Sweden's Shift Right

Since Brexit’s success in June of 2016, European political commentary has focused on the decline of moderate “establishment” parties and the emergence of right-wing populism as a powerful new force. In the last two years, elections in several countries, including Germany, Austria, and Poland, reinforced this narrative, with far-right parties gaining ground and some governments modifying their policies to appease nationalist voters. Last Sunday, Europe’s political transformation seems to have continued.

The latest installment occurred in a particularly surprising place: Sweden, which for decades maintained a reputation as one of the world’s most liberal countries. As Philip Alterman writes in The Guardian: “Sweden was the first country to introduce a gender-neutral parenting leave allowance … The World Economic Forum lists Sweden as one of the countries with the narrowest gender gaps in the world … and it has accepted more asylum seekers per capita than any other European country.” Additionally, its crime laws, like most of Scandinavia’s, are exceptionally lenient, and its welfare state is larger and more aggressively redistributionist than that of most developed nations. In short, on almost every important issue, Sweden has tacked further to the left than nearly all European Union members.

This governing ideology draws its influence from Europe’s most venerable Social Democratic party. Such parties thrived throughout Europe in the postwar decades, but in no country was their success as consistent and thorough as it has been in Sweden. According to the Financial Times: “The centre-left Social Democrats have long seemed to be one of the most impressive election machines in the western world, coming first in every election since 1917. But now the party’s popularity is in sharp decline, with its support having nearly halved in the past 25 years. At the last election it recorded its second-worst result in a century.” On Sunday, they fell even further, winning only 28.4 percent of the vote, compared to 2014’s 31 percent. By contrast, they received at least 35 percent of the vote in every election from 1914 to 2006, and more than 40 percent in every election from 1932 to 1988.

The Sweden Democrats, the country’s approximate equivalent of Germany’s Alternative for Germany (AfD) and France’s National Front (FN), are the main cause and beneficiary of the Social Democrats’ troubles. They started as a marginal and radical ethno-nationalist party in 1988, but have expanded their base of support and tempered their views over time. Their current leader, Jimmie Akesson, has expelled party members for extremist comments and links to neo-Nazi groups, and has changed the party’s logo from a fascistic flaming torch to a more palatable blue and yellow flower. At the same time, they have maintained their basic stance that immigration, especially the Islamic kind, is destroying the country. The party’s softening image, combined with Sweden’s hardening attitudes towards immigration, catapulted the Sweden Democrats to prominence. Remarkably for any political party, the SD has achieved exponential growth, at least doubling its vote total in six of the eight election cycles it has participated in and earning almost one thousand times more votes in 2018 than it did in its first election 30 years earlier. Their electoral jump in the most recent election was not as large as it was in previous years (they got 17.6% this time vs. 12.9% in 2014), and did not move them out of third place, but still grants them more leverage over the new government’s policies. Given that even in 2015 the Sweden Democrats were able to pressure the Social Democrats into limiting the flow of asylum seekers, we can expect them to greatly influence Swedish policy in the future.

These results may force Sweden’s main parties to either enter into a grand coalition (a partnership between the left and right), which seems unlikely and at any rate is unprecedented in Sweden, or compromise with the Sweden Democrats, an option that both major coalitions have ruled out. When the nationalist wave emerged across Europe and Britain in 2016, many analysts speculated that it was mostly limited to a few countries and would die down quickly once the economy picked up and the migrant crisis sparked by the Syrian Civil War subsided. Today Sweden’s economy is thriving, immigration is back to pre-crisis levels, and yet its far-right party is stronger than ever. This election only confirms that Europe’s nationalist movement is more durable and far-reaching than many previously anticipated.