Sweden’s Far Right Has Won the War of Ideas

An election fought on the Sweden Democrats’ terms leaves the far-right party in control of the country’s agenda.

A photo taken on Sept. 10, 2018 in Stockholm shows a selection of front pages of Swedish newspapers in Stockholm a day after the general elections. (Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP/Getty Images)
A photo taken on Sept. 10, 2018 in Stockholm shows a selection of front pages of Swedish newspapers in Stockholm a day after the general elections. (Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP/Getty Images)

STOCKHOLM—Sunday night’s parliamentary elections in Sweden may not have been the big victory the far-right Sweden Democrats hoped for. In many ways, though, they still came out as the vote’s biggest winners.

For those predicting a decisive right-wing triumph, the ultimate result didn’t quite live up to the hype. Polling had suggested that the Sweden Democrats party, which is anti-immigration and pro-law and order (it sees the relatively peaceful country as descending into crime-ridden chaos) could win as much as a quarter of the vote.

Instead, Sunday’s results effectively provided no clear winner and no convenient or simple narrative to explain the shifts underway in Swedish politics. The Sweden Democrats ultimately won 17.6 percent of the vote—posting the biggest gains of any party, to be sure, but smaller ones than expected. The long-dominant center-left Social Democrats dropped to their lowest standing in a century, but the night was not nearly as much of a bloodbath for them as predicted: The party still won 28.4 percent of the vote, remaining the largest in Sweden. The center-right Moderates also lost support, but they stayed in second place overall.

Although the Sweden Democrats did not achieve their lofty goal of becoming Sweden’s biggest political force, they were victorious in another way: They effectively set the terms for debate during what was an unusually heated campaign, forcing other parties to address the country’s immigration policies and move significantly to the right on them. And as the complicated, likely drawn-out process of building a government begins, they’re the bloc standing in each coalition’s way of reaching a majority.

“[The Sweden Democrats] have really dictated the terms or at least the themes or the areas to be discussed” in the election, Anna Sundstrom, the secretary-general at the Social Democrats-affiliated Olof Palme International Center, said shortly before the vote in Stockholm. Another impressive feat is that although the party was founded only 30 years ago and had roots in the country’s fascist and white nationalist movements, it still managed to triple its support in just two election cycles. In 2010, the year it first entered parliament, it won only 5.7 percent of the vote. And the party is a far cry from its first-ever national election in 1988, when it won less than 0.1 percent of the vote.

“Of course I was hoping for more,” Tobias Andersson, the head of the Sweden Democrats’ youth wing and a candidate for parliament, said late Sunday night, “but still I consider us to be winners in this election, considering we are the party that gained the most new voters.” It is obvious, he continued, “that the people in Sweden have realized the real difficulties we are facing.”

Like its far-right counterparts across Europe, the Sweden Democrats party has taken pains to move into the mainstream and, to a certain extent, tone down its rhetoric in order to appeal to a broader swath of the electorate. Under the current leader, Jimmie Akesson, who took over in 2005, the party insists it has no tolerance for racist or xenophobic rhetoric and routinely kicks out members discovered to be espousing openly racist sentiments (which, to be fair, still happens quite often). This is just one among many things that the party has done to be “regarded as a sort of normal party,” said Niklas Bolin, a political scientist at Mid Sweden University who focuses on the far-right. Among other things, the party no longer advocates for reintroducing the death penalty or for limiting the adoption of non-Nordic children.

At the same time, the Sweden Democrats party still prides itself on its consistently hard-line position on immigration—and it proved that it could very ably inject its ideas into the political mainstream. Before the recent refugee crisis, which brought nearly 200,000 asylum-seekers to Sweden in 2015 and 2016 alone (the highest per capita number of refugees in Europe), Sweden’s other parties had largely agreed on a liberal immigration policy. But as the issue continued to gain relevance, the Sweden Democrats’ position gained traction.

“All the parties except two of them, I would say, have moved toward us,” Markus Wiechel, a member of parliament for the Sweden Democrats and the party’s foreign-policy spokesman, said the week before the vote. For example, the Moderate Party, he said, is “taking pretty much all our policy when it comes to criminal justice and migration, and the Social Democrats have adapted to us as well.” And this wasn’t just campaign speak. During this election, nearly all of Sweden’s major political parties—including the Social Democrats and the Moderates—agreed that Sweden should massively reduce migrant arrivals until a Europewide immigration and refugee policy could be reached. The mainstream parties might well have avoided mentioning immigration at all. But thanks to the Sweden Democrats, it became a question that couldn’t go unanswered, Johan Hassel, the Social Democrats’ international secretary, said after the vote. “[The Social Democrats] had been seen as too polite, too open, and too much embracing of globalization and migration.”

The Sweden Democrats will likely continue to influence the country’s politics as talks begin for forming the next government. Although they won less support than expected, it is still enough to create deadlock: The existing center-left and center-right coalitions, both of which have ruled out explicit collaboration with the Sweden Democrats, are neck and neck, but neither is nowhere near having the seats necessary for a majority. On Sunday night, Akesson, the Sweden Democrats’ leader, invited the center-right Moderates to coalition talks, an invitation that has thus far been rebuffed. But party members say there isn’t really another option for a stable coalition government: Each side—Social Democrats, Greens, and the Left Party on the left and the Moderates, Christian Democrats, Center Party, and the Liberals on the right—is running at about the same level of support.

If neither side’s coalition is able to put together a majority, and no major party is willing to cross ideological lines and form a new coalition, the center-right Moderates could theoretically look to unofficially cooperate with the Sweden Democrats (which would, of course, come with strings attached). They’ll “have to face the facts,” Andersson said. “If they actually do want to lead this country again, they will be forced to do it with the active and tacit support of the Sweden Democrats.”

Beyond extra attention on Sweden’s election results and their aftermath, the Sweden Democrats’ biggest impact will be that they have shifted the terms of acceptable debate in this typically open, liberal country. Immigration was, for a long time, a taboo subject for the major parties; now it’s not only acceptable, but some politicians even talk about deporting immigrants. Members of Sweden’s more established parties worry that such rhetoric could get worse. “Before, it was not OK to say to someone, ‘You should go back home where you come from.’ It was not OK,” Sundstrom of the Olof Palme International Center said. “Now you can say it because there’s so many that think it is OK to say these kinds of things. And that scares me because, what’s the next thing?”

Emily Schultheis is a freelance journalist based in Berlin, where she writes about European elections and the rise of populism. Twitter: @emilyrs

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