Sweden’s Left Party leader Nooshi Dadgostar and the party’s top candidates for the EU elections Jonas Sjöstedt and Hanna Gedin at the election night.

Sweden’s Left Party celebrates its biggest win in 20 year

John Hörnquist

After winning over 11 percent of the vote, and two mandates, in June’s European Parliament elections, the Swedish Left Party Vänsterpartiet is celebrating its best election results in twenty years. The historic result brought the party a step closer to fulfilling large parts of its main strategy, something it has been working towards for more than a decade. How this outcome is to be interpreted – whether as a direct result of this strategy, or a widening of it – is now up for debate.

The European election also took place mere weeks after a marathon five-day party congress, which adopted a new party programme amid intense debate. This debate also foreshadowed both the diverse entry points of the election campaign, as well as different interpretations of its outcome that were to follow.

Vänsterpartiet’s success in the European elections could be – and is being – ascribed to many factors. The party’s messaging was framed in a similar way to the 2022 national election, in what might be described as a form of class-based populism, connecting both with Sweden’s strong social democratic tradition and with calls for a state-led climate restructuring strategy. The party’s campaign was built on popular demands, such as opposing European Union-driven liberalisations limiting climate and social policies, promoting European train coordination, and a national de-linking of EU electricity prices.

However, the lead candidate was popular former party leader Jonas Sjöstedt, who has a strong a green profile, and some have interpreted the latter as the decisive factor in Vänsterpartiet’s electoral success.

Palestine solidarity

The campaign also featured solidarity with Ukraine and Palestine, but while support for Ukraine crosses Swedish party lines, solidarity with Palestine breaks down much more of a left-right divide. As the campaign went on the left’s messages on Palestine came more into focus, mirroring the strong Swedish (and international) solidarity movement that has mushroomed in recent months, and has helped change the Swedish political debate dramatically. This led to heated televised debates, and to Vänsterpartiet’s leader Nooshi Dadgostar openly describing the vote as a “Palestine election”, arguing that a decisive EU, using sanctions and political pressure, could “stop the ongoing genocide”.

The party’s stance here clearly contributed to its record results, at least with certain groups of voters. Vänsterpartiet received 20 percent support from voters born, or with at least one parent born, outside Europe, and achieved very good results in suburban working class areas (where many with this background live, and where sympathy for Palestine is high). While these areas have long been a stronghold for the left, this was an unprecedented breakthrough. In several districts and regions, Vänsterpartiet surpassed the Social Democrats as the biggest party, often for the first time, while in Sweden’s second and third cities, Gothenburg and Malmö, it came second with 17.6 and 19.8 percent of the vote, respectively.

 A strengthened left, and a weakened far-right

In the years after Sweden joined the EU in 1995, Vänsterpartiet performed well in European elections (then, too, with Jonas Sjöstedt as lead candidate), articulating a strong left-wing criticism of the EU. This attracted many voters in the northern regions and other peripheral areas where the labour movement is traditionally strong. To a certain extent, this pattern repeated in this election, especially in Sjöstedt’s northern home region, Västerbotten, where the party made the biggest increase of all, going from 10.3 to 23.3 percent. Organisationally, Vänsterpartiet also made strong headway in this campaign, making some 300,000 phone calls to voters (60,000 resulting in discussions), up from 200,000 calls in the last national election.

Last, but certainly not least, this election also saw the far-right Sweden Democrats decrease their vote-share for the first time since they entered the national Parliament in 2010, while all the red and green parties saw a substantial increase. The Greens replaced the Sweden Democrats as Sweden’s third biggest party and became the biggest party in Stockholm with around 20 percent, probably mirroring the importance often attached to climate messages in Sweden’s European elections.

Vänsterpartiet, however, saw a bigger increase in vote-share than any other party, from around 6.8 percent (in both the last EU and national elections) to 11.06 percent now, making it the only Swedish party to win a new seat in the European Parliament. Symbolically, this seat came at the expense of the Christian Democrats, who were Vänsterpartiet’s main antagonist in the debates on Palestine.

Preparing for government participation?

Vänsterpartiet’s marathon party congress only wrapped up on May 12, just weeks out from the European vote. The five-day affair saw it adopt an entirely new party programme, with a more down to earth vocabulary, and make clear statements calling for solidarity with Palestine and sanctions on Israel.

For only the second time in history, the leader of the Social Democrats also attended the Left Party’s congress as guest speaker, signalling a closer bond between the parties and an opening for Vänsterpartiet to participate in a potential red-green government in 2026. After decades of negotiating budgets with Social Democratic governments from outside of government, such participation is a core demand of the party leadership for the future.

In order to understand Vänsterpartiet’s development over the last decade, however, it is important to look at one of the most important, but least debated, documents at the congress: the report on the party’s long term strategy. The first version of this strategy was adopted back in 2012, with an updated version in 2020. The Left Party has changed a great deal during this time, and the changes made in the party programme needs to be seen in that context.

Responding to a right-wing majority

Since 2006, Sweden has had a right-wing structural majority – a major change for a country that had seen near-continuous left-wing majorities since 1932 (with only a 9 year gap). In 2010, after a second win by the liberal-conservative government, a fourth poor result in a row for Vänsterpartiet, and a breakthrough for the far-right Sweden Democrats, entering Parliament for the first time, the party appointed a crisis commission, led by the current economic spokesperson, Ida Gabrielsson.

This commission drafted a new strategy, concluding that Vänsterpartiet could no longer be content with trying to drag the Social Democrats to the left, as they had lost the capacity to win elections on their own, and were unwilling to challenge neoliberal policies. The new strategy called for Vänsterpartiet to take on and reframe the Social Democrats’ own now-abandoned legacy, with a long-term view to winning both the political initiative and a broader electoral support, particularly within the working class, replacing the Social Democrats as Sweden’s main force on the left, and pushing the whole political spectrum to the left.

Long term strategies

To achieve this, several organisational and political priorities were set, many of which have since been achieved: party membership has increased from 11,000 to 27,000; a “tax” on the high incomes of the party’s MPs has significantly strengthened the party’s economy; considerably more resources have been channelled into political and organisational education; elected representatives have become much younger and majority female at most levels; the party’s campaign and communication methods have been considerably professionalised; and so on.

Vänsterpartiet has also had considerable success in setting the political agenda via a class-based populism that connects with Sweden’s strong social democratic tradition. For example, Vänsterpartiet has long campaigned for a ban on corporate profits from publicly financed welfare. Sweden‘s liberalised welfare sector facilitates public funding of private medical clinics, elderly homes, pre-schools and schools, resulting in increasingly unequal social services and growing private oligopolies in these sectors. The call for a ban has broad popular support, and Vänsterpartiet eventually forced a Social Democratic government into proposing it, but – despite having promised a similar move – corporate lobbying led the Sweden Democrats to backflip on their position, joining with the liberal and conservative parties to stop the legislation. Vänsterpartiet also pushed the Social Democrats to deliver several welfare reforms, leading to a slow but steady increase in electoral support, which reached 8 percent in the 2018 national election, and made Vänsterpartiet political kingmakers for the following four years. The party used this influence to push through progressive reforms, such as raised pensions, and, in 2021, to topple – and reinstate – the Social Democratic government in a successful bid to stop liberalisation of negotiated rents.

Unresolved challenges

So far, the successes. But the strategy has brought other challenges that are not yet resolved, not least the issue of replacing the dominant right/far-right agenda, which focuses on crime and immigration, with one focusing on economic and social issues. Despite some success in this regard during and after the struggle on rents in 2021, the momentum was lost when Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022. This led to a national debate on NATO accession that Vänsterpartiet engaged in but did not embrace or incorporate into its core messaging. Once that debate faded away, the repressive political agenda of the far-right returned, just in time to deliver it victory in the 2022 election.

Another challenge is that the more radical and agenda-setting Vänsterpartiet’s policies became on economic and welfare issues, the more it toned down its radicalism on issues such as anti-racism, socialist rhetoric, international solidarity, and environmentalism. While this has sometimes helped place concrete class conflicts at the centre of mainstream political debates, it has also led to tensions within the party, and between the party and social movements. On issues such as climate, the party’s policies and rhetoric have been reshaped for similar purposes, with some success, but fuelling similar tensions, especially among young progressive voters.

Finally, Vänsterpartiet’s attempts to strengthen support in suburban working class areas have been considerably more successful than similar ambitions in rural industrial towns. This all contributed to the party’s electoral setback in the 2022 election, where its support dropped from 8 to 6.75 percent, despite polling around or over 10 percent only a year earlier. At the same time, a right-wing government came to power by a slim majority, heavily dependent on and influenced by the far right Sweden Democrats and their 20 percent of the vote.

New party programme debated

It was in this context that Vänsterpartiet debated and adopted a new party programme in May. Perhaps due to the various challenges the party faces, and the scale of the task set out in its long-term strategy, the pre-congress debate was both complex and detailed, and at times confusing for both party members and the public. This was not helped by the contradictory arguments made about the proposed new programme, including in the mainstream media.

The chair of the party’s Program Commission, Jens Börjesson, argued the new programme should “build confidence in socialism” by showing how socialist solutions had already changed society for the better, and how this “removal of obstacles to liberty” could be continued. The commission also argued that for the party to grow and attract more people it needed to make the party programme more accessible and easier to understand, rephrasing its content quite dramatically, making the language less theoretical and more down to earth, and focused on creating a narrative around the need for cohesion and liberation.

Less ideological and more down to earth?

As a result, the draft programme replaced phrases such as “abolishing capitalism” with “liberate more parts of the production system from the chains of capital … democratise decisions that today are made behind closed doors by (corporate) boards (of directors) … this is what we think of as socialism”. In place of the demand that “Sweden shall leave the EU” the commission proposed the more pragmatic “Vänsterpartiet needs to hold on to the alternative of Sweden leaving the EU. This is not an end in itself but might become necessary to build a better society in (potential) situations where the EU is hindering this.”

Likewise, the party’s position of “dissolving NATO” was to become “we want Sweden to be independent from NATO and we work to direct military co-operations that we are a part of towards a defensive direction” in the proposed draft. Vänsterpartiet’s leader, Nooshi Dadgostar, has several times avoided answering questions on or criticised such phrases in the old party program, and many critics of the new draft programme saw in these proposals a weakening or even termination of the party’s socialist legacy. Some also argued it was a deliberate accommodation to the Social Democrats, to pave the way for Vänsterpartiet to participate in a left government after the next election.

Compromises and concessions

The commission met some of these criticisms halfway, for example by retaining the traditional ideological introduction describing the Left Party as “a socialist and feminist party, based on an ecological foundation” – something the new draft would have left out. When the congress finally adopted the new programme, the proposed draft was also amended in other respects, restoring a greater emphasis on anti-racism, anti-capitalism, and class, both in the introduction and in the analysis, compared to the commission’s text.

Likewise, the party’s critique of nuclear power and environmental problems was further developed and language asserting the possibility and value of civil disobedience was reinstated. Wholehearted support for Ukraine (including militarily – something the Left Party board opposed very briefly in the beginning of the war) seemed to enjoy broad support at the congress, but it also voted to strengthen the party’s opposition to the developing arms race and rising militarism, and a clear aim to leave NATO was eventually incorporated into the final text.

From a follower to a leader in international politics

While progressive social and economic policies, combined with public investment-led climate policies, have dominated the party’s core messaging, the Palestine solidarity movement made its importance felt both in the election campaign and in the party congress itself. Two members of the new party board – Lorena Delgado and Daniel Riazat – were elected despite not being proposed by the election committee. Both Delgado and Riazat have a strong – sometimes controversial – profile around international solidarity and anti-racism, and are high-profile participants and frequent speakers in the Palestinian solidarity movement.

In a sense, the role of Palestine solidarity this year carries echoes of the disruption caused to Vänsterpartiet’s class-based messaging by the invasion of Ukraine in the lead up to the 2022 election. Unlike in the case of Palestine and Gaza, however, Vänsterpartiet failed to play a leading role during the debate on Ukraine, trying instead to (unsuccessfully) return the debate to its preferred topics, amid a hostile political and media environment. It seems that leading the way with an independent agenda on all key debates contributed to the party’s success this year, bringing Vänsterpartiet closer to its stated strategic goal of becoming the leading party on the left, pushing the whole spectrum of politics leftwards.

 Can Vänsterpartiet ride the wave?

Whether Vänsterpartiet’s latest electoral results signal a widening of its political project in the future, and if strategic decisions taken as a result of this election will benefit or harm the party’s cohesion and wider support, remains to be seen. June’s European elections carried a very different momentum to the vote in 2022, and – for now – the party seems to be riding a wave, if it can hold on to it. In this respect, it is worth noting that while Vänsterpartiet’s vote share increased in these elections, its overall number of votes remained about the same.

Swedish voter participation is always considerably lower in European elections (53.4 percent this year) than in national elections (84.2 percent in 2022), so Vänsterpartiet’s result suggests a strengthening of support for the party in general, mobilising not only its own supporters, but also attracting voters from other parties.

The first polls after the election also indicates a spill-over in support for Vänsterpartiet from the European to the national stage, with Vänsterpartiet up two points to 10 percent. They also show a boost in support for party leader Nooshi Dadgostar, whose popularity after the election surpassed the leader of the Sweden Democrats Jimmie Åkesson. With a 26 percent approval rating, Dadgostar is currently the third most popular party leader in Sweden.

The polls also suggest a strong support for the opposition parties in general, who are a attracting a combined 55 percent (49 for the Social Democrats, Greens and Vänsterpartiet, without the agrarian liberal Center Party). Meanwhile the right-wing government coalition can only muster 25 percent support, and its extreme-right partner, the Sweden Democrats, 19 percent.

With the next national elections not due until 2026, there is still a long way to go, but these figures, and Vänsterpartiet’s good showing in the European election, suggest that a left coalition government, perhaps with Vänsterpartiet participation, could be possible. With the Social Democrats no longer able to win elections on their own, which conclusions Vänsterpartiet draws from this latest electoral success may be decisive.


John Hörnquist is the former head of political development and political studies, for the Left Party.