Magdalena Andersson has been elected the first female prime minister of Sweden. Again.
Who governs Sweden? The question that puzzled Swedes and foreign observers alike during the past few days has been settled: Magdalena Andersson is prime minister.
Confusingly enough, she was elected already last week, but had to resign only hours after the applause rang out in the Riksdag, after the Green Party decided to leave the government when the red-green coalition failed to secure support for its budget in the chamber.
Sweden’s constitution does not require the prime minister to be positively endorsed by a majority in parliament. Instead, he—now she—only has to secure tolerance from the MPs, and the opposition was one vote short of the necessary 175, in the 349-seat parliament, to deny that.
At 10 o’clock in the morning of November 24th, 100 years after the introduction of universal suffrage for men and women, the glass ceiling finally broke—also in Sweden, young girls can now imagine themselves as prime minister. Four out of five Nordic countries now have a female premier: Sanna Marin in Finland, Mette Frederiksen in Denmark, Katrín Jakobsdóttir in Iceland … and Magdalena Andersson in Sweden.
Andersson was visibly moved when the vote came but she had little time to celebrate. While tolerance is enough to become head of the government, the procedure to pass the state budget is different. Here, the parliamentary rule is that the most well-supported budget proposal passes.
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Before Andersson was even formally installed as prime minister, in the vote on the budget later that day the Centre Party would support only its own proposal, withholding 31 votes decisive for the red-green budget to pass. This followed tough negotiations with the Left Party (27 seats) to secure its support.
Most votes thus accrued to the proposal put forward by three parties on the right. The conservative Moderates (70 seats), the Christian Democrats (22 seats) and the right-wing-nationalist Sweden Democrats (62 seats)—in a more infamous historic first—had agreed a budget. The cordon sanitaire which previously limited the political power of the Sweden Democrats is now definitely broken.
Shortly after Ulf Kristersson was elected leader of the Moderates (a member of the European People’s Party) in 2018, he had promised not to co-operate with, talk to, collaborate with or govern with the Sweden Democrats (‘inte samarbeta, samtala, samverka, samregera’ in Swedish). He still insists the Sweden Democrats will not be offered cabinet positions if the conservative parties win the next general election—but his credibility is now close to zero.
We will not administer a budget that has been negotiated with the Sweden Democrats, the Green Party declared, exiting the coalition government with the Social Democrats. That left Andersson with no option other than to hand in her resignation.
The speaker of parliament was however also left without options: knowing that only Andersson would be tolerated by the parliament, he scheduled a second prime-ministerial vote for Monday. And, for the second time, Andersson was elected.
Afterwards, she announced her three priorities: to fight segregation and violent crime, to create green jobs by speeding up the climate transition and to take back control over welfare. It is certainly an ambitious agenda.
Stefan Löfven’s two governments (2014-18 and subsequently) had also prioritised the fight against crime, passing ‘the largest package of measures to combat gang crime ever’, initiating a ‘historic expansion’ of the Swedish Police Authority (which will grow by 10,000 employees by 2024) and introducing new and stricter penalties. But while Swedes are not more often victims of crime now than during previous decades, organised crime has increased and become a lot deadlier, with daily shootings and explosions terrorising neighbourhoods.
At her first press conference, Andersson announced new legislation to make it easier for the police to gain access to digital evidence on mobile phones and computer discs. To be however tough on the causes of crime as well—to borrow a phrase from the former British Labour leader Tony Blair—Andersson not only needs to address segregation but also change Sweden’s outdated drug policies.
‘Competition’ and ‘choice’
The most daunting task for Andersson will no doubt be to regain control over Sweden’s heavily-privatised welfare system. Once the country with the largest public sector in the west, Sweden now excels in neoliberalism, having introduced market mechanisms in all areas.
During the last 20 years, 100,000 communal flats have been sold, while adult social care is privatised to a large extent. So is primary care—indeed, Sweden is an incubator for ‘net doctors’ making profits by offering digital care to largely healthy people and sending the bill for their ‘medical examinations’ to the taxpayer, draining the system’s resources.
Blind faith in ‘competition’ and ‘freedom of choice’, as the only drivers of efficiency and quality, has also infested education. Swedish schools suffer from a dysfunctional voucher system, in which private companies have been allowed to compete for students with Ipads and grade inflation, turning teachers into service staff, according to the co-ordinator of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).
Instead of knowledge, Swedish schools now produce consumer satisfaction, argues Karin Pettersson, culture editor of Aftonbladet. Instead of social cohesion, the system increases socio-economic and ethnic segregation. It is so profitable that it has become big business for a number of private-equity companies.
There is an urgent need to take back control, indeed.
‘Neoliberalism is dead’
We are at the beginning of social democracy’s ‘second 20s’, Andersson exclaimed when she gave her inaugural speech as social-democrat party leader, in the wake of Löfven’s departure, to its congress a few weeks ago. In the aftermath of universal suffrage, the 1920s had seen the emergence of its defining welfare ideal of the ‘people’s home’.
Neoliberalism is dead, she announced, and this is sweet music to many social democrats. But the party’s relationship with neoliberalism is problematic. Not long ago, the economic historian Elisabeth Lindberg noted, ‘parts of the party welcomed privatised schools, budget discipline and competition’.
Andersson’s agenda is packed. So however is her cv: a degree from the prestigious Stockholm School of Economics, PhD studies at Harvard and the Vienna Institute for Advanced Studies, decades as an impeccable civil servant and a politician at the highest echelons of power, including seven years as minister of finance.
And now: the first female prime minister of Sweden. Twice.
Lisa Pelling is a political scientist and head of the Stockholm-based think tank Arena Idé. She regularly contributes to the daily digital newspaper Dagens Arena and has a background as a political adviser and speechwriter at the Swedish foreign ministry.