After a slumbering summer, Sweden is back at work. During the summer, the party leaders delivered a series of plans for the future and the autumn is about translating these into action. The government’s crayfish party at Harpsund in August was thus a prelude to the political autumn.
On 21 August, the government gathered at the Prime Minister’s retreat of Harpsund – a Swedish Chequers or Camp David if you will – for budget consultations followed by the traditional crayfish party. The Harpsund meeting in August is always a prelude to the political autumn. While the opening of the Riksdag on 15 September is still a couple of weeks away, the political debate started to warm up with the party leaders’ traditional summer speeches and continuing with the interpellation debates in the Riksdag, where several hot topics are debated between members of the Riksdag and cabinet ministers, including Russian military exercises in the Swedish vicinity and the appointment of Sweden’s next Supreme Commander.
Budget Bill to lift support for the government
The week after the opening of the Riksdag, the Minister for Finance, Magdalena Andersson (S), will walk the short road between her ministry and the Riksdag carrying the government’s 2016 Budget Bill. Unlike last year, this Budget Bill will pass through the Riksdag in accordance with the December Agreement (Decemberöverenskommelsen, DÖ). The budget needed to be negotiated with the Left Party, but after a year in office, Prime Minister Stefan Löfven will finally be able to govern with his own budget. The government hopes that this will lead to a rise in popularity. So far, the government has attributed its unpopularity to having to govern with the Alliance’s budget. Once the red-green policies are implemented and have had an impact, voters’ approval will follow, the Social Democrat- and Green Party supporters argue.
Following tradition, parts of the budget are currently being presented in small portions ahead of the Budget Bill being presented to the Riksdag on 21 September. In his summer speech, Stefan Löfven said that the Social Democrats want to focus on vocational colleges in the autumn budget in an effort to reach the goal of Sweden having the lowest unemployment in the EU by 2020. He launched a proposal to increase the number of places at vocational colleges by 2,500 in 2016 and by 6,000 between 2017 and 2019. The Minister for Employment, Ylva Johansson (S), has flagged for improvement vocational training opportunities and part-time studies for the long-term unemployed. On the revenue side, there will be further tax increases on gasoline and diesel fuel. Last spring, the government announced an increase in energy taxes on gasoline and diesel by 44 and 48 öre. The new proposition instead calls for an increase by 48 and 53 öre by the end of the year According to the Minister for Finance, Magdalena Andersson (S), the proceeds will be used to strengthen defence. “It is obviously not an easy decision to make, but some expenses have become higher than we thought. Among other things, the defence agreement has become more expensive than we would have assumed”, she said. (See further the article Better Years Ahead in this edition of the MPR).
On the political agenda this autumn
The war in Syria, refugees arriving in Europe and the terrorist threat from the Islamic State was the themes of several political speeches in the summer. An important issue for the government this autumn will be to develop proposals and funding for migration and integration policies that can assist those fleeing the war in Syria and others seeking asylum in Sweden. Recently, the Moderate Party challenged the Social Democrats to a series of debates on the topics of integration and jobs; the Moderates believes that the government lacks proposals to create jobs for those arriving in Sweden from other countries. There is political will to reach a non-partisan agreement on an improved integration policy, but at the moment the parties are far from agreeing on concrete proposals.
- Crime and terrorism
The Prime Minister focussed his summer speech on taking a tougher stance on organised crime and terrorism. In this area, legislative proposals are in the pipeline. In the spring, a government investigator presented a report that considered measures to counteract the abuse of Swedish passports by criminals. The government is also looking to apply stricter rules for serious weapons offences so that these can be punished at an earlier stage than today. The Alliance government commissioned an investigation to look into harsher punishment for organised crime. A report by this investigator suggested that several crimes, including serious gun crime, should be punished at an earlier stage, allowing the police to intervene before planned weapons offences. The report, SOU2014:63, which was submitted to the government in August last year, has been circulated for comment but has not yet led to any clear proposals from the government. However, the Minister for Home Affairs, Anders Ygeman (S), has said he wants to legislate in that direction, although the exact timing to do this is uncertain. Once the government advances the bill, it is likely to be supported by the Alliance parties in the Riksdag. On 28 August, the Minister for Home Affairs, Anders Ygeman (S), presented the government’s revised strategy on counter-terrorism. The government will put forward a bill to the Riksdag in the autumn, which will propose making it illegal to participate in training camps for terrorism and to travel with a view to committing a terrorist offence. It will also include legislation to make it a criminal offence to raise funds for a terrorist organisation. A particular emphasis is to be placed on preventive work to combat radicalisation and recruitment to extremist and terrorist groups, and the influence of persons intending to commit, or support terrorism. The government will announce further counter-terrorism measures ahead of presenting the bill to the Riksdag. In terms of counter-terrorism, there is broad support of these measures in the Riksdag, and the government is likely to get cross-bloc consensus on the issue.
A series of measures against terrorism are in the pipeline. The government is preparing changing the law to prevent individuals travelling abroad to attend terrorist training. An inquiry draft, SOU 2015:63, is out for consultation, and the government is planning to implement the new law at the end of the year. T he next step is to decide if fighting for a terrorist organisation shall be punished, an investigator is working on the issue and will present a proposal next summer. The government has also asked the Swedish Prison and Probation Service (Kriminalvården) to identify how violent extremism among inmates can be prevented. Moreover, the government Coordinator against Extremism, Mona Sahlin, has been instructed to set up a helpline to support the families of terrorist supporters.
- Schools and education
The Minister for Education, Gustav Fridolin (MP), has stated that he intends to reform the school system in 100 days. One step towards achieving that goal was the school package that the government presented on 1 September. The package included investing SEK 2.4 billion in order to, among other things, increase the number of teachers, and elevate the competence of specialised teachers. The government also wants to help municipalities support the schooling of asylum-seekers. Three major investigations into the area of education will be presented to the government during the autumn. The studies are highly contentious and it is unclear which of the forthcoming proposals could be passed in the Riksdag. An investigation into 10 years of compulsory schooling is to be delivered on 30 September and is expected to receive harsh criticism from the Alliance parties and the Sweden Democrats. On 1 October, an investigation into implementing the principle of public access to official records in independent schools, so-called free schools, will be presented. The investigation tackles the inconsistency of municipal schools being required to be subject to public scrutiny, but not free schools. An investigation into vocational training has so far been a flop for the government. The final report is to be submitted on 15 November, but last spring, the investigator submitted an interim report, which suggested that the technology program at high school should be extended to more than three years in order to make the students more attractive to employers. The government disliked the proposal and instead added the issue of vocational training onto the investigation into high schools. That report is due to be submitted 12 months from now.
Historically, the lack of public support for Sweden seeking NATO membership meant that the issue has paddled in the political backwaters. In recent years, only the Liberal Party and the Moderates have openly promoted NATO membership, while its Alliance partners, the Centre Party and the Christian Democrats, have taken a more hesitant stance. Now the Alliance parties are moving towards a unified front on Swedish NATO membership after the Centre Party leadership announced they will advocate that Sweden seeks membership. This spells an important U-turn and is very significant news. For decades, the Centre Party was firmly anchored in the idea of neutrality, almost more than any other party, and has mostly aligned with the Social Democrats on foreign policy issues. But now the party is looking to join the Christian Democrats’ embrace of NATO membership, which would mean broad unity among the Alliance parties in favour of NATO membership. In both the case of the Centre Party and the Christian Democrats, the issue will be decided at the parties’ congresses this autumn. So far, resistance of the Social Democrats (along with the Greens, the Left Party and the Sweden Democrats) to Swedish membership has been strong and there are as of yet no signs that the party would changing its stance on the issue. If the Centre Party and the Christian Democrats adopt the new policy of advocating Swedish NATO membership, it will reinforce the polarisation of the Swedish debate on NATO and, for the first time, present two firm political blocs on the issue.
Party congresses in the autumn
The Sweden Democrats will gather for a national meeting on 27-29 November and all four Alliance parties have national party congresses this autumn. In four of the congresses, delegates are strongly endorsing their respective elected party leader. Only the Liberal Party has nominated candidates other than the incumbent party leader prior to its congress. In the case of the Liberal Party Leader, Jan Björklund has declared that he wants to stay on as leader. Meanwhile, Birgitta Ohlsson has nominated by a few districts, but has stated she is not challenging Mr Björklund for the top position. The Centre Party gathers for a national congress in Falun on 24 September. Party Leader Annie Lööf is not expected to face too many problems in discussions among the party delegates. There will be a heated debate on Swedish NATO membership though, after the party leadership announced that it would advocate membership in the defence alliance at the congress in Falun. Sources have indicated that the party leadership is split on the issue of NATO membership. The Christian Democrats assembles for its national meeting on 8 October in Västerås. Despite managing to split the party’s Riksdag group in two earlier in the year, its newly elected leader, Ebba Busch Thor, will not be questioned. Also safe in the saddle is Anna Kinberg Batra, leader of the Moderate Party. She will, however, face a animated debate about the December Agreement at the party congress, which starts in Karlstad on 15 October. Nonetheless, she has a stable party majority behind her keeping the December Agreement intact. Last out of the Alliance parties is the Liberal Party, which holds its national congress from 20 to 22 November.
All of the Alliance parties’ congresses will pay tribute to a continued Alliance cooperation and ensure that the Alliance heads to the polls in 2018 with the intention of forming another Alliance government. The Alliance has already said that it does not intend to put forward a joint budget proposal as an alternative to the government’s Budget Bill. But at the same time, all four parties will engage in intensive discussions on how to find and push their own profile issues in order to attract voters as individual parties. This will create divisions and increased tensions within the bloc. Could NATO membership pose as a uniting policy issue leading up to the 2018 elections?
In terms of the government, it has been a demanding first year; running the country with an Alliance budget was just the nightmare scenario Stefan Löfven had dreaded. The roughest edges of the Alliance budget were rounded off in the spring budget with investments in jobs, infrastructure, education and a feminist foreign policy. Now the December Agreements enables him to pass the Budget Bill through the Riksdag and implement his government’s policies. Heading into the second year of governing amidst dismal approval rates and the lowest polling numbers for years, Mr Löfven must hope that Social Democratic policies will shine through the Budget Bill enough to attract back voters lost.
 The Löfven government has explicitly said no to seeking membership and has instead increased defence spending and established strong defence ties with Finland.
 One part of the Riksdag group wanted to keep Emma Henriksson as group leader, while the other group, a slight majority, accepted Ebba Busch Thor’s demands that Henriksson would resign.