Sweden’s elections are over, the victorious Social Democrats are scrambling to form a government, and the country’s third-largest party is a populist right-wing group with roots in the country’s neo-Nazi movement.
Let that sink in for a moment.
In Sunday’s election, the Sweden Democrats, which has turned xenophobia and anti-immigrant posturing into a political growth industry, captured 12.9 percent of the vote. The election marks the end of the eight-year rule of the Moderate Party, which saw a huge number of its voters jump ship and vote for a group that has been roundly denounced by Sweden’s political class as a racist movement that has no place in the country’s politics.
In one sense, the election defied typical conventions. The government of Fredrik Reinfeldt has overseen tax cuts that have put more money in the pockets of the average Swede, shepherded the country through the financial crisis in admirable fashion, and built public finances that put the rest of the continent to shame. Since the center-right government took power in 2006, the economy has grown by 12.6 percent and disposable income is up 20 percent. As thanks for his efforts, Reinfeldt got thrown out of office in humiliating fashion.
The Social Democrats, the dominant power in 20th-century Swedish politics, emerged the winner on Sunday but it’s a sorry kind of victory. Compared to the 2010 election, the Social Democrats barely increased its share of the vote. Rather, it beat the Moderates because a huge number of center-right voters fled to the Sweden Democrats.
Stefan Löfven, the head of the Social Democrats and a former union boss, will become Sweden’s next prime minister, but he faces a terrible season of parliamentary wrangling. His political block lacks a clear majority. And because all Sweden’s political parties have pledged not to cooperate with the Sweden Democrats, Löfven will try to forge a unity government that includes one or two of the smaller parties that made up the previous center-right government. That’s a tough task.
The problem of Swedish politics today is one that the Nordic nation shares with almost all of its European peers. The industrial base that financed Sweden’s generous welfare state is mostly gone. The question of how to finance such a system in a post-industrial economy remains something of a riddle. With government benefits stretched by an aging population, financial crisis, and austerity, an ugly form of xenophobia has returned to Europe. In Sweden it goes by the name "Sweden Democrats," in France it’s the "National Front," in the United Kingdom it’s "UKIP," and in Italy it’s the "Lega Nord." On Tuesday, French President François Hollande’s new cabinet will face a confidence vote that could lead to new elections, which could provide a fresh electoral opening for the National Front.
Sweden has partly solved the conundrum of financing a big welfare state in a post-industrial economy by pursuing a series of modernizations and market reforms that have reduced government spending. (Equally important, Sweden mostly avoided the wreckage of the financial crisis.) But in Sunday’s election, Swedes punished the Reinfeldt government for taking those reforms too far. Most important was the perceived drop in the quality of Sweden’s schools, which have been the site of aggressive market experimentation. In December, Sweden’s results tumbled across the board in Pisa educational assessments, triggering a crisis in the country’s education politics.
But the supposed over-reaching didn’t result in an exodus to the political left, but a shift to the right. According to exit polls, a third of those who voted for Reinfeldt in 2010 abandoned him for the Sweden Democrats.
Those same exit polls provide a rough sketch of the average voter for the Sweden Democrats. They are mostly rural, unemployed men. Incredibly, Sweden Democrats were the second-biggest vote-getters among Sweden’s largest trade union. In short, the typical Sweden Democratic voter is one who has been left behind by the post-industrial economy. The party uses that fact, along with the country’s astronomic immigration rates, to incredible political effect.
And this is where Swedish politics have gotten really ugly. Sweden’s liberal immigration policies have left the country with one of the largest per capita immigrant populations in all of Europe. This population lives a marginalized existence, experiencing extreme unemployment and housing segregation. They are outsiders and the Sweden Democrats play a cynical game in stoking fears about their alleged criminality and abuse of the Swedish welfare system. According to exit polls, voters for the Sweden Democrats ranked immigration, law and order, and health care as their biggest concerns.
The leader of the Sweden Democrats is a handsome, well-spoken young man named Jimmie Åkesson. He is what you might call a housebroken racist. His party’s roots go back to Sweden’s neo-Nazi movement, and while Åkesson has purged the party of its most virulent racists, his members still got caught professing their true beliefs on occasion. One of the party’s local candidates was forced to step down earlier this month after a photo emerged showing her cleaning while wearing a Nazi armband.
In response to the party’s rise in the polls, Reinfeldt has shown extraordinary strength. Resisting the temptation to protect his right flank by engaging in a bit of subtle xenophobia, Reinfeldt began the campaign urging his countrymen to "open their hearts" to the refugees who will, in all likelihood, keep coming to Sweden’s shores.
It was an admirable statement, in line with the tolerance that marks Scandinavian politics, but it left Reinfeldt politically exposed. Last year, Sweden saw riots in a mostly immigrant suburb. A few months later, the government offered asylum to any Syrian who made it to the country’s borders. With persistently high unemployment, this is a kind of generosity that fewer Swedes appear willing to finance — or at least the Sweden Democrats have convinced them that they feel that way.
And so, a bad remix of a neo-Nazi party is now Sweden’s third-largest. This is nothing short of a political earthquake that Löfven is terribly positioned to handle. Sweden has failed to integrate its massive immigrant population — a problem that will continue benefitting the Sweden Democrats. Löfven will probably end up with a minority government. It is unclear whether he will be able to push through major reforms on the question of integration.
That, of course, will only strengthen the racists.