Sweden's first woman Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson is nicknamed the "bulldozer" for her blunt manner

Three rivals face off in tough election race in Sweden

Sweden’s first female prime minister, Magdalena Andersson, was nicknamed the ‘bulldozer’ for her bluntness – Copyright AFP Dave Chan

Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson, head of the opposition conservative Moderates Ulf Kristersson and far-right leader Jimmy Akesson will converge as the top three candidates in Sunday’s general election.

– “Bulldozer” PM –

Andersson came to power in November 2021 with the aim of breathing new life into the Social Democrats and ended up spearheading the country’s historic bid for NATO membership.

Sweden’s first female prime minister, despite the country’s reputation as one of the most feminist countries in the world, the 55-year-old replaced Stefan Lofven after he retired from politics.

The former champion swimmer served as finance minister for seven years, earning her the nickname “The Bulldozer” for her bluntness that could anger a country deeply committed to consensus.

Initially hesitant to join NATO, Andersson made the decision weeks after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, persuading her party to abandon longstanding opposition after two centuries of Sweden’s military non-alignment.

“She managed to maintain and even strengthen the position of the party and the support of voters,” said political scientist Ulf Bjereld.

Often dressed in navy blue suits with straight blonde hair tucked behind her ears, Andersson campaigns under the slogan “Sweden can do better”.

She vowed to defend Sweden’s cherished welfare state and pushed for a tougher party stance on immigration.

“Integration failed,” she said in April after young immigrants clashed with police.

On the international stage, her most difficult task was negotiating with Turkey.

Ankara has threatened to block Sweden’s NATO bid, accusing Stockholm of harboring Kurdish “terrorists”.

The first hurdle was cleared in June, but Turkey has yet to ratify Sweden’s membership in the Atlantic Alliance.

If she loses the election, she will become Sweden’s shortest prime minister since 1936.

– Gambling with the Far Right –

Her main contender for the premiership, conservative Moderate leader Ulf Kristersson, is hoping to end the Social Democrats’ eight-year run in power.

The 58-year-old is betting that his historic acceptance of the once far-right rogue Swedish Democrats to the right will pay off and secure the parliamentary majority he needs.

A former gymnast with horn-rimmed glasses and a clean-cut face, Kristersson is making a second run for prime minister.

After the 2018 elections, he was given a chance to form a government but failed to win a majority. Moderates and their traditional centre-right allies refused to cooperate with the Swedish Democrats.

By December 2019, Kristersson had agreed to hold preliminary talks with the far right, and their cooperation has since deepened. The Christian Democrats and, to a lesser extent, the Liberals followed suit.

His critics, including Center Party leader Annie Loof, accused him of “selling out” to the far right, recalling his promises never to do so.

Kristersson defends this connection as “my side of politics”.

A Tintin fan with a degree in economics, Kristersson wants to impose a cap on Sweden’s generous social benefits to give people more incentive to enter the labor market.

A second failure as prime minister could spell the end for him as party leader.

– From outcast to heavyweight –

In his 17 years as party leader, Jimmy Akesson has turned the far-right Swedish Democrats from pariah status into heavyweights whose support is needed if the right-wing bloc wants to rule the country.

Impeccably styled brown hair, glasses and a neatly trimmed beard make the casually dressed 43-year-old look like a typical Swede.

It’s par for the course for a man who has turned the often violent neo-Nazi movement known as Keep Sweden Swedish into a nationalist party with a flower as its logo.

“He wants to come across as a regular guy … who fries sausages, speaks normally and takes charter flights to the Canary Islands,” Jonas Hinnfors, professor of political science at the University of Gothenburg, told AFP.

His party, which first entered parliament in 2010 with 5.7% of the vote and now has about 20% of the vote, has attracted voters from both conservative moderates and social democrats, especially among the working class.

The far right may for the first time be part of a right-wing coalition in parliament.

Akesson once said that Muslims are “the biggest external threat since World War II”, and the party has previously lobbied for Sweden’s exit from the European Union.

But over the years it has tried to soften its rhetoric and policies, like other nationalist parties in Europe.

Akesson is credited with his party’s meteoric rise, but his success comes at a price.

In 2014, he admitted to becoming addicted to online gambling and went on a six-month sick leave due to burnout.

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