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16 January 2023

Sweden’s right-wing government struggles to tackle gang violence

Its prime minister Ulf Kristersson and his far-right partners are finding crime crackdowns harder to deliver than promise.

By Megan Gibson

In Sweden it’s a new year with a new-ish government, but many of the same problems remain. Particularly when it comes to gang violence. Though the country set a dark record in 2022 – with more than 60 people killed by guns – 2023 hasn’t seen much in the way of improvements. A spate of attacks over the New Year’s period and in the first week of January has resulted in further fatal shootings and destruction caused by explosives set off in the suburbs of Stockholm.

None of this is new for Swedes. The Nordic nation has long been grappling with surging gun violence, largely related to the organised crime networks operating throughout the country. What is newer is the political stripe of the government now in charge of reducing it. The right-wing prime minister Ulf Kristersson came to power after a general election last September, with key support coming from the far-right Sweden Democrats (SD), a party with neo-Nazi roots. Both the SD and Kristersson’s Moderates ran on a platform of being tough on crime, underpinned by promises of tougher sentences and harsher immigration controls. As I’ve written before, this campaign was very effective with voters – so effective, in fact, that despite the extraordinary popularity of Sweden’s previous prime minister, Magdalena Andersson, her centre-left minority government was ousted.

Yet as Kristersson’s coalition government and its far-right supporters in the SD (now the second-largest party in parliament, behind Andersson’s Social Democrats) are learning, delivering on campaign promises over issues as thorny and urgent as tackling widespread gang violence isn’t quite as straightforward as winning elections. There were 388 shootings across the country in 2022 – but 112 of those happened in September or later. And the issue hasn’t become less pressing for voters (not least because the gang violence has been found to directly and negatively impact housing prices, particularly in the capital Stockholm).

Yet the underlying problem isn’t that the government and its far-right supporters are failing to deliver on their campaign promises; as the Swedish journalist Karin Pettersson pointed out in the New Statesman in November, the real issue is that the prime minister’s “myopic focus on immigration and crime has concealed other, but equally important and problematic, big shifts in Swedish society”. Among those shifts: a widening inequality gap, the privatisation of schools, starved social services and a dearth of affordable housing. With little intention of addressing these root causes of segregation (itself a key factor of gang violence), Sweden’s right-wing government will continue struggling to tackle the main problem it has promised to solve.

This article first appeared in the World Review newsletter. It comes out every Monday; subscribe here.

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[See also: European diplomacy in the 21st century, with Catherine Ashton]

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