TT News Agency / Reuters Sweden Democrats leader Jimmie Akesson on election night in Stockholm, September 2018.

Swedish Unexceptionalism

Sweden's Elections Show That a Strong Far Right Is Europe's New Normal

As Sweden’s election results came in around midnight on Sunday, almost all of the country’s major parties were feeling like winners. The ruling Social Democrats were pleased simply because they did not collapse completely, as their brethren have done in the Netherlands and Germany. Although their 28.4 percent of the vote was nearly three percentage points below their 2014 result, they remained the single-largest party in the country. Their current coalition partner, the Greens, was relieved not to fall out of parliament. And the center-right Moderates, despite their vote share dropping from 23.3 to 19.8 percent, were happy because they remained Sweden’s second-largest party.

By contrast, the far-right Sweden Democrats, whose vote share had grown by 4.7 percent since the last elections, celebrated very little. The party, which ran on a nationalist, anti-immigration platform, got close to one-fifth of the vote: 17.6 percent, up from 12.9 percent in 2014. This was far less than the 20 to 30 percent that the party’s leader, Jimmie Akesson, had hoped for. But the result, although disappointing, still leaves the Sweden Democrats in a powerful negotiating position, since both of the country’s major blocs, one led by the Social Democrats and the other by the Moderates, got around 40 percent of the vote, short of the majority needed to form a government.

Although the Sweden Democrats failed in their immediate aims, their strong performance over a second consecutive election confirmed them as a major player in Swedish politics. How did the populist right rise in Sweden, and what does it say about the country’s future?

Moderate Party Secretary Gunnar Strommer at a press conference in Stockholm, September 2018.

Moderate Party Secretary Gunnar Strommer at a press conference in Stockholm, September 2018.

NOT SO SPECIAL

It is easy to tell a fairly straightforward story about the Sweden Democrats, one that attributes their successes to the failures of Sweden’s generous immigration and refugee policies. According to this interpretation, in the 1970s, Sweden—a then relatively homogeneous country with a strong belief in international law and human rights—began allowing growing numbers of people from faraway countries to come to in, mainly as refugees. Immigrants from countries such as Afghanistan, Chile, Iran, Iraq, Somalia, and Turkey started slowly but surely changing the demographics of the country in ways that made some Swedes uncomfortable.

That steady stream of migrants turned into a virtual flood in 2015, when more than 160,000 people, most of them Syrians, claimed asylum in Sweden—more per capita than in any other European country. At that point, many Swedes decided they’d had enough. For years, the Sweden Democrats had been talking about the problems with immigration: the challenges of integrating newcomers into a highly regulated labor market; the crime-ridden, immigrant-heavy neighborhoods popping up in major Swedish cities; and, in their eyes, the incompatibility of Islam with Sweden’s secular, Western culture. Whether the party is actually well equipped to handle these real and perceived challenges is an open question, but in a campaign dominated by immigration and related issues, such as crime, many voters saw the Sweden Democrats as the real deal.

But looking at Sweden in an international perspective changes this analysis. Anyone with even a fleeting interest in global politics has been able to see the wave of populism and anti-immigrant sentiment washing across Europe and the United States over the past decade. In what almost seems like a political law of nature, practically all Western countries now have some 20-odd percent of the voting population who, for one reason or another, don’t like immigrants. All that happened on Sunday was that Sweden joined the club. 

Viewed from this perspective, the migration crisis of 2015 matters much less to Sweden. Across Western democracies, the actual number of immigrants in a country seems to play a minor role in determining popular attitudes toward immigration. Hungary has almost no immigrants at all yet has elected and reelected the anti-immigrant populist Viktor Orban as prime minister. The United States has a long history of large-scale immigration, a sizable population of recent immigrants, and generally positive public attitudes toward them, yet it elected President Donald Trump in 2016 on a nativist platform. Sweden has indeed rapidly changed from being a relatively homogeneous society to a very diverse one, but according to most basic metrics of societal well-being, such as its above-OECD-average GDP growth and top-ten place in the World Happiness Index, it is still doing quite well. And yet the Sweden Democrats have found a constituency—about one-fifth of the population. Practically all Western countries now have some 20-odd percent of the voting population who, for one reason or another, don’t like immigrants.

AN AMERICAN, A DANE, AND A GERMAN WALK INTO A BAR..

Sunday’s result will almost certainly make it hard to form a government. Sweden’s old left-right bloc system has become untenable, leaving the country with three options: the German, the Danish, and the U.S. models.

The German model, based on the German Christian Democrats’ repeated grand coalitions with the Social Democrats, would call for a broad left-right coalition in which Sweden’s Social Democrats partner with the Moderates, alongside smaller centrist parties such as the Liberals, the Greens, the Christian Democrats, and the Center Party. This would create a viable centrist government but would also open up room for opposition parties to grow on the coalition’s flanks: the Left Party to the left and the Sweden Democrats to the nationalist right.

In the Danish model, based on the center-right Venstre’s de facto coalition with the right-wing populist Danish People’s Party, a conservative bloc led by the Moderates would form a government with the help of the Sweden Democrats. This would polarize Swedish politics along a renewed left-right axis, with nationalism becoming the ideological base of the right. This result seems unlikely for now, since all center-right parties have said they won’t negotiate with the Sweden Democrats, but they could change their minds as negotiations drag on.

In the U.S. model, the Social Democrats would try to splinter the center-right bloc, prying away the smaller, more centrist parties, similar to how the Democrats have tried to pry away moderate, center-right Republican voters since 2016. This would leave Sweden with a broad center-left bloc facing off against a clearly conservative, nationalist bloc. 

Even if the Sweden Democrats do enter a coalition, any government will almost certainly leave the major elements of Swedish policy intact—especially when it comes to the economy and national security. The EU, Sweden’s independent central bank, the country’s export-driven industrial base, and its close cooperation with NATO all stand as virtual guarantees of that. But the more identity-driven aspects of politics—culture, law and order, media, and especially migration—could be in for changes, at least in the long term. Since 2015, Sweden has already changed rapidly, from promoting one of the EU’s most open immigration policies to embracing one of its most restrictive. Sunday's elections brought long-simmering conflicts over identity to the surface, and with so much uncertainty in the air, Sweden—a country that once pioneered the creation of the welfare state—might once again become a pioneer, this time for something radically different. 

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