Election Watch – The Implications of Sweden’s vote

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Sweden’s national election on Sunday is not a traditional political fight between left and right. The country is at a crossroads, and the question is: Will Sweden remain an open society?

Swedes vote on Sunday in a tight election dominated by fears over asylum and welfare, with the populist, anti-immigration Sweden Democrats vying to become the biggest party in a country long seen as a bastion of economic stability and liberal values.

The nationalist Sweden Democrats (SD), which polls suggest have 20% support, are tipped for second place, eight years after they entered parliament.

Who will win?

Neither the governing Social Democrats nor the main centre-right party is likely to win a majority.

Prime Minister Stefan Löfven has accused the SD of extremism and said that a vote for it was “dangerous”.

Immigration has been a central issue of the campaign. The SD doubled its seats in the 2014 election and it is predicted to double them again in this election.

How it got here

The rise of the right-wing populist Sweden Democrats has put the taboo subjects of crime and immigration front and center in the campaign, forcing the mainstream parties to reckon with their failure to address the issues — and the connection between them — amid an unmistakable rise in crime and gang violence. The result could be explosive for Swedish politics.

The Swedish political system historically has been of the most stable in Europe. Decade after decade, a left-wing bloc representing the working class faced a center-right block representing the bourgeoisie. Swedes were loyal to their parties — often hesitant to change blocs or vote for newly formed parties — and often voted according to class and profession. New political forces rarely emerged, and governments rarely fell.

The vote share between the two blocs was also remarkably stable. Since the 1930s, the left-wing bloc has maintained a small but consistent edge over the center-right alliance. For 80 of the 101 years since the introduction of universal suffrage, the Social Democratic Workers’ Party — currently headed by Prime Minister Stefan Löfven — has formed the government. This stability meant there were few election surprises.

Sweden’s pattern of constancy makes the events of the last few years even more startling, as a new, one-issue party — belonging to neither bloc — has shattered the political order.

The Far-Right Sweden Democrat Party

The Sweden Democrats started out small and on the fringes. In 1988, the party was part of xenophobic white-nationalist circles, and while it was not a neo-Nazi party, it hosted some members with Nazi sympathies. These views were not popular in one of the world’s most tolerant and progressive societies. In its first parliamentary election, the party got 0.02 percent of the vote.

Sweden has been home to a right-wing extremist sub-culture since the late 19th century championing ideas such as anti-Semitism, Nordic racial superiority and eugenics. Tolerant values, liberalism and social democracy were stronger influences, but while fascist parties only garnered marginal support, racist ideas were at times mainstream and influenced both the Social Democrats and the center right. Sweden’s appeasement policy toward Hitler is another source of national shame — even though it should be noted that the policy was forced upon anti-Nazi Sweden by the military situation and that neutrality allowed Sweden to save thousands of Jews from the Holocaust.

By the late 1980s, fascist sympathies had been purged from the mainstream but still lingered in the shadows. Sweden was a homogenous country, and most migrants were from other European countries. There was no popular support for refugee immigration from developing countries — and still isn’t — among Swedish voters.

It was obvious from the start that the arrival of refugees led to an increase in problems related to crime, social exclusion and a fiscal burden on the welfare state. Because the number of arrivals was initially small, it took time for the immigration issue to grow in political salience. But the government’s migration policies were unpopular and reignited the lingering remains of the extreme-right: both the Sweden Democrats and the far more radial neo-Nazi skinhead movements.

The Social Democratic-Green government and most center-right opposition parties have toughened their migration policies, while the far-right Sweden Democrats repeated its simplistic mantra of, “go home and stay home.”

Like many of its far-right sister parties in the EU, the Sweden Democrats point to the problem, but give no solutions. They follow a well-known script, playing on people’s emotions, painting Sweden as a country on the verge of collapse, where migrants are guilty for all the shortcomings of the welfare system.

Swexit?

This election has the potential to paralyze Sweden’s political system. The far-right is isolated; no other party intends to form a government with them. But with the red-green bloc and the center-right alliance lagging in the polls, forming a government without them could prove nearly impossible.

The success of the far right in Sweden could also have international implications. Most people in the country who are considering voting for the Sweden Democrats are focused on immigration. They don’t spend much time thinking about the greater implications of their vote — the far-right’s pro-Russia stance, its connections with other far-right parties, or what its success would mean for our values and welfare. Nationalism and protectionism go hand in hand with sexism and backlash for women’s rights. If the far right increases its influence in Swedish politics, it would also encourage their populist friends in Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Italy and the U.K.

And while the Sweden Democrats call for Sweden to exit the EU, a so-called Swexit, the EU is not really on the election agenda. The issue has hardly been discussed in the media, which has not challenged the far right on European issues. There is really little chance for voters to grasp what’s at stake.

The rise of the far right in Sweden offers a hard lesson for policymakers and politicians across the EU: There is an urgent need to reduce the distance between Brussels and national voters.

Sweden is a global country that builds half of its GDP on exports, of which three-quarters go to the EU internal market. Free trade with the EU is the motor of job creation, a better welfare system and funding for security — the top issues voters care about.

And yet, national politicians rarely talk about Europe and when they do it is often in negative terms. Despite the country’s high level of education, Swedes’ knowledge of the EU is very low.

Guardian, Politico, BBC, CD