STOCKHOLM – The anti-establishment landslide announced in liberal Sweden did not materialize on Sunday. But the country’s political system has suffered a shock of unprecedented magnitude.
While the establishment has evaded the harsh sanctions predicted by the polls, the immediate consequences indicate that Sweden – this ancient bastion of rock-solid political stability – has entered uncharted waters.
The country’s largest political party, the Social Democrats, is celebrating its worst election results since 1911. Anti-immigration Swedish Democrats, which have become the country’s third largest party, lament their better results.
These strange reactions stem from the fact that the polls had indicated a possible landslide for the Swedish Democrats. Instead, established parties have taken a hard-hitting new approach to immigration – effectively stealing thunder from Swedish Democrats – while focusing on traditional welfare issues that interest their core voters.
Faced with an unstable political situation, Swedish voters have come to trust the parties in power.
It should also be noted that there is almost no support for political parties to the right of the Swedish Democrats.
The Swedish Social Democrats may have escaped the fate of their Dutch or French counterparts for the time being, but the decline in support since the last elections is consistent with a European-wide decline of the traditional center-left . Parties campaigning on a liberal platform did not fare any better.
In the weeks to come, as political leaders compete for positions, the establishment’s refusal to work with the anti-immigrant party may finally become untenable. With 62 seats in parliament, Sweden’s Democrats have reshaped the country’s politics.
The party is the main political force in a number of Swedish municipalities. In Scania, the southernmost region of Sweden, for example, it is already the largest party in a majority of municipalities.
Opinion polls also show center-right voters want their parties to rule with the support of Swedish Democrats, and suggest that a grand coalition – the Social Democrats’ current proposal – risks pushing more center voters right into the arms of anti-immigration feasts.
The Swedish establishment cannot afford to dismiss increased support for the Swedish Democrats as evidence of sudden radicalization among Swedish voters.
To be sure, the Swedish Democrats have their roots in the far-right movements of the 1980s and 1990s. A number of its representatives have also expressed racist or extremist views. But the party leadership has made a considerable effort over the past decades to distance itself from its past, systematically excluding members who have expressed racist views.
Many oppose the party’s current policy as being radical. Emphasizing its call to restrict access to abortion or to introduce citizenship tests, they compare the party to Polish law and justice, the Hungarian Fidesz or the French National Rally.
These comparisons are misleading. The party’s ideas may be controversial in liberal Sweden, but many of its more controversial policies are in line with the policies of other Western countries. The same goes for the Swedish Democrats’ pledge to limit free health and dental care for illegal immigrants.
The performance of the Swedish Democrats in the polls must be understood in light of Sweden’s migration policy and the inability of established parties to cope with the country’s struggle to integrate first and second generation migrants.
It can also be seen as a backlash against the center-right’s decision to allow the center-left to rule over the past four years rather than forming an alliance with the Swedish Democrats.
It should also be noted that there is almost no support for political parties to the right of the Swedish Democrats. Support for Sweden’s new far-right Alternative – whose leadership consists largely of expelled Swedish Democrats – in Sunday’s election was negligible.
Despite all the attention paid to the upcoming negotiations, the biggest upheaval is not political, but social. The election highlighted a break in historical proportions in Swedish society.
Almost one in five votes went to the Swedish Democrats, even though voting for the party meant taking a stand against virtually all of the main Swedish mainstream newspapers and media. Active party members are even excluded from trade unions.
“No decent person would vote for such a movement,” so Carl Bildt, the moderate former Swedish prime minister, put it in an editorial ahead of the previous elections in Sweden four years ago.
Today, nearly a fifth of the Swedish electorate would be labeled “not decent” not only according to Bildt, but also according to much of the political and media establishment.
Politically, Sweden will get by. Socially, however, the country is going through a tectonic shift, with deep divisions, tensions and resentments that will leave their mark.
Paulina Neuding is the editor-in-chief of the online magazine Kvartal.