The Come­back of the Swedish Center Party – an Eco-Liberal Story of Hope for Europe?

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Sandra Detzer und Sebas­t­ian Schaf­fer of the German Greens travel to Sweden where the right-wing-pop­ulist “Sweden Democ­rats” could win the elec­tion in Sep­tem­ber. But where danger is, rescue also grows: A tra­di­tional and almost for­got­ten farmer’s party posi­tions itself as an eco-liberal antag­o­nist to the nation­al­ists. What can green parties all over Europe learn from the “Cen­ter­par­tiet”?

Swedish elec­tion polls are not pretty these days. Little good can be expected from the general elec­tion sched­uled for Sep­tem­ber in the country up North. The right-wing pop­ulist Sweden Democ­rats are polled at above 20 per cent. With its roots in the white supremacy move­ment, this party is com­pet­ing with the once hege­monic Swedish Social Democ­rats for first place. The polit­i­cal climate has been poi­soned since the refugee crisis of 2015. The first syl­la­ble of ‘Folkhem­met’ (the people’s home) is being empha­sized more and more with a threat­en­ing under­cur­rent.

Enough already!

The event ‘Almedalen week’ in July is a reli­able seis­mo­graph for the polit­i­cal vibe during the elec­tion cam­paign. In Almedalen, a park in the small city of Visby, on the Baltic island Gotland, every year Swedish polit­i­cal VIPs meet with social organ­i­sa­tions and civil society. This cul­mi­nates in keynote speeches by party leaders. Beefy and burly Social Demo­c­ra­tic Prime Min­is­ter Stefan Löfven shows up as well as his coali­tion partner Isabella Lövin of the lan­guish­ing Green Party and Jonas Sjöst­edt of the Left party. The right-wing pop­ulists gather round their party chair­man, slick media star Jimmie Åkesson – with his favourite-son-in-law smile under well gelled hair. The spear­head of the centre-right oppo­si­tion is staid Ulf Kris­ters­son, chair­man of the Con­ser­v­a­tive Mod­er­ates with stable, though some­what modest poll results. His partner from the Liberal Party, Jan Björk­lund, is stuck in a per­sis­tent polling hole. This is even more true for his young col­league Ebba Busch Thor of the Chris­t­ian Democ­rats who are cur­rently esti­mated at well below the 4% block­ing clause.

The fourth in the centre-right fed­er­a­tion is Annie Lööf of the eco­log­i­cal-liberal “Cen­ter­par­tiet”. Wednes­day is the day that she presents her party in Almedalen. When Lööf enters the stage in lovely summer weather and a crème-coloured pant suit, almost 4000 people have gath­ered to listen to her. With her long red hair the 35-year-old looks like Pippi Long­stock­ings suc­cess­fully pur­su­ing a McK­in­sey career. She is one of the most popular politi­cians in the country. Not, however, on the far right.

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“Twi­light is break­ing over Sweden.” Lööf allows her first sen­tence to linger. Then she describes an early evening scene of happily dancing young people in a Jewish com­mu­nity centre, and how the party abruptly ends when neo Nazis throw petrol bombs against the build­ing. As she is talking, unrest erupts at the back of the crowd. A right-wing mob, ready to use vio­lence roar “National traitor!” Annie Lööf pauses for a moment before she coun­ters with a char­ac­ter­is­tic liberal response: “That’s the Nazis of the Nordic Resis­tance Move­ment yelling in the back there. Let’s listen to them for a moment.” After a short break she goes on: “Ok, we’ve heard them.”

While the neo Nazis keep clam­our­ing, she talks about a Swedish reality where Jewish schools have to be kept secure by barbed wire and secu­rity per­son­nel and syn­a­gogues need bullet-proof windows. A Swedish reality where Jews don’t dare to admit they’re Jewish anymore. She addresses the pro­test­ers directly and says: “I have some ques­tions for you, you anti-semites, racists, islamists and bru­tal­ized Nazis: Are you happy now? Are you proud of your­selves? Is this the kind of society you want?” Turning to her fol­low­ers, she adds: “Sweden must never be ruled by hatred. Common decency demands of us that we stand up and say clearly: Enough already!” The right-wing mob rages, the audi­ence enthu­si­as­ti­cally jumps up off their seats. Sweden in the summer of 2018.

A Party of Farmers and Hip­sters

Swedish democ­racy is not in a good shape. But Annie Lööf and her party are, very much so. The Center Party is the only party of the oppo­si­tional centre-right block that can expect exten­sive gains in the impor­tant elec­tion in Sep­tem­ber. Poll­sters see them at around 10% which would be their best result in 30 years. Lööf, a lawyer and mother from South­ern Swedish Småland, has managed to install her party as the liberal oppo­site to the right-wing pop­ulists. When the red /​green gov­ern­ment coali­tion closed the borders to refugees in 2015, Lööf was pas­sion­ately opposed. She was pretty much alone with her posi­tion. In 2017, she pulled out of the centre-right block and cat­e­gor­i­cally ruled out any coop­er­a­tion with the “oppo­nents of human dignity”. Leading up to this, the Mod­er­ates had flirted with the pos­si­bil­ity of a minor­ity gov­ern­ment tol­er­ated by the Sweden Democ­rats. And in 2018 the Center Party drew the anger of their centre-right part­ners once again when, fol­low­ing a highly con­tro­ver­sial debate, they voted for a statu­tory set­tle­ment of the right to remain for 9000 young Afghans along with the red/​green coali­tion.

All this has made Annie Lööf the voice of the enlight­ened Swedish middle class. And Annie Lööf is hip. Star­blog­ger Bianca Ingrosso tells her young fans in her podcast that she will vote for the Center Party in Sep­tem­ber. Stock­holm sub­ur­bia rapper Erik Lundin released a song titled “Annie Lööf” that every Swedish teenager can sing along. All of this is sur­pris­ing given that the Center Party directly emerged from Sweden’s farmers’ union. The party used to be known for speak­ers climb­ing onto hay bales and TV-spots fea­tur­ing singing and dancing potato-figures.

As a liberal party with envi­ron­men­tal ori­en­ta­tion it has no coun­ter­part in the German party system. Its orga­ni­za­tion is also uncom­mon. The Center Party gained just over 6% in the last elec­tion, but it has a large member base of 40,000. Relat­ing this number to the size of the pop­u­la­tion it com­putes as about five times the mem­ber­ship of the liberal FDP or the Green Party in Germany. The Center Party’s women’s asso­ci­a­tion is the largest women’s asso­ci­a­tion in the whole country. Accord­ingly, the party has the biggest pro­por­tion of female elected offi­cials com­pared to all other parties. Its youth orga­ni­za­tion hosts big summer camps rem­i­nis­cent of scout camps. And through the sale of an editing house the party is loaded – its net worth totals about a quarter billion Euro.

The Green Wave from the Middle

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You cannot under­stand the “Cen­ter­par­tiet” phe­nom­e­non without relat­ing it to Swedish topog­ra­phy and history. Because Sweden is vast and sparsely pop­u­lated, rural areas have always been worried about being over­looked and ignored. The social ques­tion has always also been a regional ques­tion. The million Swedes that emi­grated to the United States around the turn of the century 1800/​1900 were first and fore­most the starv­ing rural pop­u­la­tion. Rural Sweden is by neces­sity exten­sively expe­ri­enced in orga­niz­ing social life where few people live. Often this is done by vol­un­teers. Sweden is the country of book busses, amateur theatre groups, adult learn­ing centres and folk music groups. This is the ground that the Center Party grew from.

For many decades the Center Party members of par­lia­ment were easy to dis­tin­guish from their col­leagues. They were the ones with soil under their fin­ger­nails – like long-term chair­man Thor­b­jörn Fälldin, farmer from Central Swedish Ånger­man­land. He would give inter­views in the slow and calm Nor­rland dialect, stand­ing in his fields, hunting knife on his belt, hands in his pockets, pipe in his mouth. Fälldin may have appeared to be unwieldy and polit­i­cally inept, but he had a modern vision for his party. In the late 1960s, earlier than most, he real­ized the growing impor­tance of the eco­log­i­cal ques­tion and the pro­found social change and, hence, the rural exodus of young people and growth of the cities. While the ‘Green Wave’ in the 70s in most Euro­pean coun­tries was started to a large extent by left forces, in Sweden it was driven by the rural, bour­geois milieu – by the Center Party to be concise. Fälldin devised a robust anti-nuclear track for the Center Party as early as the early 1970s which remained its trade­mark for decades.

Fälldin’s dream was that of a big party that could host every­body in the liberal middle. He led his party to major elec­toral suc­cesses in the 70s, with its special brew of envi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion, eco­nomic lib­er­al­ism, tax cuts and polit­i­cal de-cen­tral­ity. With elec­toral results of up to 25% he became the leader of the bour­geois camp and Olof Palme’s direct oppo­nent. Upper-class man Palme liked to treat Fälldin with gentle mockery – until Fälldin forced him out of office. To this day, Thor­b­jörn Fälldin is the only prime min­is­ter of the Center Party ever. He headed several centre-right major­ity and minor­ity gov­ern­ments. All of them fell apart, however, at some point or another, hope­lessly divided over the ques­tion of nuclear power.

The Stealthy Decline of the Old Cen­ter­par­tiet

The decline of the Center Party started in the 80s and 90s. The centre-right coali­tion was replaced by the Social Democ­rats, the Center Party ushered Fälldin out and lost every new party chair­men in rapid suc­ces­sion, along with more and more votes. The party lacked a clear polit­i­cal message.  In 2001, Maud Olof­s­son took over the chair. Olof­s­son, a farmer’s daugh­ter from a staunch Center Party-family gave the party a taut liberal eco­nomic direc­tion. Her main project was to unify the four bour­geois parties in a tight new elec­toral alliance, the so-called ‘Allians för Sverige’. In 2006, this four­some achieved the leap to power. Maud Olof­s­son became min­is­ter for eco­nomic affairs – and dis­tin­guished herself as a sort of free-market liberal gov­erness of the nation. To ensure the alliance’s success, she com­pro­mised on tra­di­tional key issues of the Center Party. In the end the party even soft­ened on its tra­di­tional anti-nuclear posi­tion.

This strat­egy con­vinced fewer and fewer voters, however. When Maud Olof­s­son handed over the party chair in 2011 she left a dif­fi­cult job for her suc­ces­sor. Among the appli­cants for the job of chair, the party chose 28-year-old Annie Lööf in a primary elec­tion. Model student Annie Lööf had been elected member of par­lia­ment when she was only 22 which made her the youngest member of par­lia­ment by that time. She had gained a rep­u­ta­tion as spokesper­son for legal and domes­tic policy. She, too, brought the nec­es­sary pedi­gree – lit­er­ally – since she comes from an old farming family, and her father is a long-stand­ing Center Party-func­tionary. Now, sud­denly, she was the youngest party chair as well as the youngest min­is­ter in the history of the party. She assumed respon­si­bil­ity for a party that was given the lowest degree of cred­i­bil­ity of all parties. Seven years later and it has the highest cred­i­bil­ity – an aston­ish­ing feat.

Portrait von Sebastian Schaffer

Sebas­t­ian Schaf­fer is a deputy press sec­re­tary of the local gov­ern­ment of the city-state Hamburg

Portrait von Sandra Detzer

Sandra Detzer is chair­man of the Green party in the state of Baden-Würt­tem­berg

The Painful Birth of the New Party Man­i­festo

In fact, at first Annie Lööf was not syn­ony­mous with a clear polit­i­cal change of course. As her favourite author she named radical-cap­i­tal­ist phi­los­o­phy siren Ayn Rand, as her polit­i­cal role model Mar­garet Thatcher. Still, Lööf polit­i­cally embod­ied a change of gen­er­a­tion and style. Lead by its new chair the unset­tled party set out to write a new party man­i­festo. A com­mis­sion inde­pen­dent of the party exec­u­tive was set up to collect ideas and sug­ges­tions from members and sym­pa­thiz­ers in a broad par­tic­i­pa­tion process. This pro­ce­dure failed mis­er­ably. An influ­en­tial group of neolib­eral intel­lec­tu­als from the worlds of busi­ness, culture and pol­i­tics assumed the lead, calling them­selves ‘Sture­plan­cen­tern’, named after a big square in Stock­holm. It was their goal to turn the Center Party into the ‘most liberal party of Sweden’. The paper sub­mit­ted by the com­mis­sion in January 2013 was com­pletely shaped by this idea. It con­tained the annul­ment of com­pul­sory edu­ca­tion as well as the abo­li­tion of any immi­gra­tion restric­tions and the intro­duc­tion of polygamy. The elec­torate threw their hands up in horror.

Lööf was on a belated hon­ey­moon in Thai­land at the time, fol­low­ing the public debate on her smart­phone in horror, too. She cut her holiday short and returned to Stock­holm. In a press con­fer­ence she with­drew all crude sug­ges­tions and announced that there would be a thor­ough revi­sion. The winter of 2013 thereby marked the birth of Annie Lööf as a res­olute crisis manager. While Lööf was touring through the nation’s TV studios, trying to clean up the mess, she instructed her polit­i­cal con­fi­dant Martin Ådahl to revise the first draft of the man­i­festo. Looking back, the deputy party sec­re­tary Ådahl thinks that the crisis had a strength­en­ing effect: “The con­tro­versy around the first pro­posed version of the program led to a vast soul-search­ing activ­ity in the entire party that in the end crys­tallised a new form of green lib­er­al­ism. I had to travel up and down Sweden to make the whole party come together, and it did. We notably con­fronted very tough issues about borders, migra­tion, open­ness. The con­clu­sions and the coming together of our party strength­ened us ahead of the migra­tion sit­u­a­tion of 2015 so that we did not waver — not even any local part of our party.”

A few weeks later, a man­i­festo enti­tled ‘A Sus­tain­able Future’ was pre­sented at the party con­ven­tion – a man­i­festo that to this day com­mands respect beyond Swedish borders. This is the genuine and rare attempt to combine lib­er­al­ism and sus­tain­abil­ity in a party pro­gramme. The pre­am­ble states: “Cen­ter­par­ti­ets lib­er­al­ism is social, decen­tralised and green. It is earthy and free-minded. It is based on justice and sus­tain­abil­ity. It views society as a com­mu­nity where every­body is needed and that can achieve much more together than the state alone could ever do.”

“For Us Sus­tain­abil­ity Is a Ques­tion of Freedom”

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In her leader’s speech, Annie Lööf drew the long lines of tra­di­tion of the 100 year old party. From the protest of Swedish farmers against nation­al­iza­tion and monop­o­lies to the countrywomen’s move­ment with its deci­sive impulses for the cause of gender equal­ity. From the strug­gle for com­pul­sory edu­ca­tion for the rural pop­u­la­tion to the first inte­gral envi­ron­men­tal pro­gramme in Swedish pol­i­tics in the late 1960s. Lööf con­jured up the deeply pro-Euro­pean and immi­gra­tion-friendly basic approach of her party and from all this con­structed her under­stand­ing of a modern eco­log­i­cal lib­er­al­ism. She high­lighted two goals of Center Party pol­i­tics. One, new jobs and in con­junc­tion the inte­gra­tion of immi­grants, young people, and the long-term unem­ployed into the labour market. Her second goal was climate pro­tec­tion and sus­tain­abil­ity through tech­ni­cal inno­va­tion and a free-market-frame­work. Another central point for her was to support company start-ups and cre­at­ing favourable general con­di­tions for exist­ing com­pa­nies. Fur­ther­more, all polit­i­cal action had to be con­cerned with both urban and rural areas.

On this basis, Lööf managed to describe a spe­cific polit­i­cal profile. All of it had been thought before, but she con­nected exist­ing liberal and green policy approaches in a new way. True, she addressed the same topics as Social Democ­rats and the Green Party, but she com­bined them with clas­si­cal eco­nomic liberal stip­u­la­tions. She talked about an ‘inclu­sive job market’, but for her this included a relax­ation of the rigid dis­missal pro­tec­tion laws, low­er­ing the employer con­tri­bu­tion to sick pay, and a company tax cut.

Central to her con­sid­er­a­tions was the term ‘green growth’. Lööf talked about her visit to a slum in Delhi and her meet­ings with women who were living in card­board boxes with their chil­dren, not knowing how to feed them. In a place where more than a billion people live in poverty you simply cannot pitch ecology against eco­nomic growth, she con­cluded. The central chal­lenge is to create growth through ecology. To further such green growth support for entre­pre­neur­ship is nec­es­sary to give people the chance to make their way out of poverty. At the same time, free entre­pre­neur­ship is nec­es­sary to develop green tech­nolo­gies that can fight the con­se­quences of pol­lu­tion and climate change. “For us, sus­tain­abil­ity is a ques­tion of freedom,” she said. “Anti-growth poli­cies do not deserve the name envi­ron­men­tal poli­cies.”

There is a useful method of party research to visu­al­ize this highly unusual pro­gram­matic renewal of the Center Party over the last years. A group of Euro­pean polit­i­cal sci­en­tists devel­oped the GAL/​TAN scale. It adds a second dimen­sion to the clas­si­cal left/​right axis char­ac­ter­ized by fiscal and eco­nomic policy: TAN stands for ‘tra­di­tional, author­i­tar­ian, nation­al­is­tic’; GAL for ‘green, alter­na­tive, lib­er­tar­ian’. This method dis­played a sur­pris­ing finding for the Center Party. With its pref­er­ence for a lean state and its scep­ti­cism towards social redis­tri­b­u­tion, the party under Lööf remains firmly rooted centre right. On the GAL/TAN-scale, that enquires after values such as ecology, immi­gra­tion and cul­tural diver­sity the party has accom­plished a breath-taking change. Imagine Mar­garet Thatcher and Claudia Roth having to agree on a common party. Thatcher gets to imple­ment eco­nomic poli­cies, Roth civil right poli­cies, and it has to fit together.

“The Greens Think We’re Not Really Green, And The Lib­er­als Think We’re Not Really Liberal.”

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We are meeting member of par­lia­ment Emil Käll­ström in the Swedish par­lia­men­tary build­ing. Nat­u­rally, 31-year-old Käll­ström comes from a farming family. He is deeply anchored in the Sweden of dark-red wooden houses, rubber boots and elec­tri­cal saws. At the same time, he could just as well sit in a trendy Stock­holm coffee house or be dis­played on an H&M poster.

Käll­ström is the spokesman for eco­nomic poli­cies of his caucus and orga­nizes Center Party’s main front against the Social Demo­c­ra­tic minor­ity gov­ern­ment. He wants more freedom of choice in the health and care sector. If given a choice he would opt for a bigger low-wage sector rather than a five times bigger unem­ploy­ment rate among immi­grants. Eco­nomic policy remains the most impor­tant battle field of his party. This is where it scores the highest com­pe­tency values next to envi­ron­men­tal policy. Sweden’s busi­ness com­mu­nity even con­sider it the most com­pe­tent. And Käll­ström wants it to stay that way.

When asked how the Center Party managed to work its way out of the crisis, he explains that first it was nec­es­sary to sta­bi­lize the core com­pe­tences. They had to again be per­ceived as a strong voice for rural areas and their con­cerns. The central moti­va­tion for rural voters was the pos­si­bil­ity to live a good life any­where in the country, which means good public trans­porta­tion, good health care and the option to be an entre­pre­neur. But strate­gi­cally the goal of the party was to branch out from there. Annie Lööf has not given a single speech in the last few years that didn’t also talk about support for private enter­prise. But sup­port­ing busi­ness start-ups and small busi­nesses is being cor­re­lated with other impor­tant goals like inte­gra­tion or envi­ron­men­tal policy. Only entre­pre­neurs can gen­er­ate jobs for immi­grants. Only entre­pre­neurs develop envi­ron­men­tal-friendly tech­nolo­gies for mobil­ity or energy pro­duc­tion.

When we tell him that Germans find his party dif­fi­cult to com­pre­hend he smiles and explains that the same is true for many Swedes. Here, too, the Center Party is con­sid­ered an enigma: “The Greens think we’re not really green, and the Lib­er­als think we’re not really liberal.” There were moments, back in the severe crisis, when he doubted that the party would survive. Back then, he won­dered whether maybe there simply was no place for a party that wanted to be both liberal and eco­log­i­cal. Maybe if you felt green you simply had to join the Green Party. And if your pol­i­tics were liberal you had to join the Liberal Party. But Käll­ström sums up: “I just didn’t want to have to decide. I am a liberal. I favour more over less choice and lower over higher taxes. Basi­cally I support a raise of the excise tax for eco­log­i­cal reasons, but I will imme­di­ately ask how finan­cial alle­vi­a­tion for the cit­i­zens is orga­nized in return. In the same vein, I am a staunch sup­porter of sus­tain­abil­ity. There is no freedom if we don’t get a grip on climate change and keep destroy­ing our natural resources: It goes hand in hand.” Of course, he con­tin­ues, in prac­tice it is not always easy to join the two. You have to recal­i­brate every day. But that, he says, is exactly what makes the Center Party so rel­e­vant: that they con­front this issue. Unlike the Lib­er­als. Unlike the Greens.

“We Were Becom­ing Like the Others”

The resur­gence of the Center Party cannot be recounted without taking a look at the simul­ta­ne­ous decline of the Swedish Green Party. In Sweden they call them­selves Miljöpartiet/​De Gröna (Envi­ron­men­tal Party/​The Greens), MP for short. They are cur­rently in a red/​green minor­ity coali­tion. Beyond the hyphen­ated name they have a lot of polit­i­cal posi­tions in common with the German Green Party. But unlike its German sister party the MP is in a deep crisis. In a coffee shop in the fash­ion­able Söder­malm dis­trict we meet Maggie Ström­berg, polit­i­cal jour­nal­ist for Public Swedish Radio and expert on the Greens. Right where we are now, the Swedish Green Party cel­e­brated major gains a few years back. In the local elec­tions in 2014, in some polling sta­tions on Söder­malm the Green Party was the strongest force. Today, they floun­der at 4% in the polling death zone. For half of the precincts, the MP can’t find can­di­dates anymore, several members of par­lia­ment have left the par­lia­men­tary caucus. In Stock­holm, which used to be the party’s strong­hold, some polling agen­cies now report approval rates lower even than the national average. How could this have hap­pened?

Maggie Ström­berg has analysed the ascent and crisis of the Greens in a book called “We Became Like the Others”. For many years, the Greens were working towards par­tic­i­pa­tion in gov­ern­ment, she explains. To this end, they over­came their tra­di­tional crit­i­cal atti­tude towards the EU; their crit­i­cism of growth became more mod­er­ate; their staging more appeal­ing. When, after a pretty much bungled elec­tion cam­paign, they took the plunge in 2014 to join the red-green minor­ity gov­ern­ment, strangely the party seemed unpre­pared. While they had planned every step towards becom­ing part of the gov­ern­ment minutely, it seemed like they had for­got­ten to con­sider the bal­anc­ing act between green ideals and prac­ti­cal gov­ern­men­tal respon­si­bil­ity. Along came the refugee crisis of 2015. The German Greens were allowed to cau­tiously approach the new reality from behind the cover of the oppo­si­tion, but the Swedish Greens were right there in the eye of the storm. They crum­bled under the impact of events and the massive pres­sure by their Social Demo­c­ra­tic coali­tion partner. Exe­cut­ing a sharp u‑turn, they bat­tened down the hatches and closed borders for asylum seekers. As Green party chair Åsa Romson tried to explain the drastic policy change of her party in a press con­fer­ence, her voice broke and her eyes welled up. The Green Party has not recu­per­ated from the rever­sal of their stance on refugee poli­cies to this day. It has become the butt of many satir­i­cal jokes. “Do you know what the chair of the right-wing pop­ulist Sweden Democ­rats starts his speeches with?” Maggie Ström­berg asks. And answers herself: “He says one word: Miljö­par­tiet. Then he takes a dra­matic pause – and the crowd hoots deri­sively.”

Espe­cially in this urban strong­hold the Green loss of cred­i­bil­ity feels nuclear. Which way do green voters fall, we ask. Some migrate to the left or to the Social Democ­rats, but a large portion switches over to the Center Party, Ström­berg thinks. Swedish mil­len­ni­als grew up under a centre-right gov­ern­ment and lack ide­ol­ogy. This makes leaping from bright green across polit­i­cal camp borders to dark green easy for many. Espe­cially, since the Center Party with its clear stance on pro-Euro­pean and pro-immi­gra­tion issues is emi­nently eli­gi­ble in an urban milieu. In the last local elec­tion in this area, the Center Party barely obtained 4% of the votes. Stock­holm used to be their Achilles heel. Now, they poll at 10% or more. “Today, Cen­ter­par­tiet is con­sid­ered to be the more con­ge­nial green urban party by many,” says Ström­berg.

No matter how you look at it, the crisis of the ‘real’ Swedish Greens is not devoid of a certain tragedy. Espe­cially in their core topic envi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion they actu­ally have some note­wor­thy suc­cesses to show. The rela­tion­ship between Miljö­par­tiet and Cen­ter­par­tiet is con­sid­ered to be strained. Still, there are a couple of impor­tant ques­tions where the two act in concert. Both of them stress the impor­tance of expanded high speed rail links to reduce air and car traffic emis­sions. Both of them fought suc­cess­fully for the abol­ish­ment of uranium mining in Sweden and the expan­sion of wind energy. There are only few policy dif­fer­ences con­cern­ing a ban on microplas­tics or restric­tions on inner-city car traffic. Never forget, however, that the Center Party is a party of farming and forest indus­try. Where their sup­port­ers are affected they get as hard as nails. And good luck to anyone who thinks they can con­vince the dark green party to agree on a ban on hunting wolves.

Between Green Worlds

One of the people who know most about the con­nec­tions between Cen­ter­par­tiet and Miljö­par­tiet is Mattias Gold­mann. The former head of com­mu­ni­ca­tions for the Swedish Greens is now manager of the eco-liberal think tank FORES (short for Forum for Reforms, Entre­pre­neur­ship and Sus­tain­abil­ity). Gold­mann is a bustling inter­na­tion­ally sought-after speaker, climate pro­tec­tion being the issue that has shaped his life. We meet him in the tra­di­tional Stock­holm restau­rant ‘Pelikan’.

FORES is a non-par­ti­san think tank and coun­sels all parties and busi­nesses on eco­log­i­cal issues. FORES sub­scribes equally to the prin­ci­ples of sus­tain­abil­ity and lib­er­al­ism. Sounds like Center Party, doesn’t it, and in fact there’s a lot of Center Party in it. Even though the claim of non-par­ti­san­ship seems earnest, since its incep­tion, most of its money has come from Annie Lööf’s party.

Coming from a green back­ground, Gold­mann used to be some­what sus­pi­cious of Center Party, he admits. Still, of course, he felt obliged in his new func­tion to make the occa­sional cour­tesy call on his spon­sors. “I went to one of those typical Center-assem­blies in the country once. Some of the people there wore tra­di­tional costume, and then, adding insult to injury, they sang Swedish folk­songs. I hate Swedish folk­songs.” Then he entered into a con­ver­sa­tion with one of those typical ‘Center-Moms’. This was 2015, the phase of the big refugee move­ment. He asked how they managed having to inte­grate so many refugees. And she said: “The way we have always dealt with chal­lenges. We knuckle down and tackle the problem. They’ll get used to us. We really can use more people in the country.” This evoked a new respect for the inner decency of this party, Gold­mann says. The Center Party may seem like an impen­e­tra­ble cosmos from the outside, but it is not fake. It’s honest. He is con­vinced of that.

Isn’t Impa­tience the Ecologist’s First Oblig­a­tion?

Here’s an issue that com­pletely divides the Center Party and the Greens: air traffic. Within ten years, Swedish air traffic has doubled. This is one of the main reasons that the CO2-emis­sions are going up instead of down. No serious eco­log­i­cal party can let that stand. The Greens in gov­ern­ment have there­fore intro­duced a ticket toll that adds a mod­er­ate sur­charge on domes­tic flights, and a pretty notice­able one on inter­con­ti­nen­tal flights. The Center Party resists furi­ously against this toll and promises to revoke it after the elec­tions. In the land of long dis­tances, domes­tic flights are of major impor­tance for the acces­si­bil­ity of remote rural areas. And, as we have learned, these areas are of great impor­tance for the Center Party.

Instead of the ticket toll, Annie Lööf sug­gests to stip­u­late that grad­u­ally an oblig­a­tory share of bio jet fuel and syn­thetic fuels has to be in every tank of every air­craft that starts or lands in Sweden. To this end, she wants to enhance the means for research of alter­na­tive fuels con­sid­er­ably. But do these fuels exist in mar­ketable amounts, we ask? Very much so, Gold­mann answers. For instance, AltAir from Cal­i­for­nia sup­plies bio­fu­els for many inter­na­tional air­lines. The public company Swe­davia which owns all rel­e­vant Swedish air­ports set the target of a fossil free domes­tic avi­a­tion in 2030, and this is based on real­is­tic cal­cu­la­tions much like the goal of carbon neutral air­ports which they are reach­ing this year already. The Swedish airline SAS has just opened a jet bio­fu­els plant together with the oil company Preem. There are more exam­ples, Gold­mann explains. “Still, there is one fact that Cen­ter­par­tiet misses out. If they are afraid that more expen­sive flying will hurt the coun­try­side, they should mention that bio­fu­els are at least three times more expen­sive than con­ven­tional jet fuel. So any mean­ing­ful blend­ing rate will make flying more expen­sive, too. This can par­tially be offset through cheaper landing fees for bio-flights, but I still don’t see how avi­a­tion will not become more costly.” Bio­fu­els can con­tribute to lower emis­sions for some time. But the real future is elec­tric: “Nor­we­gian AviNor, respon­si­ble for all air­ports in Norway, has set the target of 100% elec­tric domes­tic avi­a­tion by 2040. Can’t be done, say the experts. But Boeing, Airbus and others are now invest­ing heavily in elec­tric avi­a­tion.”

Accord­ing to Mattias Gold­mann, first studies show that the ticket toll fulfils neither the hopes of the Greens, nor the mis­giv­ings of the Center Party. Swedes con­tinue flying much like before. The con­flict, however, illus­trates the dif­fer­ent approaches of the two green parties. As soon as eco­log­i­cal poli­cies reach a level of dis­com­fort or address indi­vid­ual con­sump­tion directly, the Center Party turns into an unre­li­able ally. Fre­quently and readily they then like to point at inter­na­tional con­texts: how would a Swedish ticket toll influ­ence growing air traffic rates in Asia or Africa? Only a forced addi­tion of bio fuels would capture air­craft from other coun­tries. There are similar pat­terns to be found in other con­texts: what good would a higher tax on pes­ti­cides do other than oust agri­cul­tural pro­duc­tion to Eastern Europe where pes­ti­cide use is much more preva­lent? While these argu­ments may be true, they become cheap without prac­ti­cal alter­na­tives in sight.

The Center Party’s favourite rea­son­ing in cases like this is tech­no­log­i­cal progress. And even if this were viable – can world climate wait any longer? Is pro­tect­ing the envi­ron­ment really pos­si­ble without lim­it­ing con­sump­tion? Isn’t impa­tience the ecologist’s first oblig­a­tion? Yes, Gold­mann says. But he points out that eco­log­i­cal enforce­ment strate­gies always have to take into account how far-reach­ing the broad impact of any rea­son­ing is. And it is here, that the Greens can learn from the Center Party. The party found its current slogan, ‘närod­lad politik’, a few years ago. Directly trans­lated ‘närod­lad politik’ means ‘pol­i­tics pro­duced locally’. Gold­mann thought at first that it was a little provin­cial. In the mean­time, he has had to admit that this approach is exactly what works. You can try to explain to people that they are respon­si­ble for their own ‘carbon foot­print’ and there­fore have to consume respon­si­bly. But maybe it works better to simply tell them: “Buy local produce. You know where it comes from. It’s healthy and tastes better.” The latter often is much more promis­ing. This is often the case with Center Party strate­gies. Perhaps this is a spe­cific eco-liberal strat­egy. Annie Lööf would say: “We have to make it easier to do the right thing.  We have to make it cheaper to do the right thing.” And she never tires of explain­ing that Sweden’s CO2-emis­sions went down when the min­is­ters for eco­nomic affairs and the envi­ron­ment were from the Center Party. Wind­craft increased by a factor of seven in the eight years Center Party was in gov­ern­ment. 

“Rural Areas Need Freedom”

The federal head­quar­ters of the Center Party are in a pretty office build­ing in the pic­turesque his­tor­i­cal centre of Stock­holm. We have a date with Karin Car­lesten and Martin Ådahl. She is the inter­na­tional officer of the party. He is the party’s chief econ­o­mist. Ådahl is the kind of intel­lec­tual who rarely remem­bers the name of the person he’s talking to, but always their rel­e­vant argu­ments. Car­lesten is the con­sum­mate liberal diplo­mat. When asked if they both are also from farming fam­i­lies, Car­lesten shakes her head. She is from a typical Swedish small-sized town middle-class family, she says. But she grew up with a lot of farm­land around. They used to go to farm visits with school on a regular basis. Yes, many of her fellow members in the party had the same kind of upbring­ing. But there is also another, newer group of members who grew up in bigger cities and their suburbs. The cows of their child­hood were on milk cartons. Under Annie Lööf’s lead­er­ship, the mem­ber­ship numbers of the Center Party in Stock­holm tripled.

Ådahl did not grow up on a farm either and lives in Stock­holm. But it is impor­tant to him that the party does not lose its prac­ti­cal con­nec­tion to rural areas: “Take some­thing like levee bank and water pro­tec­tion. The strong reg­u­la­tions in this field are char­ac­ter­ized by urban think­ing. But in the North of Sweden, there are more rivers than people. If the build­ing reg­u­la­tions for levee banks are too rigid you more or less make set­tle­ments in rural areas impos­si­ble.” Looking through urban spec­ta­cles, pol­i­tics often think that more reg­u­la­tions or action pro­grammes are needed for rural areas. More often than not, however, the exact oppo­site is true. Start-ups and busi­ness set­tle­ments are the key to every­thing. And, yes, it takes high-per­for­mance broad­band access all over the country and good traffic infra­struc­ture. But even more than that it takes freedom. If someone, for instance, devel­ops waste­land or brings new light to the broken windows of empty build­ings, they should get tax cuts. More ‘just let them do it’. More freedom. That’s what it’s all about. 

Open the Borders, Lower the Job Market Stan­dards?

What fas­ci­nates us again and again about the Center Party, we explain, is their posi­tion on immi­gra­tion. Nor­mally, the open-mind­ed­ness on cul­tural diver­sity is an urban thing. So you would expect scep­ti­cism from a party with a rural base. Then how is the Center Party of all parties the one most open on this issue?  Ådahl’s voice assumes an almost caress­ing tone when he answers: “This party has always had a pro­foundly social basic guide­line. If you’re trying to under­stand us this is of fun­da­men­tal impor­tance. We are not a Social Demo­c­ra­tic redis­tri­b­u­tion party, but we hold dear the con­vic­tion that society must not leave behind those that are weaker. This is reflected in our mem­ber­ship. No other party has a social root­ed­ness as deep as ours. If you are a Cen­ter­par­tiet-member you have at least one other vol­un­teer job, be it the Red Cross or neigh­bour­hood help. This human­i­tar­ian approach is what our asylum policy stems from.”

Karin Car­lesten admits that in light of devel­op­ments since 2015 the Center Party, too, has had to reassem­ble. Talking about open borders is not as easy as it used to be. Agree­ments on asylum policy across party lines were nec­es­sary and required com­pro­mises. But the Center Party, faster than any of the other parties, com­pre­hended that inte­grat­ing the new­com­ers had to become the first pri­or­ity. So the party offered new sug­ges­tions swiftly and per­sis­tently how to inte­grate refugees into the job market. One of them was a concept to intro­duce lower start­ing salaries. It pro­posed that it should be pos­si­ble to hire young people, long-term unem­ployed people, people with dis­abil­i­ties and refugees, paying them 20% less than the stan­dard wage for the first three years. The state was to pay the employ­ers’ social secu­rity share. Not for the first time, the people we are talking to point to the German Hartz-reforms. The Center Party applauds them.

Refugees who arrive in Sweden want to take care of them­selves, Car­lesten believes. And it is vital to help them do that. Of course, they will make less money than other Swedish workers. But they live in safety and can provide for their fam­i­lies. Some­times it is nec­es­sary to look at things through the eyes of those you are talking about. If you asked them whether they prefer a low paid job to no job, there’s no ques­tion what they would answer. If you want thou­sands of Syrians to build a life here you have to be willing to accept a degree of social imbal­ance. Social Democ­rats want to change immi­grants to make them fit into Swedish society. The Center Party openly admits that Swedish society, too, has to adapt to be able to incor­po­rate the refugees. Ådahl adds that for four years they have watched the Social Democ­rats trying to solve inte­gra­tion prob­lems by pouring money over them. This attempt was utterly fruit­less. No, Sweden is not a country where trailer parks find social accep­tance. But the time has come to give more freedom, more indi­vid­ual respon­si­bil­ity, more oppor­tu­ni­ties a try.

Who do they think will vote for such a toxic offer, we wonder. First, the Center Party comes along demand­ing a much more humane asylum system than today — alien­at­ing all right-wing voters. Next they call for a lib­er­al­i­sa­tion of the labour market and lose all left-wing voters. Martin Ådahl answers: “Of course, we had dis­cus­sions about this at the time. But our con­clu­sion was: it is the right thing to do, so that’s what we will say. If you let people into the country you have to make it pos­si­ble for them to join the labour market. A few weeks later, a major Swedish news­pa­per asked in a survey what people thought about our concept of lower start­ing salaries. The outcome was that a major­ity of voters, inde­pen­dent of their party affil­i­a­tion, sup­ported our sug­ges­tion. Only the voters of the Sweden Democ­rats and the Left Party were opposed. The major­ity of voters is absolutely open to rea­son­able argu­ments. So you just have to pub­licly go forward some­times.”

“Framåt!”

“Forward” — “Framåt!”, is the current Center Party-cam­paign slogan. “We are plan­ning to cam­paign like Macron”, says Ådahl. ”Every­body keeps talking about how many prob­lems we have. Someone has to talk about solu­tions. You don’t win voters by scaring them.” Their cam­paign is to be pro­foundly opti­mistic and com­pas­sion­ate. The message at the centre is “Sweden must not break apart.” – no crack between rural and urban areas nor between Swedes and immi­grants.

One thing is obviuos already: this message works, and not only in rural areas. In fact, the Center- elec­torate under Annie Lööf more and more takes the shape of a ’U’. Good results in rural areas, good results in big cities. Their only rel­a­tive weak­ness con­tin­ues to be smaller and medium-sized cities – even though the party is growing in these places as well.

Just how much vigour and resources the party is willing to spend on their ascent in the cities is on view at the elec­tion head­quar­ters in Stock­holm. From a big former salesroom, round about 20 employ­ees will orga­nize the fight for the votes of the 2.4 mio cit­i­zens of the Stock­holm area when the cam­paign reaches the crit­i­cal phase. Lots of good-looking young people are bustling around life-size card­board stand-ups of Annie Lööf already. The Center Party is the party of the beau­ti­ful people.

“In the old days our cam­paigns in Stock­holm were entirely home­spun because the national topics of the Center Party simply didn’t work in an urban setting,” Karin Ernlund, chair of the city chapter of the Center Party in Stock­holm explains. “It is so dif­fer­ent today. We for­mu­late our main mes­sages in such a way that they are com­pat­i­ble both for rural and urban areas.”

Support for start-ups, for instance, applies to both cities and rural areas. Healthy regional food is appre­ci­ated both in the country people and in cities. Out in the country, “Sweden must not break apart” means that rural areas must not be out­paced. In major cities, it means that socially prob­lem­atic dis­tricts on the out­skirts must be pulled up from the dregs of hope­less­ness.

 “People Search­ing”

Nonethe­less, the Center Party would not be a typ­i­cally Swedish party if their cam­paign­ing wasn’t intensely data-based. All threads of the Stock­holm cam­paign come together in the hands of its two man­agers. Flaxen-haired Gustaf Arnan­der, in his early thirthies, is in charge of the city. His col­league Patrik Lund­holm, appear­ing older and more well-off, is respon­si­ble of the rural envi­rons. Opti­cally, they are per­fectly cast for their roles. They don’t only know their target groups, but where they live and how to per­suade them. Lund­holm is dealing with Cen­ter­par­ti­ets tra­di­tional voters still, while Arnan­ders impor­tant poten­tial are ‘people search­ing’ – stu­dents, people in the cre­ative indus­tries, urban hip­sters living in the centre of town. Both Lund­holm and Arnan­der have to satisfy the ‘estab­lish­ment’ – two-income parents with a Volvo station wagon and a Labrador. Mes­sages and cam­paign instru­ments are specif­i­cally devel­oped to speak to each of these target groups. Still, all of these poten­tial voters are joined in a fun­da­men­tally liberal atti­tude. Also, certain topics, like pro­tect­ing water from microplas­tics, or advanc­ing bike traffic works with all groups. But in general, you have to take dif­fer­ent approaches to make the same poli­cies palat­able to dif­fer­ent people.

The overlap with the green elec­torate is sig­nif­i­cant, but, Arnan­der and Lund­holm think, mostly exhausted. The central strug­gle for votes on the last lap will be between the Center Party and the Con­ser­v­a­tive Mod­er­ates. This is where the eco-lib­er­als gain more than half of their addi­tional votes – yet these voters are the most fickle. Their support is based on the pro-immi­gra­tion and cos­mopoli­tan atti­tude that they see embod­ied more by the Center Party than the Mod­er­ates right now. And it is based on Annie Lööf. “Annie is the reason we’re hot,” Arnan­der con­cludes.

Preser­va­tion of green spaces, traffic policy and inte­gra­tion have been iden­ti­fied as the most impor­tant issues for Stockholm’s voters by the Center Party.  “The preser­va­tion of urban green spaces is incred­i­bly impor­tant to our voters.” Arnan­der says. But, of course, espe­cially younger ‘people search­ing’ want payable rents, too. “It helps us that we have always been con­sid­ered the party of high-rise build­ings. If you want to pre­serve nature and local recre­ation you have to build upward.” Added to this, the city should attach con­di­tions of payable rent to the sale of public land.

Inner-city traffic will always be a hot potato for any eco­log­i­cal party, he goes on: “The further we get away from our core vote, the more voters love their SUV’s.” Often though, it is simply a ques­tion of explain­ing poli­cies appro­pri­ately. The Center Party recently sug­gested intro­duc­ing a speed limit of 30 k/​h for the entire inner city of Stock­holm. “Of course, not every­body agrees with that. But if we ask: wouldn’t it be nice if chil­dren could play in the streets like they used to? – that makes people think.”

When it comes down to it, inte­gra­tion is largely a ques­tion of com­mu­ni­cat­ing values and of com­pli­ance with rules. But another issue of extreme impor­tance to Center-voters is the reli­able refusal to coop­er­ate with the Sweden Democ­rats.

 Cen­ter­par­tiet on the way to power?

We leave the cam­paign office in Stock­holm feeling very sure that this party has the wind at her back. But whither will it blow them? We ask polit­i­cal jour­nal­ist Stikkan Ander­s­son in a coffee house in the busi­ness dis­trict Nor­rmalm. National polls show that none of the tra­di­tional polit­i­cal camps can expect a major­ity of votes. The right wing obstructs any broad major­ity. Social Democ­rats, Greens and the Left Party on the one hand, and the bour­geois alliance on the other have been engaged in a race too close to call, but they won’t ever get across the fin­ish­ing line anyway. “Annie Lööf has gained in stature through her immi­gra­tion and inte­gra­tions pol­i­tics,” Ander­s­son says. But because of it, the bour­geois camp appears much more divided than it has for many years. Espe­cially Lööf’s clear rejec­tion of the Sweden Democ­rats has blocked the easiest path to a centre-right seizure of power. “The only viable alter­na­tive now is a minor­ity gov­ern­ment of the Mod­er­ates, tol­er­ated by the Sweden Democ­rats – without the Center Party”, Ander­s­son thinks. Maybe, though, the Social Democ­rats will succeed in drag­ging the Center Party and the Lib­er­als to their side and thus achiev­ing a major­ity. They’re eagerly trying anyhow, even though Lööf delib­er­ately gives them the cold shoul­der. What happens if neither of these sce­nar­ios works out, we want to know. There’s a third option that few people have on their radar, Ander­s­son divulges. “In 2001, we were close to a minor­ity gov­ern­ment of the small middle-of-the-road parties already – the Greens, Lib­er­als and the Center Party. I don’t think that that is out of the ques­tion this time around, if all else fails.” The Center Party would clearly be the strongest party in such a coali­tion. Prime Min­is­ter Annie Lööf in a green-green-yellow coali­tion, then? Not highly prob­a­ble. But not impos­si­ble either.

We’re walking through summery Stock­holm towards the posh depart­ment store ‘NK’. Annie Lööf is signing her new book called ‘Moment of Truth’. It’s the sort of book politi­cians write when they don’t want to take any risks that might hurt their career, but could use a book signing tour for cam­paign pur­poses. The book­store staff are busy trying to find more chairs — they didn’t expect an audi­ence of this size. Lööf is not the only one reading here today, however. Popular liberal bedrock Lars Lei­jon­borg has also written a new book.

In the intro­duc­tory talk with the book­seller Lööf comes across as a sea­soned inter­view partner. She dis­cusses the “me too”-debate. She talks about her little daugh­ter, her mar­riage and the death of her husband’s parents. She dis­cusses – nat­u­rally – the impor­tance of entre­pre­neur­ship and that Sweden must not break apart. She talks about the danger from the right and that Sweden has to defend her values.

She is fol­lowed by her older col­league. Lei­jon­borg con­firms every stereo­type of the elder gen­tle­man who likes to hear himself talk. Annie Lööf smiles politely, nods every now and then while scan­ning the audience’s faces. She would never give in to the impulse to look at her watch or smart­phone while a hundred pairs of eyes are on her. Annie Lööf is a woman with a plan and the dis­ci­pline to see it through to the end. No mis­takes. Not now.

After what feels like an eter­nity Lei­jon­borg finally gets to the end. The two of them go to sep­a­rate tables to sign their books. A long queue forms. At Annie Lööf’s table.

Sweden, summer 2018. A country where a lot is in motion. If all goes well, it will go in Annie Lööf’s and the Center Party’s direc­tion. Framåt. Forward.

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