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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?

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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. 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,

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