With horn-rimmed glasses, clean-cut looks and a trim physique, the 58-year-old leader of the conservative Moderate Party is a former gymnast often photographed living an active life, running or walking in nature with his dog Winston, the Welsh springer spaniel he got after losing Sweden’s 2018 election.
Back then, Kristersson had vowed he would never negotiate with the nationalist and anti-immigration Sweden Democrats — seen as “pariahs” on Sweden’s political scene — and subsequently failed to oust the Social Democratic government in power since 2014.
Fast forward four years and he appears to have gotten his revenge — after a major U-turn.
Kristersson launched exploratory talks with the Sweden Democrats in 2019, a cooperation that has deepened since then, persuading the Moderates’ traditional centre-right allies to follow suit.
His critics have accused him of “selling out” to the far-right. Kristersson defends the tie-up as “my side of politics”.
Together, the four right-wing parties appeared on Monday to be in a position to wrest power from Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson’s Social Democrats, though the results were close and final figures were not due until Wednesday.
A Tintin fan with a degree in economics, Kristersson wants to introduce a cap on Sweden’s generous social benefits to give people more incentive to enter the labour market.
He also campaigned heavily on issues close to the hearts of right-wing and far-right voters, earning him criticism as a milder version of the Sweden Democrats.
He has vowed to crack down on crime and “straighten out” a Sweden that in his view has lost control over too many issues, ranging from soaring gang shootings to high unemployment and midwife shortages to disorderly school classrooms.
“A Sweden that doesn’t work has become the new normal”, he hammered throughout the campaign.
Former Moderates leader and Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt encouraged Swedes to “open their hearts” on the cusp of Europe’s migration in 2014, in one of his last speeches in power. The country of 10 million went on take in more asylum seekers per capita than any other European country in 2014-2015 before putting on the brakes.
Kristersson has however called for a much stricter migration policy, bringing him in line with the far-right.
Born in the southern Swedish city of Lund in 1963, Kristersson got his feet wet in politics already as a teen in secondary school, taking over the youth wing of the Moderates a few years later.
He quickly rose through the party ranks and was elected to parliament in 1994.
He has taken occasional breaks from politics to work in communications and as the chairman of the board of an adoption agency. Kristersson is married and the father of three daughters adopted from China.
“Kristersson could go down in history as the far-right’s locksmith” who opened the door for the Sweden Democrats’ acceptance on the political scene, newspaper of reference Dagens Nyheter wrote ahead of the election.
At the time however, Kristersson could not have foreseen that by giving his blessing, the far-right would go on to overtake the Moderates as the biggest party on the right and the country’s second-biggest party in Sunday’s election.
All three traditional right-wing parties appeared to lose seats in Sunday’s election, while the far-right soared.
But if Kristersson ends up as Sweden’s next prime minister, his gamble will have been worth it.
If he fails, he could find himself kicked to the curb.
“The vision the Moderates have of their party leader is pretty similar to that of a listed company’s CEO: as long as everything goes well he can stay, but if it goes badly he has to leave the same day”, political historian Torbjorn Nilsson said.