2022 Swedish election For Members

Are Sweden’s Moderates the same party they used to be?

Richard Orange
Richard Orange - [email protected]
Are Sweden’s Moderates the same party they used to be?
Moa Berglöf (right) next to then Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt at a UN climate change conference in New York. Photo: Henrik Montgomery/TT

Since dropping its objection to working with the once-pariah Sweden Democrats in late 2019, the centre-right Moderate Party has changed enormously. The Local asked three experts: is it even the same party which fought the 2018 election?


When Moderate Party leader Ulf Kristersson got to the section praising the Sweden Democrats in his speech at the Almedalen political festival, one of the people in the audience turned on her heels and walked away from the stage. At the party's campaign launch on Thursday, Kristersson repeated the line.

“No other party has warned as consistently as the Sweden Democrats that Sweden cannot continue to increase immigration if we want to handle the big integration problem," he said. "And that’s something I put value on.” 

The party has come a long way, not only from the 2014 "Open Your Hearts" speech, when its former leader Fredrik Reinfeldt told Swedes they had a duty to accept refugees from the war in Syria, but also from the 2018 election campaign, when Kristersson promised the holocaust surviver Hédi Fried that he would not cooperate with the Sweden Democrats after the election.  


According to Moa Berglöf, the Moderate Party speechwriter and special advisor who helped Reinfeldt with that speech, the change has made many of those who formed the core of the party when Reinfeldt was leader deeply uncomfortable. 

"I think a lot of them have just left politics. Some people have told me that they cannot stand the new politics. Some people are really thinking about who they're going to vote for now," she told The Local. "It's hard for the Reinfeldt Moderates: if you vote for the Liberal Party, you get the Sweden Democrats, if you vote for the Centre Party, you probably get the Social Democrats. A lot of people have told me they don't have a clue how to vote." 

Moderate party leader Ulf Kristersson speaks at his party's election kickoff in Norrköping on August 4th. Photo: Magnus Andersson/TT

Is the party really different at its core? 

But political scientists are divided on the extent to which the Moderates have actually changed.

Nicholas Aylott, associate professor of politics at Stockholm's Södertörn University, argues it is a mistake to exaggerate the shift. 

"It's strategy that's changed, rather than any deep ideological conviction," he says. "Whereas, previously, the priority was to diffuse the 'Phantom of the Right', [or högerspöket]... and to therefore maximise the possibility of tempting Social Democrats to support them, the changing political agenda and the success of the Sweden Democrats required another shift. Suddenly centrist voters are less important, and the voters between the Moderates and the Sweden Democrats are more important." 

Once the party decided that it had little choice but to rely on the backing of the populist Sweden Democrats if it wanted to seize power, it's only strategic option was to help detoxify and normalise the populists, embracing some of their rhetoric on immigration and crime, and downplaying their neo-Nazi roots. 

In Aylott's view, the liberal shift in the party's direction during the Reinfeldt era was directed by power calculations in much the same way. "My picture of the Reinfeldt era was that this was a party that was absolutely primarily fixed or focused on recovering power."

The decision in the run-up to the 2006 election to drop all grand plans to liberalise the labour market and rental sector, and to embrace the role of the unions, was also strategic rather than ideological. 

Jonas Hinnfors, politics professor at Gothenburg University, however, sees the changes of the last few years as more deep-rooted. The Moderates, he argues, have "fundamentally changed". 

"It is like two completely different parties. Of course, the core is the same, but how they frame their policies and how they campaign is something that you wouldn't recognise. If you took someone that came from then and was just moved to today, you wouldn't recognise them as the same party."


He points to the Reinfeldt-era rhetoric about Sweden being an outward-looking, competitive economy, with open borders in a globalised world, a position the party has almost completely reversed. 

"Now, they are much more focused on the nation state and the armed forces, they have rather strong concerns about immigration and they tie that to crime," he says. "That, and the agenda of longer prison sentences, marks a complete U-turn from what Reinfeldt stood for and where he took his party."

The closest analogue to where the party is now, with its focus on crime, the armed forces, and social conservatism, is the 1950s and 1960s, he suggests. 

"Going back to the 1960s, they were truly a conservative party -- you know, the military, the King, the police forces. That's what they used to be about."

Hinnfors argues that there were probably almost as many Moderate politicians and members unhappy with the concessions Reinfeldt made to regain power as there are unhappy about the concessions being made today.

"There are people who are unhappy now and there were people who were unhappy then," he says. "But it's like a drug if you can deliver a win. Quite a lot of people had concerns about the direction Reinfeldt was taking the party, but they kept silent because he delivered election victories." 


Moderate leader Fredrik Reinfeldt celebrates his victory in the 2006 election. Photo: Henrik Montgomery/TT

Where's the vision? 

Although Berglöf concedes that the Reinfeldt years were unusual, she believes that the party is qualitatively different today from how it was going much further back.

"I think the Alliance years were the exception, and that the party's gone a little bit back to its roots," she agrees. "But the big difference with the Moderate Party in the past is that they weren't that populist. They were quite boring. They didn't always go for the easy way out." 

The party historically had an ideological focus on lowering government spending and lowering tax, and would be willing to argue the case for for fiscal prudence. 

"If voters wanted something, it was more 'how do we change their minds?', rather than 'well then, we will do it'." The Moderate Party these days, if they see a big thing in the news, then they jump on it, and the former party didn't really do that. The Moderate Party today just goes where the wind blows." 

What she feels is lacking is a vision. 

"I really miss one other thing that we did in the Reinfeldt era, which is that we tried to have a positive message," she says. "Now, it's like they're threatening the voters: 'If you don't vote for us, this is going to happen.'

The problem with this negative campaigning is that it ends up empowering the populists, she argues. 

"The Social Democrats did kind of the same thing when we were in government," she adds. "They were coming up with posters saying that 'Sweden is broken, but we can fix it.' The problem with that is that if you say 'Sweden is broken', but you don't do anything to fix it, then the Sweden Democrats can take the momentum, and say, 'we actually can fix it'." 


What happened to the Reinfeldt Moderates? 

The immediate circle around Reinfeldt left when he did, but Hinnfors points out that other senior figures have simply adjusted their rhetoric and policies and remained. Tobias Billström, the party's group leader in the parliament, he notes, drove through an extremely liberal work permit regime when he was immigration minister between 2006 and 2014, and then struck a very liberal immigration deal with the Greens. 

"If you have put so much time and energy into a party, it is really difficult to leave," Berglöf explains of the ideological shifts her former colleagues have made. "They adapt, they think, 'maybe this isn't so bad'.  Maybe they don't believe in it, but it's their life, and if they want to go somewhere, they have to do it." 

When it comes to the former Reinfeldt Moderate voters, Aylott believes many have left, but more have accepted the change. 

"The party is smaller, so it's certainly lost voters," he says. "But I don't think we should overestimate the ideological commitment of the majority of party voters. It's not about whether you agree with every item of the manifesto, it's also about tradition and custom and a sense of a sense of identity. I suspect that a lot of the Moderate voters who were reasonably happy with things during the Reinfeldt era are also reasonably happy with things now."


What will happen after the election? 

If Social Democrat leader Magdalena Andersson manages to stay in power as Prime Minister, then most expect a reckoning for Kristersson.

"He will be fired, presumably, because they're quite business-like in the Moderate Party. If you don't deliver, then the knives are out," Hinnfors says.

"Then it's in the balance which direction the party will be moving in. Will they continue to drift towards the Sweden Democrats? Or will there be a backlash? 'Look, it didn't work, we lost a lot of voters who were hesitant about the Sweden Democrats'. It could go in either direction."

But even if the parties supporting Kristersson manage to get enough seats in parliament to vote him in as prime minister, he could still face problems.

"I think they will have really big problems with the Sweden Democrats," Berglöf worries. "I think they believe they can control them, but when they have the negotiations, it's going to be really, really hard. But on the other hand, it's going to be really tricky for the other side as well. It's going to be a really exciting autumn."


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