The 11th of September marked the biggest shift in Swedish politics in modern history. Voters ousted the Social Democratic government and, for the first time, the radical right party, the Sweden Democrats, attained real political power. I am now left with the realisation that the country I grew up in exists only as a memory. It has been destroyed by a coalition of spineless conservatives, opportunistic liberals and the right-wing extremists who now de facto run the country. And not to forget: the ousted Social Democrats, who defined and built the Swedish welfare state, have no clear plan to change the new political reality.
The Sweden Democrats aren’t part of the new government led by the Moderate Party’s Ulf Kristersson that took office on October 18 but the party will have a major influence over the government’s policies, which have been negotiated between the parties in government and the Sweden Democrats. It is an alarming shift. The Sweden Democrats were founded in the Eighties by Swedish Nazis and its current leadership, including party leader, Jimmie Åkesson, became members in the Nineties during the party’s most radical years. On 11 September it became, for the first time, the second biggest party in parliament. The reason for their new position of influence, however, isn’t that they gained a lot of new voters but that the mainstream right-wing parties changed their position from vowing to keep the Sweden Democrats out of power to actively including them. The party is not officially part of the new coalition government, but the 60-page long negotiated policy platform makes it abundantly clear that it dominates Swedish politics.
Among other things the platform compromises climate policies and goals. Astonishingly, the Ministry of the Environment has been abolished and climate policy folded into the Ministry of Enterprise and Innovation. One of the promises made by the coalition is to reduce the amount of biofuels that need to be mixed in with gas to bring down gas prices, making it impossible to meet the country’s goal of cutting transportation emissions by 70 per cent by 2030, according to experts.
The platform also proposes a drastic reduction in the target number of refugees accepted into the country, an abolition of the permanent residence permit system and plans to “encourage” people who have “not integrated” to leave. It also includes measures to introduce stricter requirements for Swedish citizenship and reduces the right to family reunification. International aid will be cut, and the aim is to abolish the right of non-Swedish speaking citizens to an interpreter when they seek healthcare – against the wish of doctors and nurses. There is also an ominous clause noting that it should be possible to expel immigrants due to “lacking morals”, a fascist-sounding proposal, potentially giving some political entity the right to define and control how non-blue-eyed Swedes should behave.
Over recent decades Sweden has undergone massive demographic changes caused by an influx of refugees. This shift has been a benefit to the Sweden Democrats. Both Conservatives and Social Democrats have bought into the idea that ethnicity – rather than class or bad integration policies – is the main driver of increasing brutal gang violence as well as most other problems in society. This myopic focus on immigration and crime has concealed other, but equally important and problematic, big shifts in Swedish society.
[See also: Sweden’s socialist utopia is crumbling]
The fact is that in what was once the most equal country in the world, inequality has risen with alarming speed in the past decades. Inheritance, gift and estate taxes have all been scrapped, partly on the Social Democrats’ watch. The capital tax level is lower than in both the UK and the US. Sweden is a tax haven for the rich, comparable to Luxembourg.
While Sweden’s billionaires have doubled their share of the nation’s wealth since 2016, the share belonging to the poorest half of the population has plunged. Neoliberal privatisation has in recent decades gone to the roots of Swedish society. The education system, for example, has been deregulated to a point where it is beyond democratic control. The Social Democrats abolished the state-run school system in the 90s, making it the responsibility of municipalities to run schools, and allowing privatisations. The result is that big for-profit companies control a large part of the Swedish school “market”, having taken the opportunity to make unrestricted profits by lowering the number of teachers and overall quality. The Swedish school system used to be one of the pillars of the country’s policies for equality, now it is instead driving segregation. Andreas Schleicher, head of the directorate for education and skills at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, used to “look to Sweden as the gold standard for education”. Now, he writes, “the Swedish school system seems to have lost its soul”.
Lobbying remains largely unregulated, creating fertile ground for corruption in the grey-zone between politics and tax-funded for-profit companies in the welfare sector. It is no coincidence that the market value of private education providers rose after the appointment of the new conservative education minister, Lotta Edholm, was announced. She was recruited straight from the board of one of the big for-profit school companies and has a background in one of the big lobbying firms. The new government does not only signal hard times for immigrants and poor people, but a jackpot for these companies.
Sweden is more divided, more segregated, than most international observers realise. The country also suffers from massive underinvestment in social services and health and elderly care, not to mention affordable housing. The wealth gap is staggering, undermining trust and social cohesion.
Yes, it has been the centre-left Social Democrats that have governed the country for the past eight years, but they have ruled from a weak minority position in parliament and with no progressive agenda. It is tragic, yet true, that the only vision for change has come from the Sweden Democrats: channelling both open racism and legitimate feelings of loss and concern.
Sweden, like the rest of Europe, is facing a difficult winter. Inflation is rampant, poverty on the rise. These times really should speak to the ideas of the left since market liberals have nothing to contribute when it comes to today’s major challenges: economic and climate crises, and the consequences of Russia’s war in Ukraine. The bad news is that the Social Democrats, now in opposition, seem on the path to repeat their mistakes from the election campaign: accepting the Sweden Democrats’ agenda of repression and weakened rights for immigrants, instead of formulating a progressive alternative.
Internationally, Sweden is often lauded as a social democratic model society, with a reputation for openness and progressiveness. The truth is Sweden has been darker and much more complicated for a long time. Now things are going to get even worse. As the political scientist Lisa Pelling pointed out in a recent essay, the sum of the policies of the new ruling majority is going to change Sweden fundamentally, making it more repressive and authoritarian. I am left with feelings of anger and loss. Much about the future is unknown but it’s already clear that the long-outdated idea of Swedish exceptionalism has been destroyed.