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