Last week, voters in Sweden chose to end eight years of conservative rule and replace the incumbent Prime Minister, Fredrik Reinfeldt, with the leader of the Social Democratic Party, Stefan Loefven. In an election with turnout of over 85 percent, the Social Democratic-led left-green group gathered 43.6 per cent of the vote, while the incumbent centre-right alliance garnered just 39.4 percent. In a shock to the Swedish democratic system, neither group won an absolute majority due to the unprecedented performance of the populist anti-immigration party, Sweden Democrats, who won 13 percent.
Loefven is a relative new comer to national politics, and will have to muster all of his newly homed skills in what promises to be difficult process of forming the government. A welder by trade, and former leader of IF Metal — the Swedish Metal Workers’ Union — Loefven became leader of the social democratic party just two short years ago. Since then, his ability to revive the social democratic brand and rebuild trust with Swedish voters has served both him and his party well.
Loefven has also actively engaged in dialogues with progressive leaders in Europe and North America, participating in the Center for American Progress’s Global Progress summits in Copenhagen and Amsterdam, as well as gatherings in DC. He is, then, part of a vanguard of new social democratic leaders— a group that includes Prime Ministers Matteo Renzi of Italy and Manuel Valls of France — who build on the pragmatism and professionalism of the third way politics of the 1990s, adapting this philosophy to the challenges of the 21st century.
Sweden’s next Prime Minister spoke with me via phone and email to share his views on the challenges facing his new government and his vision for how best to meet them. His answers have been edited for clarity and grammar.
The US and NATO are working together to build a broader partnership to respond to the recent aggression of Russia and Europe’s Eastern border and the threats to our security posed by the Islamic State. Prior to the election the Swedish government had suggested it was ready to collaborate more closely with NATO. Is this a policy you envisage continuing? If so, what role could Sweden play?
A good transatlantic cooperation is of utmost importance to increase security as well as creating more jobs. We support a stronger cooperation with NATO. It strengthens our defense capability and enhances our ability to give and receive military support. But Sweden will remain military non-aligned.
We have stressed that the increasingly aggressive Russian behavior towards its neighbors is unacceptable and the violation of the territory integrity of Ukraine must stop. We support the united position and restrictive actions that the European Union has taken. The EU must stay united and offer Ukraine a long term membership perspective.
The Islamic State must be stopped. We support the military actions and support given to stop IS. However, only the UN can give an international operation the legitimacy of the operations which is required. Sweden will continue to give humanitarian aid to the region too, and we are on of the biggest donors in the world.
For many outsiders, Sweden seemed to fare better than most European nations during the 2008 economic crisis, and to have recovered quicker too. Is this a fair analysis? How do you explain the desire for change on the part of the Swedish electorate?
Sweden has one of the world’s most rigorous public finances frameworks. It was put in place by the Social Democratic governments of the 1990s, so I believe voters shared credit for the fiscal stability with us and the government. Moreover, deficits have actually grown over the last two years, due to un-financed tax cuts, and unemployment is stuck at persistently high levels.
Overall, however, the desire for change was not rooted in economics; it sprung out of the insights that massive tax cuts had eroded the social model. PISA — the [Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)] education study — showed that Swedish schools were dramatically underperforming. Health care was also falling in international comparisons, and a growing number of people started to work part time because they didn’t trust the elderly care. That was the root for change.
There has been much talk in the international media about a supposed crisis of the Scandinavian and Nordic social model. What do you regard as the most important challenges facing this model, and how do you plan to overcome them?
The Swedish voters sent a clear message that the dismantling of the Scandinavian model has already gone too far in Sweden. I think the model needs constant modernization, but as a model, it is more vital than ever. As globalization develops and concentration of resources increases, an efficient system to redistribute income, and more importantly to redistribute opportunity, will be both a moral imperative and increase efficiency in society.
We cannot afford not to empower every child with the knowledge, education and skills they will need in tomorrow’s labor market. We must ensure that all people, regardless of gender, background or class can use their full potential. Similarly, we have to make sure falling ill or losing your job — because of growing international competition — does not devastate your personal economy or life chances.
So, the crisis is in reality that right wing politicians have prioritized tax cuts rather than to provide sufficient resources for the essential public services people need to get ahead. Looking forward, the largest challenges in the short run are to ensure we incentivize work, balanced with high quality social insurance, and to make public services constantly more efficient. In the long run, the challenge is to finance the public sector despite the demographic development. Public services need constantly to become more efficient and more customer oriented.
The Swedish Democrats, like other right-wing populists across Europe, have done better than expected in recent elections, and seem increasingly popular with young voters. How do you explain the rise of populism, and how can it be tackled?
The rise comes hand-in-hand with increasing inequalities, decreasing school results, worsening quality of social services and increasing unemployment. So in essence, the increasing support of the Swedish Democrats is not a result of growing racism or even wide spread xenophobia, but rather a result of wider and wider gaps in society.
Today, there are enormous gaps between the haves and have nots, between rural areas and urban life, between old and young, between men and women. Simply put, these gaps are between one group of people that are well-off and equipped with the skills and self-esteem required to feel included and have hope, and on the other hand, a large group that increasingly feel left behind, excluded from the elites and powers that affect their lives.
In essence, a society can handle many and large inequalities. But when hope becomes the divider of groups, you will have problems. Then, anti-establishment sentiments grow, and the simple solutions become tempting for many. My government will work to provide hope and opportunity to all these groups.
Matt Browne is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, where he runs the Global Progress program.