Sweden is ‘in the process of dismantling democracy’: ex-Social Democrat head

Sweden's new ambassador to Iceland has caused a stir, after warning that Sweden is "in the process of dismantling democracy" and could be on a slippery slope towards technocracy or a dictatorship.

Sweden is 'in the process of dismantling democracy': ex-Social Democrat head
Håkan Juholt in Reykjavik. Photo: Magnus Hjalmarson Neideman/SvD/TT

Håkan Juholt, a former leader of the centre-left Social Democrat party and ambassador to Iceland since September, made the comments in an interview with the Svenska Dagbladet newspaper.

“How old is your son? Four?” he asks the reporter.

“When he is old he won't be living in a democracy but in a technocracy, or a dictatorship. It's sad as hell. I am sorry to say it, but I am 100 percent sure. We are in the process of dismantling democracy.”

Later in the interview, he says: “I don't think the threat is a dictatorship with tanks rolling on Sergel's Square (a well-known square in central Stockholm), but an expert rule where we do not let the citizens' values govern the country. Democracy is slipping through our fingers. Fewer people want to be elected, the parties are toning down their ideology. Sure, I see a risk that it may become a dictatorship in the long run.”

Håkan Juholt in Iceland. Photo: Magnus Hjalmarson Neideman/SvD/TT

Juholt did not elaborate on the comments, which have sparked criticism in Sweden.

“It's remarkable. It is the role of ambassadors, and the role of the government, to deliver an accurate image of our country and promote our country in the world,” Culture and Democracy Minister Alice Bah Kuhnke told the TT newswire, but said it was up to the Foreign Minister to comment further.

Margot Wallström responded she would not “argue with one of my ambassadors” in public.

“He will probably have to explain his thoughts himself,” she said, speaking to TT at a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Luxembourg.

“He will probably also soon learn, I would think, what it means to be an ambassador.”

Criticism has come from both sides of the political aisle. Karin Enström, foreign politics spokesperson of the conservative Moderate party, the largest opposition party in parliament, told TT:

“As ambassador and thus Sweden's top representative in Iceland, Håkan Juholt demonstrates a strange attitude towards the country he is supposed to represent.”

Juholt took over as party leader of the Social Democrats in 2011 after a devastating election loss the year before. Known as outspoken and jovial among his fans, a bumbling fool among his critics, he was ousted after less than a year and stepped down on January 21st 2012, following questions over the housing allowance for an overnight Stockholm apartment he stayed in at the time with his girlfriend.

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Politics in Sweden: Why Sweden’s finance minister is willing to be unpopular

She's been accused of being Sweden's 'most invisible modern finance minister'. But when she emerged from the shadows to present the budget last week, she showed she is also the minister most willing to take unpopular measures, writes The Local's Nordic editor Richard Orange.

Politics in Sweden: Why Sweden's finance minister is willing to be unpopular

The word that Elisabeth Svantesson repeated again and again, in every interview and in every speech around the budget was tuff, or “tough”, using it no fewer than 14 times in a 30-minute interview with Sweden’s public radio broadcaster on Saturday.  

“I know that it’s going to be tough,” she responded when asked why the government hadn’t given Sweden’s municipalities and the regions greater funding to help schools and regional health authorites deal with rising prices. “It’s going to tough for a lot of people next year.” 

But she was unapologetic. For her getting inflation under control was, she said, the “a och o” – the alpha and omega, or beginning and the end – of the budget. 

“If I’d done what some people are calling for and given even more money to the municipalities and the regions,” she argued, it would have meant “an even bigger budget”, which “would have fuelled inflation and then next year and the year after we would have had even bigger problems with increased costs”.

Sweden is facing, she has said again and again, an “economic winter”, and the only responsible way to respond is with a budget that is “restrained”.


For Svantesson, it is better to be criticised in the short term for a miserly budget than to go into the next election as the finance minister who let inflation take an unshakeable grip on the economy.

And if the mark of a good government budget is that it pleases no one but the officials in the finance department, then Svantesson has hit just the right balance. Her budget drew heavy criticism from both left and right, from both business lobby groups and the regional and municipal governments who run most of Sweden’s healthcare and education.  

For the Social Democrats, the decision to give an extra 10 billion kronor a year in direct funding to municipalities and the regions was “a betrayal of the welfare sector”. But for the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise, it was caving in to the unreasonable demands of regional governments and municipalities, wasting 40 percent of the extra funds available, which would have been better used to cut taxes. 

In her interview, Svantesson refused to be drawn on whether cuts would be needed to health and education, saying that this was up to the “smart people from different parties” in regional and municipal governments to decide. “They know best how to handle the situation and I don’t want to speak for them.”

Svantesson’s technocratic approach makes her a bit of an exception in Sweden’s current government.   

This is a government forced by its reliance on the far-right Sweden Democrats to drive a populist agenda: it is cutting fuel taxes and biofuels content when action is urgently needed to combat climate change; bringing in a raft of tough measures on crime that many criminologists say risk pushing up prison populations without solving gang crime; and taking measures to reduce immigration many see as illiberal. 

It sometimes feels as if figures like Justice Minister Gunnar Strömmer, Migration Minister Maria Malmer Stenergard, and Environment Minister Romina Pourmokhtari – none of them natural populists – do not themselves believe in many of the measures they are working to enact. 

Svantesson, on the other hand, is almost an unpopulist, going so far as to claim in her Saturday interview that she was more willing to take unpopular measures than her predecessors in the job.

“We are,” she boasted. “carrying out some of the tough reprioritisations that other governments have not dared to do”. 

The only nakedly populist tax decision she announced (possibly on the urging of the Sweden Democrats), was a small cut in the level of tax on snus, the tobacco pouches one in five Swedish men and quite a few women have permanently lodged under their upper lips.

“Snus is going to be a few kronor cheaper,” she said, rounding off the Saturday interview. “That’s something many people also think is good.” 

Politics in Sweden is a weekly column looking at the big talking points and issues in Swedish politics. Members of The Local Sweden can sign up to receive an email alert when the column is published. Just click on this “newsletters” option or visit the menu bar.