The political autumn 2016

The political autumn 2016

After a long summer break, Sweden is back at work. The government’s crayfish party at Harpsund and the summer speeches by the party leaders in August are a prelude to the political autumn where issues such as segregation, jobs, schools and fighting crime will be high on the agenda. And with two years left until the elections, the temperature is clearly raised in Swedish politics.

On 24 August, the government gathered at the Prime Minister’s retreat of Harpsund – a Swedish version 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 13 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. With two years left until the 2018 general elections, the political parties have already begun strategising. When focus is moved from policy to the election campaign, the strategy is more about the party and opinion polls rather than what is best for the country. This is particularly noticeable in the way the Social Democrats and the Moderates are hard at work in raising the popularity of their party leaders. The parties' strategies mean that we will begin to see increased confrontation and a raised tone in Swedish politics. As a result, new cross-bloc political agreements will be more difficult to reach.

In terms of what will be on the agenda this political autumn, the political week in Almedalen in July and the party leader’s summer speeches will provide insight; topics such as defence and security, segregation, creating jobs and fighting crime will no doubt feature frequently in the political debate.

  • Soldiers and non-alignment

Two government-commissioned inquiries into Swedish defence - and security situation will be presented this autumn. First out is the report by Ambassador Krister Bringéus, who has been investigating Sweden’s defence and security cooperation. This includes Sweden’s Nordic and Nordic-Baltic cooperation and the bilateral Swedish-Finnish cooperation. Also included is the transatlantic link, UN, EU, OSCE and NATO. The inquiry forms part of the defence agreement between five (S, MP, M, C and KD) political parties from April last year. Some of the contents of the report have already been leaked and the media reported over the weekend that the report concludes that an arms race in the Baltic region is a likely scenario if Sweden joins NATO, but that the risk of a conflict involving Russia would decline. While Sweden’s military non-alignment has not been analysed, a debate about the pros and cons of NATO has already begun and with all four of the Alliance parties now in favour of NATO membership, the debate on non-alignment and NATO will now intensify and feature as an issue in the 2018 election campaign.

The second forthcoming inquiry is into staffing the Swedish Armed Forces and is conducted by Annika Nordgren Christensen (MP), a former member of the cross-party Defence Commission. The report is due on 30 September, but also here some of the contents have been leaked. Media reports that the inquiry recommends that compulsory military service for both men and women could be reintroduced in Sweden by 2019.

  • The Budget Bill

On 20 September, the government will present its most important political document - the Budget Bill. 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 2017 Budget Bill. This is the last chance for the government to implement major reforms that can make an impact ahead of the 2018 election. Both the Social Democrats and the Greens are pressed to make a stance to the electorate and improve its support in the opinion polls. Ahead of the bill, the government needs to negotiate with its budget partner, the Left Party, which has demanded, inter alia, that the home mortgage interest deduction (ränteavdraget) is dismantled by 2017, and free medicine for those above 80. Following tradition, parts of the budget are currently being presented in small portions. During his summer speech in August, the Prime Minister, Stefan Löfven (S), announced that the government would invest in 3,600 new teacher positions until 2021 to address the shortage. The initiative is expected to cost SEK 342 million when it is fully developed, and SEK 83 million at the start of 2017. At the end of August, the government announced that it would replenish its foreign aid budget by SEK 6.4 billion this year, after the government used the budget in recent years to finance the nation's asylum reception and care system.

  • Breaking segregation

The government launched a new package of measures to counter segregation in a number of vulnerable urban districts around Sweden during Almedalen Week in July. The goal is to decrease crime, break long-term unemployment, raise the performance of the schools, reduce overcrowding and strengthen democratic values.[1]

Much of this work will focus on general policies for the labour market, housing policy and law enforcement. The Alliance parties have previously criticised the government’s proposals for increased construction subsidies and some elements of the labour market policies. The Alliance will focus on following up on the plans launched earlier this year. In the economic motions last spring, the Alliance parties were in agreement on the long-term political development of Sweden, changing the government’s labour market policy, as well as plans to expand the Swedish police force by around 2,000. When examining the fine print, however, differences among the Alliance parties emerge and these need to be smoothed out in order to form a joint line in the Riksdag.

  • The return of nationalism

Since the Sweden Democrats entered the Riksdag, the established parties have hardly dared to mention the term “Sweden”. During Almedalsveckan this summer, however, the party leaders began to talk about Sweden, being Swedish and Swedish values, in a way they have not done for a long time. This is a trend that will continue; we will hear politicians speak less about multiculturalism and more about being Swedish.

  • Creating jobs

The large wave of refugees has got people talking more and more about how those newly-arrived will get jobs. Stefan Löfven surprised many when he commissioned the Minister for Enterprise and Innovation, Mikael Damberg (S), to create more simple jobs. The Swedish Trade Union Confederation (LO) is doing what it can to fight the agenda and the business community support simple jobs. If starting salaries are dropped slightly, then 35,000 newly-arrived low-educated immigrants could be offered so-called simple jobs", said the leader of the Centre Party, Annie Lööf, during the Almedalen Week.

The government is also preparing a new form of employment to introduce more newly-arrived immigrants and long-term unemployed to the labour market. It is called matching employment (matchningsanställning) and is based on a system where companies can hire individuals on a kind of probationary employment. The proposal is a way for the companies to try staff, without having to take an administrative responsibility.

  • The school crisis

The next survey by the OECD's Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is due in December. As was the case in 2014, poor results are expected. A political storm, scathing criticism from the Swedish Teachers’ Union (Lärarförbundet) and international media attention followed the last report, and much the same is expected this year. And with the internal power struggles at the Ministry for Education and Research, the resignation by the Minister for Upper Secondary School and Adult Education and Training, Aida Hadzialic (S), in mid-August and defections by department heads, the Alliance will try to grab the stage.

  • Profits in welfare

The question about profits in welfare will be a major political issue this autumn. The Social Democrats have swung on the issue and the government is now planning to introduce profit limits. Large parts of the business community see this almost as a declaration of war. But the Social Democrats have public opinion on their side. At the end of August, the government-appointed investigator of profits in the welfare sector, former Municipal Commissioner, Ilmar Reepalu (S), is expected to present a proposal that would limit the profit withdrawals of private companies in the welfare sector to 8 per cent of invested capital plus inflation. The Confederation of Swedish Enterprise (Svenskt Näringsliv) has called the 8 per cent cap an “unreasonable attack on private enterprises” and on private ownership. The question this autumn will be how far the Social Democrats dare to push the issue and whether the Moderates are up for the fight.

  • Brexit

While the two euro-sceptical parties together currently carry too little electoral support to lobby together for a Swexit, the Left Party and the Sweden Democrats will do what they can to add a discussion about the European Union to the political agenda this autumn following the British people’s decision to leave the union.

Comment

After two rather miserable years of governing, Prime Minister Stefan Löfven experienced his best spring so far, with the cross-party agreement on energy policy, a successful government reshuffle and Sweden being elected to the UNSC in June. Rosenbad hopes this is the beginning of a turn around and the Moderate Party is worried that Löfven will turn out to be the ultimate “come back kid”. Still, the Social Democrats need to improve their rather dismal public support of around 26 per cent.

Under Anna Kinberg Batra, the Moderate Party has moved more to the right and are moving closer and closer to the Sweden Democrats when it comes to social and cultural values. The Moderate Party leadership has stated that it will not let Stefan Löfven form government after 2018, hence opening up the potential to take power through some form of support from the Sweden Democrats. The Alliance is split on the issue; the Christian Democrats support the idea whereas the Centre Party and the Liberals disagree. This means the Social Democrats risk being marginalised, but it also creates an opportunity to break the bloc politics and an opportunity to attract the Centre Party and Liberals. The strategy from the Social Democrats to stay in power would presumably be to scare voters off by stating a vote for the Moderate Party is a vote for the Sweden Democrats.

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Jessica Nilsson Williams is the CEO & Founder of Mundus International. She has a long-standing interest in international affairs, having studied and worked in the field for more than 20 years. She began her career as the political advisor at the U.S. Embassy in Stockholm, and then worked in London and Singapore before returning to Stockholm. In 2011 she took up a senior role at the New Zealand Embassy before founding Mundus International in 2012. In addition to working for foreign missions, she has worked in sectors such as NGOs and non-profit organisations (e.g. the Clinton Foundation and the International Red Cross), and television.