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INTERVIEW: ‘Tough rhetoric on immigration? I don’t think so’

Justice Minister Morgan Johansson is the face of the Social Democrats' new tougher position on crime and, arguably, also immigration. The Local caught up with him on the campaign trail in Kalmar.

INTERVIEW: 'Tough rhetoric on immigration? I don't think so'
Photo: Richard Orange/The Local

Morgan Johansson, Sweden’s justice minister, has been visiting the chunk of forest south of Kalmar where work will begin early next year on a new prison for more than 340 detainees.

Given the way his party is competing with the opposition over who can put the most extra people behind bars, those extra cells will be needed regardless of who wins the election on September 11th. 

“We have had too short punishments for quite severe crimes,” Johansson declares, when we meet him outside the party’s election shed, or valstuga, in Kalmar, the historic naval city on Swedens southeast coast. “We’ve had a level of gang-related crime now in Sweden that has increased in the last years in a way that has really made us think ‘how do we turn this around’.”

Asked for evidence that longer prison sentences actually reduce crime, he fell back on common sense reasoning around rehabilitation and incapacitation, rather referring to any academic studies. 

“For the most active criminals, the ones who are doing the most crimes, I really think that we need to have longer punishments in order to work with them and to rehabilitate them,” he says. “We have also had a problem that we have sent those people for a couple of months in prison, and then they are out again, committing more crimes.  We have to get those people who are committing the most crime off the streets. Otherwise, they will recruit new generations into these gangs. And they will also be some kind of bad role models for the young.” 

But the Social Democrats’ approach to crime is not simply to fill up prisons, but also to enact a version of former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair’s famous formulation, “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime”, with harsher prison sentences combined with more prevention initiatives. 

“We need to do a lot more on the issues concerning young people: schools, education, after school activities, and social services,” Johansson says. “We have to combine these two things.” 


‘I don’t recognise that our party has used that kind of rhetoric’

As well as being tough on crime, many immigrants in Sweden feel that Johansson’s party has begun to adopt some of the anti-immigrant rhetoric of the Sweden Democrats, with readers of The Local telling us they have been made distraught by the way immigration has been debated. 

“I don’t recognise that our party has used that kind of rhetoric,” Johansson retorts. “What we are always trying to say is that if there are too many people coming in a short period of time, and these people are not integrated, they don’t get jobs, and they don’t have the possibility to learn the language and so on, that will cause social problems. I don’t recognise all that we have had a harsh or tough rhetoric against immigrants. I don’t think so.” 

He does however agree that the current election campaign was unusually nasty in tone. 

“Yes, I do [think that]. We’ve had a right-wing extremist party, the Sweden Democrats, that has a very hateful rhetoric against immigrants, against Muslims, against anyone who is not ethnically Swedish, and now, they are up on levels of almost 20 percent, they might become the second biggest party in this election.” 

“They find their role models in Hungary and Poland. They have a party leader who, on the edge of the war in Ukraine, couldn’t choose between Biden and Putin. I’d say that there is really very much at stake in this Swedish election, about what kind of country Sweden will be.” 

Labour Market Testing will not mean a longer wait for work permits 

For readers of the The Local, one of the Social Democrats’ most worrying policies is the plan to bring back Labour Market Testing, the restrictive former system for work permits, in which unions and the government decide which skills and industries Swedish has a shortage of, only approving permits for jobs in these fields.

Johansson is adamant, however, that the return of the system will not make it harder for skilled foreign workers to come to Sweden, or make it more difficult for businesses to recruit the international employees they need. 

“If we need it, then we will have IT professionals coming to Sweden,” he protests. “Nowadays, Sweden has the most liberal legislation of any country in the whole world.”

“We’re the only country in the world that allows work migration for professions that we do not have any lack of, to wait tables, to work at McDonald’s, to clean people’s homes, and everything like that. We have a lot of people already living in Sweden who could do those jobs.” 

When The Local argues that by adding in an extra layer of bureaucracy, the new system would mean a longer wait for highly educated foreign workers, he argues that the opposite is in fact the case. 

“On the contrary, because the total numbers of applicants will go down, the number of applications will be much smaller,” he argued. “In the old days, when we had this kind of legislation, there were no long waiting lists. We can focus more resources on the people that we really need.”

Under the current system, he continues, foreign people are being exploited by employers providing low wages and poor living and working conditions, while the work permit system is being abused by organised criminal groups. 

‘It is a necessity to speak the language’

When it comes to another new possible hurdle for foreigners living in Sweden — the prospect of a language requirement for permanent residency and citizenship — Johansson said his understanding was that the Social Democrats would seek to bring both in if they regain power after the next election. 

“The decision from the parliament, on the new migration legislation is that you’re going to have a requirement for permanent residence,” he says, and what has been discussed is to also have requirements at a higher level if you go on to be a citizen, then there will be a big, big discussion, how is that going to be implemented and tested, and so on.” 

It is reasonable to expect those who are awarded permanent residence to have reached an adequate level of Swedish, he argues.

“I think that if you’re going to have permanent residence, that means that you’re going to stay here for the rest of your life, and if you’re going to do that, it is a necessity to speak the language that most other people are speaking in this country, in order to get a job and to integrate yourself.” 

And with that, Johansson is pulled away by his press secretary to chat to locals in Kalmar who have gathered to meet him at the valstuga, after which he is due to visit local police in an area outside the historically sleepy coastal city recently affected by a series of fatal shootings.

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For members


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.

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.