It has been eight years since the last time Sweden had a non-socialist prime minister. It has been much longer since a right-of-center prime minister governed with non-socialist intentions.
That is about to change. The new prime minister, Ulf Kristersson, is poised to make a paradigmatic difference. His four-party coalition has produced a 63-page platform, called the Tidö contract after the castle where the coalition leaders were holed up while negotiating it. The contract is ambitious, indeed paradigmatic; if Kristersson can implement it in all aspects, he would change Sweden tangibly and likely permanently.
The Tidö contract is a solidly non-socialist policy document. It is not far-reaching enough to qualify as national-conservative, but it is the first mile marker on a long journey where Swedes can gradually become more and more acquainted with national conservatism.
This gives me hope for my native country.
Kristersson has made a difference already in forming a real non-socialist government. For decades, the Swedish right hunkered in the shadows of the social democrats, who governed the country uninterruptedly from 1932 to 1976. Then came six years where three center-right parties made a pig’s breakfast of everything except emboldening the social-democrat opposition.
In 1984, two years after the social democrats returned to power, former chairman of the conservative moderate party, Gunnar Heckscher, wrote the academic version of a death certificate over Swedish conservatism. His book The Welfare State and Beyond (University of Minnesota Press) reduced the center-right in Swedish politics to prudent administrators of the socialist welfare state.
Since then, two center-right governments have put his ambitions to work. In 1991-1994, Carl Bildt led a center-right government that had few ambitions beyond a fiscal policy that allowed deficits to expand during a deep recession. His parliamentary majority did pass an education reform creating a modest school-choice program, but that was about the extent of the difference they made.
After the ’94 election, the social democrats returned to government. They spent the next 12 years subjecting the economy to statist austerity programs and opening the country to volumes of immigration never seen before. When Fredrik Reinfeldt took over the chairmanship of the moderate party in 2003—the largest right-of-center party at the time—he vowed openly to turn the party into a diet version of the social democrats.
He succeeded. When his center-right alliance won the 2006 election, he simply continued the social-democrat policies in almost every policy area imaginable. He dutifully administered the socialist welfare state and expanded immigration to the point where it was difficult to see the borders of Sweden.
Reinfeldt won re-election in 2010, but his ideological profile consisting of 90% social democracy and 10% water did not prevail in 2014. Led by Stefan Löfvén, the social democrats and their support parties went to work with open-borders immigration and an ironclad commitment to an unending welfare state.
Löfvén governed for seven tenuous years. His fragile coalition stretched from the center party—the closest thing Sweden has to naive libertarians—via the green socialists and Löfvén’s own democratic socialists, all the way to edge-of-sanity ‘reformed’ communists. In November 2021, his coalition broke down and he resigned. His replacement, finance minister Magdalena Andersson, looked poised to lead the social democrats through another election victory.
The center-right opposition was weak and divided. Then the small liberal party replaced its chairwoman, Nyamko Sabuni, with Johan Persson, a traditional European liberal. He pulled his party clear off the ideological fence it was sitting on, and joined the other three non-socialist parties. This became the start of what is now the four-party center-right coalition.
It is an optimistic coalition, led by a reinvigorated moderate party. Ulf Kristersson, their leader, makes no excuses for his ideological home base. He works well with Johan Persson—of the liberals—and with Ebba Busch, the leader of the Christian democrats. Their teamwork is essential to making the new government possible.
However, without question, the biggest reason why Kristersson is now the new prime minister is the impressive rise of the Swedish democrats. In the 2006 election to the Riksdag, they got 2.9% of the votes. In the 2010 election, their 5.7% vote share lifted them over the 4% threshold for parliamentary seats. Their 20-strong caucus (of 349 total seats in the Riksdag) more than doubled in 2014 as they got almost 12.9% and 49 seats.
In 2018 the SD reached another milestone when 17.5% of the voters gave them 62 seats and made them the third-biggest party in Sweden. With 20.5% and 73 Riksdag seats in this election, they are now second only to the social democrats and the biggest party in the center-right coalition.
Based on their size, the SD has unsurprisingly had significant influence on the Tidö agreement for the new government. A long list of reforms will fundamentally change Swedish immigration policies:
1. The police will be given wider authority to perform so-called domestic border checks. This means, simply, checking the visa status of people who are deemed or suspected to be non-citizens, without the police having probable cause to do so.
2. Ramped-up border protection measures to stave off ‘irregular immigration.’ The term is not defined, but the ministry of migration will be asked to produce a white paper on the issue, including proposals for legal reforms to facilitate the new policies.
3. End the statute of limitations on a court decision to expel a person from Sweden. It is well known that many people who have been ordered to leave Sweden remain in the country illegally until the expulsion order has expired.
4. A comprehensive program for re-migration, where all relevant government agencies work together to secure expulsion and increase incentives for voluntary re-migration.
5. All asylum-seeker-related laws and regulations will be adjusted to the absolute minimum permissible under EU law. To further restrict asylum-related migration, the Swedish government will build asylum-related transit centers abroad.
6. An end to immediate permanent residency for new immigrants. The new government will also study the feasibility of replacing existing permanent-residence visas with temporary ones.
7. Changed economic incentives, with limitations of or ending access to family-oriented government entitlement programs. Enhanced requirements for immigrants to show they can support themselves and not be dependent on government programs.
One of the most interesting components in the new government’s migration policy platform is a proposal to introduce so-called moral turpitude as a reason for expulsion. Explains the Tidö agreement:
A person who is staying in Sweden and enjoying Swedish hospitality is obligated to show due respect for fundamental Swedish values and to not exhibit any disrespect to the [Swedish] people. A study shall analyze the conditions for reintroducing the possibility of expelling foreigners based on moral turpitude.
Several examples are listed, loosely defining ‘moral turpitude’ in a way that resembles the definition used by American immigration authorities.
If put to work, these reforms would put Swedish immigration policy on a new route. Given that immigration has been a hot topic in Swedish politics for two decades, and that the official immigration policy of the government thus far has been squarely on the side of generosity, this is definitely a paradigmatic shift in the restrictive direction.
These planned immigration-policy reforms have been widely reported in Swedish media.
What has not been reported, but almost entirely ignored, is the plan to reform key elements of the welfare state. In order to motivate increased workforce participation, the new center-right government plans to establish, as a principle for all welfare-state programs, that no individual can receive as much or more benefits than if they are working.
According to the Tidö agreement, it should be “financially better to go from entitlements to work, to get an education and to assume more responsibilities at work” than to continue to live on the government dole. A reform will create a ‘benefits ceiling’ the effect of which is to prevent any combination of tax-paid benefits from exceeding work-based income.
A cap on benefits will be combined with a universal ‘activity requirement’ for recipients of social benefits, where ‘activity’ is defined as participation in the workforce or ‘socially beneficial activities.’
The idea of a benefits ceiling has been a staple of moderate-party politics for a long time. Their current chairman and leader of the center-right coalition, Ulf Kristersson, has made it a key policy goal for his party for the next four years. His passion for this reform originates partly in his background as deputy mayor of Stockholm with responsibility for social policy; partly in his libertarianism. When chairman of the moderate-party youth league in the 1990s, Kristersson made a name for himself as a fearless proponent of strictly limited government with very few responsibilities beyond its minimal-state duties.
Today, Kristersson is nowhere near the doctrinaire libertarian he once was, but he has retained his philosophical preference for non-socialist policies, for stronger protection of individual freedom, and for a government that is responsible and limited rather than bloated and boundless. At least two of the parties in his coalition, the Christian democrats and the liberals, share this view to a larger or lesser degree.
Ideologically, the Swedish democrats are less inclined to accept fiscally conservative reforms. They are not opposed to them, being center-right as they are, but they do not place the same emphasis on said reforms as primarily the moderate party does. As an example of this difference in priorities, the SD refused to accept one of Kristersson’s main welfare-reform proposals, namely, a cut in unemployment benefits.
Despite the fact that those who are involuntarily without work will continue to receive the same amount of money as before, the overall profile of the welfare-state reforms presented in the Tidö agreement is noticeably conservative. If implemented as intended, these reforms will modify the ideological profile of the Swedish welfare state: its benefits programs will be less of a tool for economic redistribution—the crown jewel of democratic socialism—and more a matter of last-resort protection for people who cannot provide for themselves.
The shift is not decisive enough to end the socialist welfare-state structure in itself, but it is a welcome step toward social conservatism. It points in the same direction as the reform package that the Washington-based Heritage Foundation has developed for the American welfare state.
With all that said, it is important to be realistic about what this new government can do. We should not draw any overly far-reaching conclusions based on what the new Swedish government can accomplish. Their parliamentary majority is so thin that it only takes two members of the Riksdag to change the majority from Right to Left. While unlikely, it is not unheard of that members of the parliament defect from their party affiliations.
There is well-documented skepticism within the liberal party to the formation of a center-right government on the basis of support from the Swedish democrats. If a couple of those skeptics decided that they could no longer go along with, say, SD-branded immigration reforms, the Kristersson government could be in deep trouble.
Party defections, though rare, do happen; the risk is relatively small given that the liberals will have ministers in the new cabinet. Nevertheless, the razor-thin parliamentary majority will force Ulf Kristersson’s government into a delicate balancing act.
His walk down the balance beam will be even more dangerous given that the opposition is led by the social democrats. Their leader, Magdalena Andersson, is the outgoing prime minister who has been in office less than a year. Losing her first election at the helm of the party, Andersson is almost guaranteed to be vengeful and to use all the political tricks in the social-democrat toolbox to derail the Kristersson government.
Kristersson, in turn, is no rookie. He has been in politics for even longer than Andersson has. He is prepared for what may come; the question is if his coalition is strong enough to endure four years of unforgiving opposition.
Let us hope it is.