INTERVIEW: Sweden has been ruled for four years on ‘essentially the Centre Party’s programme’

In The Local's fourth pre-election party leader interview, the Centre Party's deputy leader Martin Ådahl celebrates his party's achievements over the past four years, rues the populist drift of the Moderates, and warns that the Social Democrats' work permit plan risks being a business catastrophe.

INTERVIEW: Sweden has been ruled for four years on 'essentially the Centre Party's programme'
Martin Ådahl at the start of Centre Party leader Annie Lööf’s speech at the Almedalen political festival. Photo: Henrik Montgomery/TT

It’s hard to imagine that Martin Ådahl is relaxing with his family at a summer house on the holiday peninsular of Kullaberg in Skåne. Within seconds of getting on the phone, the Centre Party’s deputy leader is churning out ideas and analyses.

So far in our party leader interviews, we’ve insisted on interviewing the actual party leader, but Ådahl, who founded Fores, Sweden’s green-liberal think tank before becoming an MP, is such an important generator of policy for his party that we made an exception.

Ådahl starts by running off what his party achieved in the January agreement it, together with the Liberal Party, struck with the Social Democrats to allow Stefan Löfven to take power again as Prime Minister at the start of 2019.

“I think it was absolutely a godsend that the Social Democrats got a new programme for their second mandate that was essentially the Centre Party’s programme — even if not enough was done,” he says.


He draws out four strands of Centre Party wins. First, “the major reform of the labour market”, which he claims gave “both more flexibility but also much larger scope for retraining which is really necessary”. Second, the fact that “taxes, particularly on work and on hiring, have gone down”. This, he said, had been “very helpful during the pandemic, but also afterwards, to recover the labour market.”

Third comes reforms that benefit rural communities, the Centre Party’s base from the time it was Sweden’s farmers’ party.

It’s a little unclear which is the fourth. Ådahl mentions the party’s role in shifting green subsidies from “general small scale, and not-very-effective government programmes” to “those big industrial programmes that are now making real headway in reducing emissions in steel and mining.”

But he also points out its successes in watering down the government’s new immigration and work permit bills, perhaps the party’s most important achievement for readers of The Local. 

“It could have gone in an extremely restrictive and counterproductive direction,” he says of the immigration bill passed in 2021 and the work permit bill passed this April.

“But in the end, it allowed for the reunification of families, and also allowed for keeping humanitarian grounds for refugee status, and importantly, it did not at this point in time, totally and absolutely restrict labour migration, which was also on the cards because there was a majority for this in parliament.”

The way Ådahl tells it, the Centre Party more or less single-handedly blocked a Social Democrat proposal to bring back Labour Market Testing, the old restrictive rule for work permits, in the reforms which passed in April, and came into force at the start of last month.


“There were proposals on the table to very heavily restrict labour migration,” he says. “The Social Democrats wanted to have a kind of a board, as was done historically, that would approve migration from certain sectors, and the Moderates put forward a limit on what income you could have, and so on.”

Labour Market Testing, or a labour board system, as Ådahl calls it, was “an absolute catastrophe” in Sweden when last operated in the 1990s and early 2000s, he says. 

“When it was in place, it strangled many central competencies for Swedish business, especially in technical areas. It was extremely restrictive, and even a sort of guild-based kind of testing.”

READ ALSO: Swedish government’s work permit plan an ‘absolute catastrophe’ for business 

Businesses themselves, he argues, should be able to decide who they can hire internationally.

“If it’s the trade unions, and if it’s bureaucrats who are close to them who are also influenced by the immigration-sceptic labour debate, then they are almost certain to stop critical, necessary competence or skills for Swedish business.”

The liberal work permit system brought in by the Reinfeldt-led Alliance government in 2008, has, Ådahl argues, been extremely important for Swedish growth over the last fourteen years.

“What is generally not understood is that is that if you bring people from outside, it’s not because you’re somehow happy to have competition from abroad or something, it’s because you actually critically need those people,” he says. “Because it takes a lot of effort and sometimes a lot of money to bring people to Sweden to fill those gaps.”

The Social Democrat government has now launched a renewed effort to bring back the labour migration board, while the Moderates are still pushing for a much higher minimum salary for work permit applicants.

Ådahl rejects a suggestion from The Local that his party has gone quiet as the debate has turned more sceptical.

“We’ve been quite vocal when we have got the opportunity to comment on this in the media,” he says. “Our migration spokesperson and even our party leader have been clear that we do not agree with this, and that this is counterproductive.”

But he acknowledged that issues like work permits often took a back seat.

“The thing is that these kind of more liberal themes are really pushed back in the Swedish debate. Usually, when one of those restrictions on labour migrations are proposed, the opposition is saying that it’s not enough. And that is the voice that has been given air by the media.”

Even the Liberal Party, who used to campaign side-by-side with the Centre Party for liberal labour migration, has, he says, “completely reversed their position on this issue, and are now much more restrictive than they ever were historically”.

The Centre Party’s only remaining ally on the issue is Sweden’s business lobby.

“Some parts, at least, of Swedish business, are still pushing for [liberal labour migration] because they see the absolutely critical need for it. So they are still there, but they are also not very vocal.”

The Centre Party, I tell him, also seems strangely quiet during the current election campaign about just how much of the government’s policy programme over the past four years was dictated to it by the January Agreement.

He disagrees, crediting their reforms for Sweden’s economic recovery from the pandemic, and for its leading position on green industrial development. 

“If it hadn’t been for the economic reforms we pushed through, then I’m sure that unemployment would have peaked at a much higher level during the pandemic, and also would have not fallen as much as it has,” he argues. “And secondly, I think that you wouldn’t have had this focus on green business industrialisation that we have right now, which is really pushing down emissions, and especially the future emissions curve.”

The Centre Party’s website is positively bursting with policy proposals, with no fewer than 26 different categories, each with a succession of policies, so if it once again strikes a deal with a Social Democrat government, there’s no shortage of things it wants done.

There’s the unfinished business from the January Agreement, including tax breaks for former refugees and the long-term unemployed and reform of the Swedish Public Employment Service, both of which were blocked by what Ådahl calls “this unholy coalition” of the Left Party and the Moderates. There’s the liberalisation of rental controls on new-build apartments, which was shelved to win the backing of the Left Party for a prime ministerial vote.

There’s also the party’s longstanding plans for intensivåret, or “the intensive year”, which would see new arrivals in Sweden given a crash course in Sweden’s society and Swedish language, apprenticeships, a mentor, and new start jobs, with those who manage to handle the demanding programme given a certificate.

“This hasn’t really been implemented. It failed because the agreement collapsed just as we were finalising those things,” Ådahl says. “But in general, there are many more things to do, especially on job creation and on the green transition.”

He points to the party’s call for Swedish electricity production to be doubled by 2030 and increased by a third over the next mandate period. And he is damning of the Moderate Party’s moves, at a local level, to block wind farm projects, and of its success in portraying nuclear power plants, which will take decades to build, as an all-encompassing solution to Sweden’s energy needs.

“I would describe it as verging on the dishonest,” he says of the Moderates’ new energy policy. “In practice, what they are doing is refusing to increase wind power in the short term. And when we clearly say, ‘okay, we’re ready to compromise on nuclear power’, they misrepresent our position.”

Blocking wind farms is already harming Swedish industry, he continues. 

“This is going to be a real problem for Sweden very soon if they continue with this obstructionist line,” he says. “Normally Swedish business would stand clearly behind the conservative parties, but this time round, they’re really upset. They [the conservative parties] should take notice when Swedish business is asking them to just calm down and be honest about these issues.”

He cites energy policy, together with pensions, and Sweden’s fiscal rules, as the three areas where agreements across the political divide has provided much-needed stability in Sweden, and where the agreements have started to fray over the past four years.

“Unfortunately, both sides have now tried to circumvent this agreement to make pensions a potent electoral issue,” he says of the breakdown of the pensions group. The Conservatives had also, he complained, tried to make nuclear power into a “divisive issue”, while the pandemic had made Sweden, like other countries, “forget about fiscal discipline”.

His hope is that the cross-party consensus on all three of these policy areas can be revived after the election.

As for the Moderates, he seems genuinely upset at how far they have drifted to the populist right from the centrist position they had under their former leader Fredrik Reinfeldt.

“They have changed a lot from the optimistic, liberal and forward-looking party that was the centre of the Alliance between 2006 and 2014,” he says. “I think that the most dangerous thing when you have those far-right movements coming up is when the traditionally strong parties legitimise them. It’s when the traditional parties lend them a hand and give them power. That’s when they become really dangerous.”

The result, as he sees it, is a battle over what type of country Sweden is going to be.

“I think there’s a big fight for Sweden’s soul right now, for Sweden’s basic values. Sweden has traditionally not been this kind of country, which has been inward-looking, and mistrustful of foreign countries and foreign individuals, and it can still remain that way. But it’s now a bone of contention.”

His hope is that the Moderate Party fails to win a big enough majority to take power in September, even with the backing of the Sweden Democrats, and then tacks back to the centre ground.

To help that happen, his party hopes to win over the liberal “Reinfeldt Moderates” who formed the core of the party under its last Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, and who tend to dislike the party’s populist, anti-immigration shift.

“It’s pretty likely that they [the Reinfeldt Moderates] have moved from the Moderates, passing for a long period of time through the Centre party, but that they have now moved on to Magdalena Andersson, because she’s been a strong war leader,” he says.  “And some of the Reinfeldt Moderates are still stuck within the Moderate Party, but are essentially unhappy with their positions on the extreme right on many social issues.

“In both cases, it’s our ambition and our mission to make them realise the best place for them to put their vote, and make them migrate back to the Centre Party.”

If the Moderates’ plan succeeds, and they do form a government with the Sweden Democrats’ support, Ådahl is adamant that the Centre Party will neither support it or be a part of it, even if this might bring it more influence. 

“The point is that we’re not the ones who are going to get influence, that will be the Sweden Democrats,” he says. “This government will, in the end, be totally and utterly dependent on the Sweden Democrats for each and every vote, and particularly for the main votes concerning budgets and so on, so they will be forced to follow most of the diktats that the Sweden Democrats put forward.”

On the other hand, if there is a parliamentary majority for the Centre Party, the Social Democrats, the Green Party and the Left Party, there are questions about how a tax-cutting party like the Centre Party accommodate itself with a Left Party that is opposed to tax cuts. 

It’s not just on tax and spend that there could be conflicts. The Left Party’s leader, Nooshi Dadgostar, vowed at the Almedalen political festival not to allow Magdalena Andersson to reprise her position as prime minister unless the Social Democrats have agreed in advance to a bill to ban companies running state-funded free schools from making profits.

Ådahl dismisses this threat.

“Well, it’s very simple,” he says Dadgostar’s pledge. “She doesn’t have the majority to get that kind of change through. And the reason she doesn’t is that the Centre Party doesn’t want to put an end to school choice and free schools, so it’s not going to happen.”

“She’s tried before to use the issue of the influence of the Sweden Democrats as a hostage to get through whatever point of view that Left Party has, and it only works if the conservative parties join them in this action. And in this case, it seems unlikely.”

It’s a similar case for his party’s liberal economic policies. He believes it will be possible to find a majority by doing deals with conservative parties on the other side of the left-wing divide.

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More generally, he believes it is time to call Dadgostar’s bluff, to see if she is genuinely willing to let a Moderate Party government backed by the Sweden Democrats take power.

“Of course, it’s in her interest to just pursue this kind of logic, whereby if you don’t agree to everything within the Left Party’s policies, she will try to block a prime minister from the Social Democrats, but the answer to each and every one of these hostage takings is this: what is your alternative? Are you prepared to vote for the opposite side? And to give the Sweden Democrats direct power over a government in Sweden? And this, and we know this, is not going to happen.”

It remains to be seen how Dadgostar will respond to more hardball tactics. 

“My guess is that this is going to end after the elections, and, if it doesn’t, it’s going to be her problem and the problem of people who voted for her.”

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INTERVIEW: ‘Sweden was a country where we included everyone who wanted to be a Swede’

The Local spoke to Muharrem Demirok for our Sweden in Focus podcast about his former allies' collaboration with the far-right, and his unlikely path from a rough Stockholm suburb to leader of the agrarian Centre Party, popular with rural voters.

INTERVIEW: 'Sweden was a country where we included everyone who wanted to be a Swede'

Muharrem Demirok, a self-described “cultural Muslim” from Vårby gård, a rough Stockholm suburb, might seem like an unlikely leader for the traditionally agrarian Centre Party.

Vårby gård is currently classified by Swedish police as a “vulnerable area” due in part to the local Vårbynätverket criminal gang, but that’s not what the Vårby gård of Demirok’s youth was like, he tells The Local.

“It was the best upbringing you can have as a kid. It was built during the 70s with the ideals they had then – no cars, only residences, houses and green areas. So we could just take our bikes and cycle around, we were the freest kids in the world.”

It took him by surprise when, as a teenager, he discovered that this wasn’t the view most people held of his home suburb.

“I remember one time when Carl Bildt was prime minister [ed: between 1991 and 1994], he mentioned a couple of areas were ghettos, and Vårby gård was one of them,” he recalls. “Me and my friends just looked in the newspaper and saw ‘Vårby gård is a ghetto’ and were like, ‘what’s he talking about?’ For us, it was the safest place, the best place in the world.”

After this, he started to see Vårby gård with new eyes, trying to figure out why other people considered his home neighbourhood to be a ghetto.

“I realised that Vårby gård is very close to the city centre in Stockholm. It’s very close to the parliament. But it’s still very, very far away from all the decisions. Everything that was decided was decided over our heads. No one spoke to us, everyone spoke about us, but never with us. And that was a wake up call for me.”

This realisation was eventually what led Demirok to the Centre Party, despite initially rejecting it due to its agrarian roots.

“When I first opened my eyes to the Centre Party, I thought ‘this is not for me’, and it took me almost a year to come out of the Centre Party closet,” he says.


However, as it turned out, Sweden’s rural areas and rough Stockholm suburbs face similar issues as far as isolation is concerned.

“I heard our former party leader Maud Olofsson talk about this feeling that everything is so far away, everyone’s making decisions over your head – talking about you, but never with you. She was talking about Sweden as a whole and the agrarian counties, the rural ones, and her vision was a Sweden that was holding together, that every part of Sweden mattered.”

“It was the first time I’d ever heard a politician include me in its story and include Vårby gård in its story for Sweden. Including me in the vision of Sweden being something else.”

After that speech, he went to the local Centre Party offices to sign himself up as a member – much to their surprise. 

“Chaos happened,” he laughs. “they’ve never seen anyone come in and knock on the door to say ‘hi, I want to become a member’. But it was the best decision I made.”

Demirok hasn’t had the easiest start to his tenure as Centre Party leader. He took over from Annie Lööf, who had led the party for over a decade, in February last year. The party was reeling from a disappointing election result, dropping from 8.6 percent in 2018 to 6.7 in 2022.

In the most recent poll from Novus, Demirok had the lowest public confidence of any party leader at around 4 percent, roughly the same as when he took over leadership of the party.

“The political landscape has changed really fast in Sweden,” Demirok says. “It’s a whole new political landscape and liberalism, as we know, is under pressure not only in Sweden but all over Europe.”

“It’s hard to be a liberal now. Everyone’s searching for the easy answers, everything is black and white, everything is polarised. A lot of parties are trying to just sit in the mud and pull everyone else down into the mud saying ‘well, let’s sit here and have this debate about whose fault it is, who did what ten or fifteen years ago’. And liberalism is different to that.”

“It’s difficult times for a lot of people, but even when it’s more stormy, someone needs to look at the horizon and say ‘well, we’re going there, there’s something else ahead of us. There is a morning, there is light, there is something different from the mud that they’re sitting in. Now, let’s go there.’”

He doesn’t deny that there are real issues in Sweden, such as gang violence and shootings, or even just issues with infrastructure in the form of delayed or cancelled trains, for example.

“People are annoyed and feel like Sweden is not working. And when someone comes up and says ‘hey, you know what, it’s their fault. If we hadn’t done that 15 years ago, opened the door to those people, these trains would be on time and everything would be better and your life would be so much better’. That’s what we’re up against. And liberalism hasn’t found its way on this new playing field. That’s my biggest challenge.”

‘The Sweden Democrats are against everything I consider a core value’

Demirok’s party previously collaborated with the Moderates, Liberals and Christian Democrats in the Alliance coalition, which led the country between 2006 and 2014 under Moderate prime minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, who was succeeded by Social Democrat Stefan Löfven in 2014.

In 2016, the Moderates opened the door to collaboration with the Sweden Democrats, which Centre and the Liberals were staunchly against. The two latter parties supported Löfven in 2019 under the so-called January Agreement, with the Liberals later switching sides when they agreed to a possible coalition with the Sweden Democrats, Moderates and Christian Democrats ahead of the 2022 election.

Although they too are struggling in the polls, this proved successful for the Liberals in one crucial sense: they are now in government alongside the Moderates and Christian Democrats, with the support of the Sweden Democrats.

So, is there any chance that the Centre Party under Demirok may follow the Liberals and rejoin a coalition with the right-wing parties?

“I’ve always supported the former Alliance we had in Sweden, between the four right and liberal parties, and I think most of us are comfortable in that situation,” says Demirok. “But something happened when the Sweden Democrats came in, they shifted focus, and we now have a split between conservatives, national conservatives and liberals. And liberals and national conservatives are opposites.”

“I can’t see myself ever cooperating with the Sweden Democrats, because they’re against everything I consider a core value, and against the Centre Party’s core values. And if you don’t keep your core values, you might as well skip politics.”

This doesn’t mean that Demirok rules out ever collaborating with the former Alliance parties in the future.

“I would love to see the former Alliance come back… the formula that we call borgerligheten in Swedish, that’s what got defeated. It’s not the Centre Party against the government, it’s our common project that we worked on for 30 years that lost in the elections. And the other three parties said ‘well, let’s move forward with a new friend and see if national conservatism is something we can lean on’. I will never go that way.”

He considers it unlikely that Centre would enter into coalition with the Left Party either, who Demirok describes as “ideological opposites”.

“One of the biggest challenges in Sweden’s political system is that we have eight parties but only see two solutions. I can see at least ten solutions just sitting here, and how you can find new cooperations.”

He believes a collaboration between parties in the centre, excluding the Left Party and the Sweden Democrats, would be the best solution.

“Where are most of the voters? They’re in the middle, they don’t want to be on the extreme left wing or the extreme right wing, so let’s find solutions in the middle. This political stupidity, just having two teams like it’s a football game, it’s not good for Sweden, because you are always pitting what’s best for the party against what’s best for Sweden. And that’s not bringing Sweden forwards.”

‘They will never stop counting the percentage of Swedish blood in my kids’

Demirok himself has an immigrant background. His father is from Turkey, and he considers himself to be culturally Muslim.

“I’m not a believer, but I was brought up with parts of Muslim culture, especially the holidays, like Eid… in my family it was like Christmas, a time to meet relatives, go home to my aunt and eat.”

“I’m proud of those cultural aspects of it, and I don’t want to let go of them, they are part of me, and I want my kids to have part of that as well, family and friends, having those warm feelings about Eid. But when it comes to faith, it’s not in me.”

He admits that it would have been easier not to identify as being culturally Muslim, but doesn’t regret it.

“I would have been denying a part of myself and denying what a lot of Swedes think of themselves today.”

Demirok has previously spoken about encountering some Sweden Democrat politicians who question his Swedishness or calculate the percentage of “Swedish blood” in his children, due to his Turkish heritage and the fact that he identifies as a Muslim.

“They say ‘Muharrem, he’s 50 percent Swedish because his mother is Swedish and his father is Turkish, his kids are 75 percent Swedish’. I realise they will never stop counting the percentage of blood in my kids, and it hurts me. They can say what they want about me but all of a sudden they’re counting my kids.”

“Sweden belongs to all of us,” he says. “I am Swedish, I’ve never known anything else but being Swedish.”

“This issue of discrimination, pointing out who is and who is not Swedish, it scares me because it’s becoming more and more polarised.”

Growing up in two cultures has been a help rather than a hindrance, he believes.

“I love having been brought up with another culture and language so close to me. It’s made me a better person and a better human being. So I love having two cultures like that, but I’m still Swedish. This is my country.”

Last summer, the Sweden Democrats’ Richard Jomshof, chair of parliament’s justice committee, sparked a stir among Muslims in Sweden after he called the prophet Mohammad a “mass murderer”. In November, his leader, Jimmie Åkesson, called for some mosques in Sweden to be demolished.

“It points out to kids that are growing up, maybe like me, not feeling like they believe in God, but having cultural contexts that include them. And when they hear that they are a part of an Islamist conspiracy here to take over Sweden, it does something to those kids. They don’t feel Swedish, they are pushed out.”

The Sweden Democrats aren’t the only party to do this, he adds.

“What’s even sadder is that we’re seeing it in the Moderates, in the Christian Democrats, and the Liberals are being quiet. And that makes me really sad, because we used to agree on this as well. Sweden was a country where we included everyone who wanted to be a Swede, everyone was welcome. And now we’re pointing fingers and saying ‘are you really Swedish?’”

“The prime minister said that people who have become Swedish citizens are not as likely as born Swedes to want to protect Sweden if we go to war. I thought ‘what is he saying?’ ‘Why is he even pointing that out?’”

“Your job is to unite this country, not divide it, and that’s what he did with those small, small words. Kids growing up feeling that they want to be a police officer or a nurse or a doctor or whatever, thinking ‘he’s making theories about my willingness to support my country, to defend my country, making out that I don’t want to do that because of my upbringing’, and that makes me really, really sad.”

Listen to the full interview with Muharrem Demirok below:

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