On 9 September Swedes will go to the polls in a general election that politicians across Europe ought to pay attention to – there is certainly no doubt that xenophobic populists everywhere will be hoping for their Swedish counterparts to do well. So what should opponents of populist politics be looking out for?
The extreme right may have entered government in Norway and Finland, and become the second political force in the Danish parliament, but Sweden long looked to be immune. The Sweden Democrats (SD) entered the Riksdag only in 2010, on less than six percent of the vote; it was founded only in 1988, and has roots in Swedish fascism. But then the European refugee crisis of 2015 provided a real breakthrough for the party.
Now, the latest opinion polls are pointing to the SD losing – but emerging the biggest winner. The party is likely to win around 20 percent of the vote, almost double what it got in the 2014 general election. This would put it behind the ruling Social Democrats but on a par with the centre-right Moderates, making it the kingmaker, whose passive support would be necessary for either the centre-left bloc, which comprises three parties, or the centre-right bloc of four, to form a government.
Each bloc is currently polling at around 40 percent each, but Moderate Party leader Ulf Kristersson appears likely to become the next prime minister. Would the Moderates do a deal with the SD? The party has been sending out mixed messages about the level of cooperation it would entertain. To form a minority government, the centre-right bloc might have to obtain at least tacit support from the SD, for which the latter would almost certainly require something in return. A similar arrangement is already in place in Denmark where the Danish People’s Party provides support to the centre-right government in exchange for a say in immigration policy.
The Moderates have made clear that they may be willing to bring SD into a cross-party agreement on migration – breaking the taboo of working with the far-right
But some even speculate that the stability of Kristersson’s government would require more than just passive support from the SD. Moderates could find themselves consulting with populists on parts of the political agenda, including migration. This would alienate the centre and liberal parties that also form part of the Moderate-led bloc, parties which are vocal opponents of any arrangement with the populists. The risk for Kristersson would be that these parties could withdraw their own support from the coalition. As a result, with just over a week to go before the election takes place, a snap election after this one is already the subject of political speculation.
Why should the SD be doing so well now? The last general election took place the year before the refugee crisis; and despite the fact that the number of refugees arriving in Sweden has declined significantly since 2015, as it has across Europe, it has left a lasting trauma. In turn, the SD have capitalised on the public’s fears. In their public discourse they draw misleading links between refugees, Islam, and crime; or between migration and a surge in the cases of rape. Donald Trump has even played along. The party repeats ad nauseam that migrants will limit access to social welfare for native Swedish citizens (as in their memorable party political broadcast from 2010). Like Trump they attack the media and political establishment, question official data on crime and other matters, and recently called for a Swedish exit from the EU (so-called Swexit, supported by 17 percent of voters). In a dark pre-election broadcast, SD leader Jimmie Åkesson presented Sweden as a failing country in which terror rules and to which refugees continue to arrive en masse. The SD have managed to set the tone of the campaign, putting other parties on the defensive. The ruling Social Democrats, despite the country’s recent strong economic record, are approaching the elections with their heads down, as if they do not disagree that the country is in decay.
Beyond the fallout from 2015, it is also true that Sweden has changed, and voters are conscious of this. The share of citizens born outside the country has increased from nine to 17 percent over the last three decades. The integration of refugees from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan constitutes a real challenge – although the beginning of the 1990s saw similar concerns about the integration of refugees from the Balkans, something which is now perceived as a success story.
In response to this combination of changes, the mainstream parties, including the Social Democrats and the Moderates, have toughened their views on Sweden’s past openness. In 2015 the prime minister, Stefan Löfven, said that Sweden had been naïve about the risk of Muslim terrorism on its soil. Meanwhile, the Moderates have made clear that, after the elections, they may be willing to bring SD into a cross-party agreement on migration – thus breaking the taboo of working with the far-right. The risk is that many voters will see all this as a sign of the political mainstream’s hypocrisy, asking themselves why they should vote for a copy if they can get an original. Paradoxically, the cordon sanitaire (with which the main parties tried, unsuccessfully, to isolate SD after the last election) has strengthened the credibility of the SD as the representatives of the people: polls indicate that the party’s supporters are also those who feel the most abandoned by politicians.
At the moment, it looks like Sweden will become another European country where populists are “waltzing into the mainstream”, to use The Economist’s expression. This has already happened in Denmark, the Netherlands, Austria, and Finland, among others. The far-right often wins by infecting the political mainstream with a populist virus, without the need to formally enter the government. In a way, this is even safer for them than entering government, as they can continue to criticise the mainstream.
Of course there is still a possibility that the strong SD polling will turn out to be just hype; or that a new government would form without the need for SD support. The country’s two rival political blocs could come together to do this, as they did after the 2014 election. Still, at the present moment a minority centre-right government in office thanks to at least tacit support from the populist far-right looks more probable, leaving open the question of the mainstream’s future.
Whatever the result, the challenge will be to put in place migration and integration policies which deny oxygen to xenophobia and racism. And, given the transnational nature of the migration challenge, the contagious character of the old continent’s populism, and the upcoming 2019 elections to the European Parliament, the result in Sweden next week should be a concern for all across Europe.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.