Swedish Secretariat for Gender Research Facebook page. Fair use.
On December 17, 1918, the historic decision was taken in the Swedish Parliament in favour of introducing universal and equal suffrage for women and men. 100 years later, the date marks the very day when confirmation came that the Swedish Gender Equality Agency (Jämställdhetsmyndigheten) would be closed down, thereby delivering a serious institutional blow to the coordination and harmonization of Swedish gender equality efforts that have been undertaken over the past century.
An uncertain parliamentary landscape and a rejected transitional budget
The results of the Swedish Parliamentary elections which took place on 9 September 2018, marked a significant shift rightwards. The right-wing populists Sweden Democrats (Sverigedemokraterna) became the third largest party, redrawing the political map which had previously consisted of two alliance blocks. Traditionally, the two blocks were opposed – on the one hand, the progressive “red-greens” consisting of the Social Democrats (Socialdemokraterna); the Green Party (Miljöpartiet); and the Left Party (Vänsterpartiet). On the other, the neoliberal conservative “blue” alliance that reunited the conservative Moderate Party (Moderaterna), the neoliberal Center Party (Centerpartiet), the Liberals (Liberalerna), and the Christian Democrats (Kristdemokraterna).
After the September elections, however, the two alliance blocks lack sufficient support in Parliament to form a stable government. Despite intense negotiations, some 100 days after the elections, there still is no governmental formula with a parliamentary majority.
Under these unusual conditions, the 2019/2020 budget was drafted as a transitional budget by the outgoing Löfven government (reuniting the Social Democrats and the Greens), and stipulated continuing along the line of the policy priorities set in the previous mandate. The transitional budget was nonetheless voted down on 12 December 2018. In its place, budget guidelines hastily drawn up by the conservatives Moderate Party and Christian Democrats also received the backing of the Sweden Democrats. This signalled a fresh intention on the part of right-wing populists to build an alliance with the conservative Moderate Party and Christian Democrats. In so doing they bypass the opposition of the Center Party and Liberals who have so far refused to partake in any government negotiations which involve the Sweden Democrats. In other words, the Sweden Democrats are aiming to gain legitimacy, and reshuffle the “blue” block around conservative values, economic deregulation, and drastically reduced immigration.
Conservative budget cuts support for a centralized gender equality approach
The new budget guidelines in this fluid political context stipulate some 28 billion SEK in tax cuts and tax deductions, which directly impacts the functioning of various Swedish state agencies. The one most affected is the Gender Equality Agency (Jämställdhetsmyndigheten). Indeed, the 2019/2020 budget for the Agency is set to decrease with 40 million SEK in 2019, followed by a total cut of funding for 2020.
Put simply, the Agency has approximately a year till it closes, to make sure its core operations and newly launched initiatives are transferred over to other surviving state agencies. The Gender Equality Agency was only established in January 2018. The Löfven government argued that the Agency would meet the need for “a solid and permanent structure at national level”, with the task “to implement the national gender equality policy effectively”
The domains of activity were research and implementation of development towards gender equality; support in and coordination of implementation efforts; and expert assistance in government efforts in international gender equality cooperation. The founding of the Agency was regarded as an implicit acknowledgement that the Swedish gender equality endeavors, while a model for other countries, had room for improvement and required a coordinated and harmonized approach. The Agency was nonetheless fiercely criticized from the very beginning in conservative quarters for distracting attention from “concrete politics”.
In the Parliamentary debate on Friday 14 December 2018, which concerned the fate of the Gender Equality Agency under the newly voted budget guidelines, there was a clear ideological polarization. This pitted representatives of the progressive left against the conservatives and right-wing populists. The cleavage was between pleas to continue the work to reduce segregation and further equal rights and gender equality (jämlikhet och jämställdhet, and appeals to enforce security and law-and-order (lag och ordning). He regarded... the Gender Equality Agency as an indivisible part of the larger effort to ensure a more equal and safe society and decrease criminality, which was directly connected to social and economic inequality.
Most tellingly, in his intervention, Fredrik Lundh Sammeli (Social Democrat) concentrated on the party’s ambition to advance the welfare state. He regarded the continued functioning of the Gender Equality Agency as an indivisible part of the larger effort to ensure a more equal and safe society and decrease criminality, which was directly connected to social and economic inequality. In turn, Andreas Karlson (Christian Democrats) criticized the Gender Equality Agency’s structural approach and prioritized areas of action for allegedly jeopardizing the previously uncoordinated gender equality efforts of various state agencies and organs. By disbanding the Agency, the argument continued, those gender equality efforts which proved effective would be continued separately in some yet-unknown form. The financial resources released would be used to strengthen police work with women’s harassment and rape reports.
Tellingly, Adam Marttinen (Sweden Democrats) remarked that while his party would have wanted more money for several other state agencies of both the law-enforcing and judiciary branches, he was nonetheless satisfied with the budgetary guidelines of the Conservatives and Christian Democrats, which allocated significantly more funds to the police agency than initially intended in the transitional budget.
Reactions in Swedish society at large
The situation has been monitored with increased concern by various activists in Swedish civil society. Even before the new budget guidelines were passed in the Parliament, the General Secretary of the Swedish Women's Lobby argued that the combination of more tax cuts and tax deductions, which would preponderantly benefit the rich, as well as closing the Gender Equality Agency, would deliver a serious blow to Swedish gender equality efforts.
In addition, the board of Swedish Gender Researchers’ Association (Sveriges Genusforskarförbund) led the way in mobilising against this outcome that very Friday, initiating an open letter to defend the agency. The open letter gathered more than 28,000 signatures by Monday 17 2018, when it was handed in to the Parliamentary Committee on the Labor Market (Arbetsmarknadsutskottet), in which the matter was discussed.
Unfortunately, in the context of ongoing political uncertainty, with the government negotiations seemingly in a stalemate, neither the support for the work of the Gender Equality Agency, nor the critique for the improvised shortsightedness of the new budget guidelines had a sufficient impact on the committee. The fate of Gender Equality Agency seems to be sealed; it is set to close by 2020.
At the same time, on Tuesday, December 18, 2018, a suspicious-looking parcel was found at the entrance to the Swedish Secretariat for Gender Research, a unit within the University of Gothenburg promoting gender research, and carrying out assignments on behalf of several national, Nordic and European initiatives. The police evacuated neighboring buildings, while the bomb squad worked swiftly to neutralize the parcel. The police forces classified the incident as aggravated assault (grovt olaga hot). It is not yet clear what the connection is between the tumultuous discussion about the fate of the Sweden Gender Equality Agency, and the assault on the Swedish Secretariat for Gender Research, but one plausible hypothesis is that they are two separate pieces of a wider anti-gender campaign.
A wider picture on worrying developments across Europe
The premature closure of the Swedish Gender Equality Agency, initiated by the conservative parties with the enthusiastic support of right-wing populists, is important for understanding contemporary political developments outside Sweden for several reasons.
First, it strengthens the hypothesis that the ongoing attacks on gender studies and gender equality expertise across the world constitute the spearhead of a broader attack on critical knowledge as a defining element of a strong democratic society. It strengthens the hypothesis that the ongoing attacks on gender studies and gender equality expertise across the world constitute the spearhead of a broader attack on critical knowledge as a defining element of a strong democratic society.
Second, it is further proof that right-wing populist parties can play a destabilizing role even in mature and stable western democracies, such as Sweden.
Third, it shows that conservative and right-wing populist parties are increasingly exploring their ideological overlaps, clearly including their common opposition to critical knowledge as a means to strengthen women’s agency and role in contemporary societies.
And last but not least, it argues that Sweden, which has long served as a model for gender equality, has become yet another theater for anti-gender campaigning witnessed across the world, in such countries as Hungary, or Brazil.