The influence of right-wing populists on Sweden’s government policy

In 2017, politicians all over Western Europe were afraid of a ghost: the ghost of right-wing populism. It was not a new phenomenon in the world of politics but ever since the early 2010s, it has gotten more and more real. Parties such as the Alternative for Germany (AfD) in Germany, the Front National (FN) in France, the Party for Freedom (PVV) in the Netherlands, or the Sweden Democrats (SD) in Sweden have gained more and more power and become serious competitors in national politics. Liberal voters and politicians struggled with this challenge and, as a consequence, right-wing populists performed well in recent elections in Europe. Fortunately, none of the right-wing populist parties mentioned managed to get elected into government, but some of them are haunting the executive and creating a strong opposition.

In Sweden, the right-wing populist Sverigedemokraterna (= Sweden Democrats) gained the third most seats in the parliamentary election in 2018 while the Social Democrats obtained their worst result since 1908. Due to their refusal to form a coalition with the populists, Prime Minister Stefan Löfven from the Social Democrats had no other choice but to form a minority government with the conservative party Moderata samlingspartiets. 

Policy-changes in migration and welfare-expenditures

Almost two years later the effect of right-wing populists is already noticeable. Sweden used to be a country with liberal and human policies. In 2015, it welcomed more than 160’000 refugees, which was, compared to its small population, the highest number of immigrants in Western-Europe. However, after the horrific events in the Moria refugee camp in September 2020, Sweden refused to take on any of the many refugees, while Germany rescued at least 1’500. The official statement from the government was that migration waves from recent years have led to rising crime and that the integration of the many immigrants has largely failed. While this might be one reason for a more conservative migration policy, this drastic shift is already heavily influenced by the Sweden Democrats who are pressuring the powerless minority government out of a dominant opposition. 

Another example of how right-wing populists can influence a country’s policies are the governments welfare expenditures in Sweden. Scandinavian countries usually spend more money on welfare than Anglo-Saxon nations like Great Britain or the United States. In Sweden, the welfare-expenditures steadily increased since 2014 at a high level. But in 2019, only one year after the election and the same year the new minority government was formed with the Sweden Democrats, the expenditures decreased by five percent. And during the Covid-19 pandemic, the country that was originally known as exemplary and reliable went into a questionable direction by not implementing early and strong measures to safeguard its population.

While the right-wing populists of the AfD in Germany never managed to deliver any policies at all, in Sweden they have succeeded in changing the country’s formerly liberal position into more isolated and conservative policies. The ghost of populism is haunting Swedish democracy and one question remains: Who’s gonna call the ghostbusters?

Jacinda Ardern – the silver lining in times of crisis

Politicians are believed to be selfish, hungry for power, ignorant, and untouchable. Jacinda Ardern seems to be the exact opposite. The Prime Minister of New Zealand made herself known to the global public with her strong speech in front of the United Nations General Assembly in 2018, her immediate implementation of stricter gun laws after the terrorist attack at a mosque in Christchurch in 2019, and her successful fight against Covid-19 in 2020. During her first legislation, she has proven to be a strong leader in times of national and global crisis. In the general election in October, she got rewarded for her phenomenal job on dealing with the coronavirus and won a landslide victory.

While most leaders in the world are to be addressed as “Mr. President”, “Mr. Prime Minister” or “Mrs. Chancellor”, New Zealanders just call their Prime Minister “Jacinda”. It humanizes her and brings her closer to the people. Through her social media accounts, the leader of the Labor-Party gives personal insights into her daily life as a politician, mother, and citizen to be more approachable. She is also not afraid of going on the streets and talking to the people. Her appearance in a hijab after the horrific terrorist attack in Christchurch where 50 people were shot by an Islamophobic maniac, is unforgettable. And when Covid-19 started to affect the national economy, Jacinda and her ministers immediately took a salary cut in solidarity with those who were financially hit by the crisis. 

The first single-party majority government since 1993

Her behavior and attitude are undoubtedly exemplary and unique in the political world. But what about her performance on policies? While she was globally congratulated for handling the outcome of the Christchurch-attack and the Covid-19 crisis, Jacinda has also been progressive when it comes to climate change. Her government is pursuing the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement including a zero-carbon bill and banning plastic bags. 

On the other hand, she has not been able to fulfill a central part of her last campaign: affordable housing. The last election was influenced by stories of homeless people and poor families who had to sleep in their cars because they could not afford to rent a place. The KiwiBuild policy, which aimed to build 100’000 new houses in ten years, had to be reset due to its failure. Additionally, the Labor Party had to deal with an internal sex scandal.

Nonetheless, in the general election in October, Jacinda Ardern led the centre-left Labour Party to a historic victory and is likely to form the first single-party majority government in New Zealand since 1993. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, many New Zealanders doubted that Jacinda would be more than just a one-term prime minister. However, her ability to make New Zealanders feel safe during the pandemic has probably been the main reason for her landslide victory.

When Jacinda Ardern appeared in the late-night show “The Late Show” with Steven Colbert in 2018, the host could not hide his admiration for her and the regret that she was not his commander in chief. However, in a globalized world, one successful silver lining could quickly turn into a silver comet that swooshes over the world of politics. Even from a small and remote country such as New Zealand. The brighter the lining, the stronger the power of shining.

The Divided States of America

“I will work to be a president who seeks not to divide but unify.” Joe Biden’s statement in his first speech as president-elect sets the agenda for his upcoming term in the White House: Unification. It seems like the United States of America has never been so divided as in 2020. But in 244 years of history, it has never really been united either.

The establishment of the United States is unique and remarkable. In eight territorial acquisitions between 1783 and 1867, the US-territory we know today was assembled either by war or acquisition from the British Empire, Spain, Mexico, and Russia. The country was populated through big waves of immigration, first by Europeans, then by Asians and Latin Americans. The transport of nearly 600’000 slaves from Africa completed this cultural fusion of the American population.

The Civil War (1861-1865) between the progressive Union States in the North and the conservative Confederate States in the South proved for the first time how difficult it is for a country this large to live peacefully and harmoniously. The reconstruction, an effort to reintegrate Southern states and the newly-freed slaves into the United States by President Lincoln, was followed by his assassination and the so-called Jim Crow laws. These laws were implemented by the defeated states in the South and enforced racial segregation. The war between the North and the South was over, but the division remained.

A bipolar party-system represents a bipolar society

Fast advancing industrialization, globalization, and later on digitalization have divided the country even more. Urban areas have become more educated, industrialized, digitalized, and more racially diverse than rural areas, which has resulted in a liberal and conservative society. In America, there is no gray area, no in-between, which is most clearly symbolized by the bipolar party-system. 

According to the cleavage-theory by political scientists Lipset and Rokkan, political parties result from conflicts between capital and labor, state and church, urban and rural as well as center and periphery. These conflicts (cleavages) were mainly caused by industrialization in the early 19th century and still exist today. While almost every liberal democracy in the world has a multi-party system which provides voters with different political options to choose from, in the United States the choice is either blue or red: The Democratic Party represents capital, state, urban and center while the Republican party stands for labor, church, rural and periphery.

Imagine the political party-system as a gastronomic world: There are only two restaurants in your hometown. If you are happy with one of the two because it serves exactly the food you like at a price that fits for you, that is great because the choice is easy and there is no need to change restaurants. But imagine one day, you get food poisoning from your favorite restaurant, or they took your favorite dish off the menu, and the other restaurant serves food you are allergic to – what do you do? No wonder a new chef in one of those restaurants, a famous but inexperienced extrovert with crazy ideas and even weirder hair, was very popular and attracted a lot of new customers. But the food he cooked made a lot of people vomit and the service was a disgrace. After four long years with countless complaints, the chef was fired, which made him very angry. After all, firing people was his favorite activity.

One flag, different meanings

Bipolar party-systems increase polarization and may therefore catalyze radicalization. This has automatically resulted in a divided media landscape, an effect that worsened in the last four years. If you compare the reporting of the liberal media such as the New York Times and NBC with Breitbart and Fox News, it is not surprising that issues like health care, gun control, or immigration are perceived completely differently by American citizens. If even the sources of information are divided, how can a highly heterogeneous society become united?

The one thing Americans have always been united by is their love for their country and their flag. However, what the American flag represents has a rather different meaning for someone in Boston than someone in Alabama. It is president-elect Joe Biden’s mission to provide American society with an America everyone can agree to. Of course, this is easier written than done. 

Why federalism hinders effective policies against Covid-19

Our world is facing the same problem, but different governments have reacted with different measures and strategies – and with different levels of success. Hong Kong and South Korea seem to have been the most successful countries in the fight against Covid-19. Both reacted quickly and implemented strict measures such as surveilling the movement of their citizens, quarantine, and consequent social-distancing measures. Additionally, mask-wearing is not new for citizens of Asian countries, mainly due to polluted air.

In Europe, Italy was the first country that was faced with the virus and reacted strictly with a first nationwide lockdown on the 11th of March. Germany and France followed with similar reactions, while Great Britain apparently needed its Prime Minister to experience the virus himself before taking it seriously. Sweden followed a unique strategy and the president of the United States is still highly incapable of dealing with any demanding situation at all.

Less political resistance in centralized systems

The Covid-19 pandemic did not only reveal which leaders are capable of managing a global health crisis. More than nine months since the outbreak and its spread over the whole world, it also showed which political system is the most effective and practical when dealing with a global pandemic:

The more centralized a system, the easier it is to implement (drastic) measures. It was not challenging for the Communist Party in Beijing to control 1.393 billion people in China and regulate their behavior. However, if the autocratic Chinese government were more transparent and liberal, the virus would have been contained much earlier. South Korea, a unitary presidential republic, successfully controlled the coronavirus by surveilling the movements of its citizens and implementing a national mandatory obligation to wear a mask.  Additionally, the government in Seoul supported the economy with grants from the very beginning.

The federal state of Switzerland, on the other hand, was still arguing in mid-October whether customers in a store should wear a mask or not. Of course, there are many more Covid-19 cases in urban Geneva than in rural Appenzell, but a virus does not stop at a border – and especially not within a country. After strict and centralized measures at the beginning of the pandemic, the Swiss government has lost control over the handling because the different cantons felt disempowered in the proud federal country. In Germany, a federal nation as well, the federal lands are pursuing different strategies that have caused uncertainty and political chaos in facing a second wave. In Germany’s neighbor-state, however, the French president Emmanuel Macron decided in October to reimplement a strict curfew and acted single-handedly without any form of political resistance.

Federalism – an imperfect system

While federalism is a fair system for heterogeneous countries in general, it hinders effective policies and force in times of crisis – such as the handling of a global pandemic. Centralized or even autocratic nations can implement a national strategy much faster and much more effectively than federal states due to fewer players and, therefore, less political resistance in the decision-making process. Whether this is democratic or not must be put on hold. Democracy means the government of the people, by the people, for the people, as Abraham Lincoln famously stated in 1858. This must be accepted, and policymakers must be trusted. Most importantly, in times of crisis!