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Politics in Sweden: Why Sweden's finance minister is willing to be unpopular

Richard Orange
Richard Orange - [email protected]
Politics in Sweden: Why Sweden's finance minister is willing to be unpopular
Sweden's Finance Minsiter delivering her budget presentation last week. Photo: Jonas Ekströmer/TT

She's been accused of being Sweden's 'most invisible modern finance minister'. But when she emerged from the shadows to present the budget last week, she showed she is also the minister most willing to take unpopular measures, writes The Local's Nordic editor Richard Orange.


The word that Elisabeth Svantesson repeated again and again, in every interview and in every speech around the budget was tuff, or "tough", using it no fewer than 14 times in a 30-minute interview with Sweden's public radio broadcaster on Saturday.  

"I know that it's going to be tough," she responded when asked why the government hadn't given Sweden's municipalities and the regions greater funding to help schools and regional health authorites deal with rising prices. "It's going to be tough for a lot of people next year." 

But she was unapologetic. For her getting inflation under control was, she said, the "a och o" – the alpha and omega, or beginning and the end – of the budget. 

"If I'd done what some people are calling for and given even more money to the municipalities and the regions," she argued, it would have meant "an even bigger budget", which "would have fuelled inflation and then next year and the year after we would have had even bigger problems with increased costs".

Sweden is facing, she has said again and again, an "economic winter", and the only responsible way to respond is with a budget that is "restrained".


For Svantesson, it is better to be criticised in the short term for a miserly budget than to go into the next election as the finance minister who let inflation take an unshakeable grip on the economy.

And if the mark of a good government budget is that it pleases no one but the officials in the finance department, then Svantesson has hit just the right balance. Her budget drew heavy criticism from both left and right, from both business lobby groups and the regional and municipal governments who run most of Sweden's healthcare and education.  

For the Social Democrats, the decision to give an extra 10 billion kronor a year in direct funding to municipalities and the regions was "a betrayal of the welfare sector". But for the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise, it was caving in to the unreasonable demands of regional governments and municipalities, wasting 40 percent of the extra funds available, which would have been better used to cut taxes. 

In her interview, Svantesson refused to be drawn on whether cuts would be needed to health and education, saying that this was up to the "smart people from different parties" in regional and municipal governments to decide. "They know best how to handle the situation and I don't want to speak for them."


Svantesson's technocratic approach makes her a bit of an exception in Sweden's current government.   

This is a government forced by its reliance on the far-right Sweden Democrats to drive a populist agenda: it is cutting fuel taxes and biofuels content when action is urgently needed to combat climate change; bringing in a raft of tough measures on crime that many criminologists say risk pushing up prison populations without solving gang crime; and taking measures to reduce immigration many see as illiberal. 

It sometimes feels as if figures like Justice Minister Gunnar Strömmer, Migration Minister Maria Malmer Stenergard, and Environment Minister Romina Pourmokhtari – none of them natural populists – do not themselves believe in many of the measures they are working to enact. 


Svantesson, on the other hand, is almost an unpopulist, going so far as to claim in her Saturday interview that she was more willing to take unpopular measures than her predecessors in the job.

"We are," she boasted, "carrying out some of the tough reprioritisations that other governments have not dared to do". 

The only nakedly populist tax decision she announced (possibly on the urging of the Sweden Democrats), was a small cut in the level of tax on snus, the tobacco pouches one in five Swedish men and quite a few women have permanently lodged under their upper lips.

"Snus is going to be a few kronor cheaper," she said, rounding off the Saturday interview. "That's something many people also think is good." 

Politics in Sweden is a weekly column looking at the big talking points and issues in Swedish politics. Members of The Local Sweden can sign up to receive an email alert when the column is published. Just click on this “newsletters" option or visit the menu bar.


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