The First Woman Set to Run Sweden Has a Fight to Keep Power
(Bloomberg) -- Magdalena Andersson calls herself Europe’s most frugal finance minister, and some factions of Sweden’s governing party want her to tax and spend more. For now, that’s about as controversial as she seems to get.
When it comes to leading her country, the 54-year-old economist might count that as an advantage as she looks set for promotion to become Sweden’s first female prime minister. On a spate of gun crime, the pandemic and tension over immigration, she’s been tight-lipped.
In a place that’s been through rather un-Scandinavian upheaval of late, the ruling Social Democrats are banking on her being just what Sweden needs at a critical juncture: a steady pair of hands to lead what prides itself on being a steady nation. The attraction of Andersson is that she comes without the political baggage her predecessor accumulated during seven years in office, which ultimately led to his losing a confidence vote in parliament.
Andersson accepted her party’s nomination on Wednesday. If confirmed as premier, she will break the 145-year hold on the top job by men and join the women running other Nordic countries. (Norway, Denmark, Finland and Iceland all had female prime ministers going into September, though Norway is in the process of changing leadership.)
She will be tasked with uniting and reinventing her fractious party before an election that’s scheduled for just under a year’s time, though could come sooner. Indeed, her biggest challenge might be to make sure she doesn’t also end up going down in the annals as Sweden’s shortest-lived premier since at least the 1970s.
The first step will be to move on from the leadership of Stefan Lofven, in whose three cabinets she’s served, to take on an array of challenges facing her country after the pandemic. Together, the two have needed to seek political compromises with other parties to pass legislation.
The government briefly collapsed once already this year because of opposition to a plan to ease rent controls on new apartments. Lofven, 64, quit in June before being reinstated with the view to handing over the reins. The next crucial vote will be to secure enough support to push its 2022 budget through parliament by the end of the year, which promises a 74 billion-krona ($8.6 billion) boost to the economy.
To keep her party unified, Andersson will also need to mollify the more socialist wing that in the past has been fiercely critical of her spending policy. One of them is Daniel Suhonen, leader of a think tank and a prominent voice for Social Democratic leftists who want to see more investments in health care, education and climate, and a smaller role for private enterprises in publicly financed welfare.
“Once a year Magdalena Andersson is a radical, but all other days she is Europe’s most frugal,” said Suhonen. “She has talked about taxes, but hasn’t raised them. She has talked about the problems of inequality, but hasn’t addressed them. I haven’t seen any action.”
The party will give her time, he said, though her fortunes will all come down to her performance in the next election. And the parliamentary arithmetic makes it unlikely that Andersson will be able to stay in power without support from the pro-market Center Party, meaning her hands may be tied on increased spending and taxation.
While the economy has rebounded faster than in most European countries, long-term unemployment is at an all-time high and the pandemic exposed serious flaws in Sweden’s welfare system. Gang-related violent crime, meanwhile, is now top of the political agenda. In August alone, 10 people were shot dead, highlighting a trend of increasing gun violence that sets Sweden apart from the rest of Europe.
On issues like that, Andersson had little to say, and the oblique process by which the party chooses its leader gives no room for candidates to lay out their personal agendas. Bjereld, the academic, recalled a 2017 statement in which she suggested immigrants should look for other countries to resettle in, drawing the ire of her Green Party coalition partners.
She did address crime on Wednesday when accepting her nomination. “Society must defend itself,” she said. “We need a full-scale mobilization to regain control from gangs that are holding entire neighborhoods hostage.”
That suggests a pragmatism that she will need to corral support. Fredrik Wallenberg, 54, a member of one of Sweden’s wealthiest families, studied with Andersson at the Stockholm School of Economics and said “she was highly competent and driven by facts rather than ideology.” “As a politician, you need, of course, to weigh the two,” he said.
The road is open for Andersson to take over the leadership and set out her stall. All 26 Social Democratic party districts have publicly supported her before a party congress in November when Lofven will formally step down. Parliament must then give Andersson a vote of confidence as premier.
A former youth swimmer who changes into sneakers to move between government offices, she is at least is no stranger at having to be nimble. Andersson cut her teeth in student debates and was deputy chief of the Swedish tax office before becoming finance minister.
For Lars Bergman, a former principal at the Stockholm School of Economics, Andersson has shown she has a personal touch that might help bridge differences. “In recent years, I have met Magdalena a few times and found that our good personal relationships persist,” he said. “Maybe because we never discuss our respective views on politics.”
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