in Zito’s refusal to answer detailed questions about the renovation, like her refusal to work closely with unions, is a sign of a worrying, closed, secretive approach.

“They don’t answer the press, they don’t answer when other parties ask them things. They just keep everything quiet,” she says. “I feel like it’s not a democracy anymore.”

Bladh in Zito, on the other hand, thinks the party’s local gains have proven that it can rule responsibly.

“There will always be people who don’t like us, we can never change that,” she says. “But I hope they understand that we don’t bit, we are not neo-Nazis, we are not fascists, and we are not racists. We are a party which has reality-based political views.”
“We’ve done very well in all our four municipalities, and I hope that can give the Moderates the bravery to start cooperating with us at a national level.”

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