Swedish opposition to the far right: Talk to the hand
25/12/2017- Sweden’s new opposition leader Ulf Kristersson must do something neither of his two predecessors could manage if he wants to win next year’s election: Outmaneuver the far right. His progress will be followed across a Europe where center-right parties like his Moderates are losing support to radical, anti-immigration populist movements — in Sweden’s case, the Sweden Democrats (SD). Kristersson needs to stem that flow before he can tilt at the vulnerable-looking minority coalition of Social Democratic Prime Minister Stefan Löfven at the ballot box next fall. Two months into his tenure, Kristersson’s two-fold strategy is starting to take shape.
First, he is shifting the party policy closer to SD’s hard line on immigration. Delegates at the Moderate Party conference in October voted for permanent limits on the amount of time those granted asylum can stay in Sweden. New arrivals should also bear more of the cost of supporting family members who join them in Sweden, delegates decided. Second, Kristersson is reinstating the gap between the Moderate Party and SD, after an aborted period of dialogue. “We are not going to be working with the Sweden Democrats,” Kristersson told POLITICO in an interview in the Swedish capital. “There will be no talks.”
This new stance represents the Moderate Party’s third approach to SD, and the broader immigration question, in three years — a struggle for direction that is mirrored across Europe. From Finland to Germany, the parliamentary landscape has been reshaped by new political forces. As immigration to these parts of Europe has risen, upstart parties like SD have blamed national leaders for integration failures and called for border closures. They have often monopolized the debate and left their opponents baffled as to how to react.
The response has varied. In Denmark, the center-right government cooperates closely with the populist anti-immigration Danish People’s Party. In Norway and Finland, traditional centrist and right-wing parties have formed governing coalitions with the populists. Meanwhile, in Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel is leaning toward another grand coalition with the Social Democrats rather than allow an increasingly popular anti-immigrant party a place in government. “Swedish party politics over the last two parliamentary mandate periods have, to a large extent, been about how to relate to SD,” said Niklas Bolin, a political scientist at Mid Sweden University.
The stage for Sweden’s current debate over immigration was arguably set in 2011 when Fredrik Reinfeldt, a previous Moderate Party leader and two-term prime minister, pushed through a policy of liberalization which made his country one of the most welcoming in Europe for asylum seekers. His four-party coalition joined with the Green Party to get the necessary votes in parliament. “This is a decision which closes the door on xenophobic forces who want influence in this area,” he said then, in a veiled reference to SD. For four years, the border regime remained lax and ministers who criticized it were swiftly rebuked by Reinfeldt, who called on Swedes to “open their hearts” to immigrants in a speech before he lost power at an election in 2014.
Analysts and many Moderate insiders put that election failure down to Reinfeldt’s underestimation of the support for SD and its call for a cut in immigration to virtually zero. SD had entered parliament with 5.7 percent of the vote in 2010, surging to 12.9 percent in 2014. Since then it has vied with the Moderates for second spot in opinion polls, after Löfven’s Social Democrats. As the Moderate Party regrouped in 2015 and 2016, a surge in immigrants from Syria and other war-torn regions forced the Social Democrat-led government into a U-turn. The Moderates backed the shift, and under a new leader, Anna Kinberg Batra, they tried to seize the initiative by reaching out to SD in January 2017 and proposing talks.
The move backfired and voters began deserting the party. It quickly descended into infighting and Kinberg Batra resigned before she could fight her first election campaign. “Too many Moderates are only interested in what looks like self-harm,” she said. “Instead of talking about our policies, they are only insulting them and each other.”
In October, Kristersson, 53, was handed the reins. A long-serving party member from near the town of Eskilstuna to the west of Stockholm, he rose through the ranks of the Moderate youth movement before becoming an MP, serving between 1991 and 2000. After working in communications for an IT consultancy, he returned to politics, becoming minister for social security under Reinfeldt and shadow finance minister under Kinberg Batra. After he was elected party leader, he immediately accelerated moves toward tougher immigration policies before shutting down the nascent cooperation with SD. SD leader Jimmie Åkesson posted a video message to Kristersson on the SD website shortly afterwards. He said that while he had hoped the Moderates were actually moving closer to SD’s positions, he now believed Kristersson was taking them back to the days of Reinfeldt, and talk of a tougher stance was empty rhetoric. “You haven’t understood anything,” he said.
Still, opinion polls suggest Kristersson’s early efforts to reposition his party have worked well, so far. They currently command about 22 percent support among voters, up from around 16 percent in June, according to a survey carried out by the pollster SIFO in the first half of December. Meanwhile, SD dropped to 16.5 percent support in December, down from 18 percent in June. The Social Democrats were steady on around 29 percent. “The polls this year seem to indicate that the Moderates have regained quite a few voters from SD,” said Anders Sannerstedt, a political scientist at Lund University. “It seems likely that the change of party leader had a strong effect, but it is also possible that the changes in refugee policy mattered.”
In a speech on December 15, Kristersson sought to portray the Moderate Party’s signature tax cuts and its greater emphasis on demands on the individual as the way forward for his country. Sweden’s economy may be humming, with falling unemployment and rising consumer and business confidence, but he said the current government is failing to address serious challenges, including violent crime and the integration of immigrants. “The government is just surfing on an economic upturn,” he told POLITICO. “They have lots of money, but they are not solving the fundamental problems we have.”
© Politico EU.