The SSU: still shaping tomorrow’s leaders

Political youth organisations are a significant part of the Swedish political system. The SSU, the Swedish Social Democratic Youth League, is arguably the most powerful and has served as a springboard into national politics and the social democratic sphere of influence for decades. In August, the SSU will name a new Chairman, a process that is bringing old internal fighting to the fore once again.

Monthly Policy Review

The SSU springboard

The SSU was jubilant when its Chairman, Gabriel Wikström, somewhat surprisingly was appointed the Minister for Health Care, Public Health and Sport in Stefan Löfven’s cabinet last October.  It was the first time a sitting SSU Chairman was drafted into the government.  In the past, it used to be the rule rather than an exception that the SSU leadership sooner or later became a cabinet minister or part of the top leadership of the Social Democratic Party.  Ingvar Carlsson (SSU Chairman 1961-1967) became Social Democratic party leader and Prime Minister.  He was succeeded by Bosse Ringholm (1967-1972), who later became Deputy Prime Minister.  Lars Engqvist (1972-1978) became a cabinet minister in 1999 and he was also Deputy Prime Minister for a few months in 2004.  Jan Nygren (1978-1984) was the Minister responsible for co-ordination between cabinet ministries and was in the running for the party leadership when Ingvar Carlsson resigned and Mona Sahlin took time-out.  Anna Lindh (1984-1990) became Foreign Minister and was well on her way to becoming party leader when she was murdered in 2003.

But after that something changed, the SSU leadership no longer advanced to the government and party leadership, as the Social Democrats ended up in opposition and the SSU was plagued by internal conflict.  As a result, a number of talented people from the youth league slipped to the periphery.  Karl-Petter Thorwaldsson (SSU Chairman 1990-1995) was for a while the party’s communications manager but never landed a leading party assignment.  Niklas Nordström (1995-1999) challenged Björn Rosengren as the party’s District Chairman in northern Sweden and had a falling out with Göran Persson as a result.  After two years as the leader of the opposition in Nacka, Mr Nordström instead made a successful career as a PR consultant and, since the 2014 election, he is the Mayor of his home town of Luleå.  The turning point came in 2012 when Karl-Petter Thorwaldsson was elected Chairman of the Swedish Trade Union Confederation, LO.  When Stefan Löfven named his cabinet last fall, the SSU was again a strong contributor.  Mikael Damberg (SSU Chairman 1999-2003) was named Minister for Innovation and Enterprise, Ardalan Shekarabi (2003-2005) became Minister for Public Administration, and Anders Ygeman (who was Deputy Chairman of the SSU during the Niklas Nordström era) was appointed Minister for Home Affairs.  In the Spring of 2014, Jytte Guteland (2007-2011) was elected a Member of the European Parliament.

The war of the roses

Over the years, infighting within the SSU has received much media attention.  The internal conflict within the SSU created headlines about scandals and defections and blighted political careers rather than serving as a nursery for Sweden’s future political leaders.  In the early 90s, after electoral defeat and economic crisis, the Social Democrats re-evaluated the their views on what the welfare state should look like in practice.  The party was torn by an internal division about EU membership and began to argue with the Swedish Trade Union Confederation about labour law.  During the 1990s, the SSU found it very difficult to agree on these issues and used classic right-left arguments when debating them.  Those who would later come to be called the right wing districts (or chapters) thought privatisations would be good for the cumbersome state apparatus, were positive towards the EU and agreed with the Party in its conflict with the LO about labour law.  The left wing of the SSU thought that privatisation was liberal debris, that the EU was a right wing project, and that the LO was right about labour law.

The in-fighting really began in 1994 when the SSU were debating their stance on Swedish EU membership. In the end, the SSU decided to vote against the EU and the no-campaign was led by Anders Ygeman from the City of Stockholm chapter (he is today the Minister for Home Affairs in Stefan Löfven’s government).  History has it that after the victory, the left wing of the SSU wanted to make Anders Ygeman the new SSU Chairman.  They joined forces with Norrbotten’s right wing candidate, Niklas Nordström.  In return, Mr Nordström promised to set up a new post as Deputy Chairman for Anders Ygeman if he became Chairman. Mr Nordström was elected Chairman of the SSU in 1995 with the support of, among others, the City of Stockholm and the chapter of Östergötland.  Unusually, the Stockholm County chapter did not support the new Chairman.  During his Chairmanship, Niklas Nordström wanted to take Social Democracy to the right, but he had been elected by a coalition that was partially left.  To gain support for his intentions of taking the SSU further to the right, Mr Nordström reached out to the Stockholm County chapter.  An invitation, which brought the Stockholm County back into power again.  But the events meant that the SSU was divided in two and the two factions were born.  At the1997 SSU Congress, Mr Nordström and the right-wing districts deleted the election of Deputy Chairman from the agenda.  Thus disappeared Anders Ygeman’s position of power.[3]

Then followed years of electoral fraud, dirty campaigns and infighting where political conflicts resulted in personal battles.  One example was a scandal involving SSU systematically inflating its membership figures for many years.  The factions within the SSU hoped to gain more votes at national congresses and more seats on the board.  After news of the scandal broke (which involved most of the party youth leagues), the SSU had to radically revise its membership figures; in 2003, the SSU claimed it had 30,000 members while by 2006 it reported having only 4,000 paying members.  The controversy over the membership figures was damaging for the SSU chairman of the time, Ardalan Shekarabi (today the Minister for Public Administration), who stepped down as Chairman following criticism for using SSU funds earmarked for an integration project to finance his leadership campaign.[4]

The fighting culminated in the summer of 1999, when Mikael Damberg, from the Stockholm County district, defeated a left-wing candidate, Luciano Astudillo (today political Chief of Staff of the City of Malmö) from the Skåne district, in a tight race.  A deeply divided Congress finally elected Mikael Damberg by a two-vote margin, 126-124.  At the 2001 Congress representatives from the left wing marched out from the congress hall in a silent protest and humiliated the new Chairman, Mikael Damberg, by refusing to participate in elections.  Mr Damberg was re-elected, as no other candidate stood.  Prior to the 2005 Congress, the war had been in progress for ten years and the Social Democratic Party decided to step-in to bring it to an end.  A deal was signed outlining that the right and left factions should share the power.  Anna Sjödin from the right wing district Västerbotten was elected new Chairman and Mattias Vepsä from the left the district of Örebro was elected Secretary.  But when the right wing was forced to share the power with the left, some of the right wing districts were disenfranchised and hence the two factions were divided into three.  The third group was thus right wing, but felt themselves unfairly handled and marginalised.  Geographically they consisted of the districts outside the major cities: Norrbotten, Östergötland, Kalmar and Värmland.  They became known as the Forest Right (Skogshögern).

Prior to the 2007 SSU Congress, Göteborg and most of the west districts joined the Forest Right.  Once again, there were two candidates for the chairmanship: Jytte Guteland from Stockholm County and Laila Naraghi from Kalmar.  The Forest Right backed Laila Naraghi (today political advisor at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs) and Stockholm County backed Jytte Guteland (today MEP).  At an early stage in the campaign, the County gave the left districts an offer of continuing to divide task and appointments. The Forest Right could never match the deal.  Jytte Guteland won the vote 131-115 and was elected Chairman of the SSU.  Ahead of the 2011 Congress, the left faction agreed with the Forest Right to elect Gabriel Wikstöm as Chairman and Ellinor Eriksson as Secretary.  The election never came to a vote because the County candidate stepped down ahead of the Congress.

The large and powerful Stockholm County had long-dominated the SSU, but in the end lost power.  When Ellinor Eriksson and Gabriel Wikström were elected Secretary and Chairman in 2011, the goal was to unite the SSU.  ‘One SSU’ became a mantra that was supposed to permeate everything- no more faction fighting, right-left split and media scandals.  Gabriel Wikström and Ellinor Eriksson deliberately employed staff from outside the SSU; people were brought in from student bodies, Save the Children and Youth against Racism to ensure they did not have loyalties to a particular district or faction.[5]

Mundus Weekly

The 2015 Congress

When Gabriel Wikström was picked for the Löfven cabinet, Ellinor Eriksson became acting Chairman of the SSU.  In early August, the SSU will elect a new Chairman.  Again, there are two candidates and what the leadership insists on calling ‘One SSU’ is in reality various factions looking for influence.  The 2005 agreement is based on the notion that there is a right and a left faction, not two right factions, which are divided internally as nowadays Göteborg has grown to become the dominant force of the Forest Right, arousing discontent.  The Forest Right is backing the candidate of Nominations Committee, Philip Botström, and the Stockholm County (with the support of Blekinge and Uppland) supports Sara Yazdanfar.  At this stage, it looks like the Forest Right will win, once again, and that the power of Stockholm County continues to be broken.

·       Philip Botström is 24 years old.  He was adopted from Colombia as a baby and grew up in Filipstad, but lives today in Göteborg, where he studies Philosophy at the university.  He has been District Chairman, Ombudsman and is a member of the SSU Executive Board since 2013.  He has been described as a classic Social Democrat who speaks much about freedom and equality.

·       Sara Yazdanfar is 25 years old and comes from Solna.  Her parents were political refugees from Iran.  She has previously worked at the Swedish Trade Union Confederation, LO, as communications officer.  Today, she is a member of the SSU Executive Board and works as a political advisor to the Minister for Home Affairs, Anders Ygeman.[6]  She has appeared on several lists of tomorrow’s political leaders.

In terms of policy, Philip Botström does not differ much from Sara Yazdanfar.  They both speak of making the education system more equitable, Philip Botström has a greater focus on investment policy and housing, whereas Sara Yazdanfar places more emphasis on a fair labour market for young people.  Mr Botström’s background, raised in a small rural town, gives him a different profile than Ms Yazdanfar and has coloured his political views: “Having grown up in a town with less than 10,000 inhabitants, I have an experience of reality that is not often portrayed in national media.  I think I will benefit from it.  An overly large metropolitan focus is not great if you are looking to pursue a policy for the whole country”, he said in an interview earlier this year.[7]  Ms Yazdanfar, meanwhile, is emphasising her foreign background: “I think I have the experience that perhaps has been lacking before.  In a time of increasing racism and increased polarisation, I think that it is useful with more opinion makers who have a foreign background”.[8]

The Nominations Committee has also nominated Andrea Törnestam from Stockholm as Secretary.


The SSU has persisted with old bad habits for a long time, which have at times paralysed the organisation. But the Social Democratic Party has also been affected by the continuous infighting.  In the previous Social Democratic government, Lena Hallengren, Ulrica Messing and Ibrahim Baylan had been heavily involved in the SSU battles of the 1990s and today many of the party leadership have deeply-rooted personal conflicts from their time in the SSU.  In an interview, Göran Persson, the former leader of the Social Democratic and Prime Minister, said that one or two generations of SSU members have been in violent confrontation with each other: “I am afraid that this will affect our party very negatively for the next ten, twenty years…”  One of the reasons the SSU is important to the party is that the SSU chairman has a seat on the party’s Executive Committee (Verkställande Utskottet, VU) but the SSU has also been a reliable supplier of officials and cabinet ministers over the years.  Especially the Stockholm County has been a popular recruitment base: Pär Nuder[9] and Mona Sahlin[10] both chaired Stockholm County.  Stefan Löfven’s press officer Odd Guteland, for example, learned politics as ombudsman in the Stockholm County district.  If the Stockholm County loses power for the second time in a row, it will change the recruitment base for the party.  Eventually, therefore, this summer’s election of SSU Chairman will also affect the government.

Note: This is a shortened version of the subscriber version, which also includes footnotes.