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Five takeaways about the Swedish election — and the far-right wave across Europe

- September 12, 2018

In Sweden’s general election on Sept. 9, 2018, voters reduced the power of the center-left and center-right parties — while boosting that of a populist, far-right, anti-immigrant party. The election has gotten an unusual amount of international attention for a country of only 10 million.

So what happened, and why does it matter?

Voters across Europe are abandoning traditional parties — resulting in unstable governments

Long viewed as an island of democratic stability, Sweden has finally succumbed to the electoral instability that’s been sweeping Europe. Here’s how stable it was: The center-left Social Democratic Party (SAP) led governments from the 1930s through the 1970s. In 1976, a center-right coalition finally formed a government; since then, the traditional left and right have alternated power.

But over the past several years, Swedish voters, like the rest of Europe, have become less loyal to the traditional parties. Eight parties now hold seats in parliament, including the populist Sweden Democrats (SD) — who won 18 percent of the vote. That means that neither the traditional right nor left can form a majority government. Sweden has a system called “negative parliamentarianism,” which in this context means the SAP could still form a minority left government, but without a majority in parliament, such a government would be weak.

Until now, the traditional center-right parties have refused to form coalitions or rely on the Sweden Democrats to govern. The temptation may now be too great to resist; indeed, there are signs that the Moderates and the Christian Democrats may be open to relying on parliamentary support from the Sweden Democrats to govern.

In theory, the SAP could also try to form a government with one of the small center-right parties or form a “grand coalition” with the Moderates, the largest party on the right. But Sweden has no tradition of such governments —  so if this is attempted, the populist Sweden Democrats might argue, as happened with the far right in Germany, that they’re the only alternative to “the establishment.”

In short, the chance that a strong government will emerge from these elections is slim.

The center left is declining

Sweden has been home to Europe’s most dominant social democratic party — but that party’s share of the vote has been deteriorating. This election delivered the Social Democrats’ worst result since before World War I, fully a century ago.

Historically, the SAP has been strongly backed by the nation’s unions, which have a higher membership rate than in most Western countries. Not this election. The Social Democrats got approximately 40 percent of the union vote, losing 11 percent of their voters to the populists. The Sweden Democrats got 20 percent of union members’ votes, making them labor’s second-most-popular party.

The future actually looks worse for the Social Democrats, who got only 20 percent of the youth vote.

Populism is rising even in prosperous, progressive Sweden

The Sweden Democrats’ share of the vote jumped almost 5 percent from the last election — bringing in only slightly less than the 20 percent received by the Moderates, traditionally the largest party on the right.

The SD is a fairly traditional right-wing populist party. With roots in neo-Nazi movements, it has, like its European counterparts, tried to clean up its image by purging overt racists. And like other successful right-wing populists, the SD has married a pro-welfare-state stance with an anti-immigrant appeal. That brings voters from across the political and socioeconomic spectrum — but disproportionately attracts voters who are lower-income, lower-education, and who previously didn’t vote.

Populism has exploited dissatisfaction with economic and social change and the failures of mainstream parties

Economically, Sweden has done generally very well over the past decade or so. Growth is high, unemployment is low, and the country is consistently ranked among the most competitive and innovative in the world.

But there are problems in paradise. About a decade ago, a center-right government’s policy reforms resulted in increasing inequality between the economic top and bottom, although it remains low comparatively. Parts of the welfare state were also privatized, reducing the quality of some social services.

The Sweden Democrats have blamed these shifts on immigrants. Such appeals attracted many low-income, low-educated workers who depend on the welfare state to protect them from rising unemployment and other economic risks.

Further, immigration has been rapidly changing the country. A generation ago, Sweden was extremely homogeneous. Now it has a higher percentage of foreign-born citizens than the United States. During the refugee crisis, Sweden took in twice as many refugees proportionately as Germany.

Sweden’s changing complexion alone is not the problem. In a recent Pew Research Center survey, Europeans were asked whether someone had to be born in their country to “truly” belong; whether they would be willing to accept Muslims or Jews as neighbors or family members; whether immigrants were generally honest and hard-working; whether their national culture was “inherently superior”; and whether Muslims generally supported violence and extremism. Swedes scored significantly lower on anti-immigrant, anti-religious minority sentiment than other Europeans.

Rather, Swedes’ anxieties about immigration are primarily pragmatic: More than three-fourths believe integration has gone poorly, and many worry about immigration’s impact on the welfare state. Until recently, mainstream parties have not addressed these concerns, enabling the SD to warn that immigrants are endangering the welfare state.

In short, mainstream parties failed to offer a convincing alternative to the SD’s dystopian vision — helping populism’s rise.

Pessimism prevails

Sweden’s leading newspaper observed that:

the closer the election, the more pessimistic has been discussion by all party leaders, even the Social Democrats, who should have been able to score points based on the country’s high growth, low unemployment, low government debt and positive assessment of the “Swedish model” in international discussions.

The Moderates’ leader went so far as to assert that Sweden faced its worse crisis in decades.

Such pessimism helped the populists, who like their counterparts elsewhere insisted “the establishment” was leading the country to disaster — and whose voters, like populist voters elsewhere, are extremely pessimistic about their futures. If mainstream parties want to fight populism, they may need to discuss contemporary social and economic problems directly while offering voters an optimistic vision of a better future.

Sheri Berman is a professor of political science at Barnard College, Columbia University, and the author of “Democracy and Dictatorship in Europe: From the Ancien Régime to the Present Day (Oxford University Press, 2019).