STOCKHOLM — The predicted anti-establishment landslide in liberal Sweden did not materialize Sunday. But the country’s political system has received a jolt of unprecedented magnitude.
While the establishment escaped the severe punishment polls had predicted, the immediate aftermath indicates Sweden — that erstwhile bastion of rock-solid political stability — has entered uncharted waters.
The country’s biggest political party, the Social Democrats, is celebrating its worst election results since 1911. The anti-immigration Sweden Democrats, which became the country’s third largest party, are lamenting their best-ever results.
These odd reactions stem from the fact that polls had indicated a possible landslide for the Sweden Democrats. Instead, established parties took a new, hardline approach on immigration — effectively stealing the Sweden Democrats’ thunder — while still focusing on the traditional welfare issues that appeal to their core voters.
Presented with an unstable political situation, Swedish voters ended up putting their trust in the established parties.
It’s also worth noting that there’s almost no support for political parties to the right of the Sweden Democrats.
Sweden’s Social Democrats may have escaped, for now, the fate of their counterparts in the Netherlands or France, but the drop in support since the last election is in tune with a Europe-wide decline of the traditional center-left. Parties campaigning on a liberal platform did not fare any better.
In the weeks ahead, as political leaders jockey for position, the establishment’s refusal to work with the anti-immigrant party may finally become untenable. With 62 seats in parliament, the Sweden Democrats have reshaped the country’s politics.
The party is the leading political force in a number of Swedish municipalities. In Skåne, Sweden’s southernmost region, for instance, it is already the biggest party in a majority of municipalities.
Opinion polls also show that center-right voters want their parties to govern with the support of the Sweden Democrats, and suggest that a grand coalition — the Social Democrats’ current proposal — risks driving more center-right voters into the arms of the anti-immigration party.
Sweden’s establishment can’t afford to dismiss the rise in support for the Sweden Democrats as evidence of a sudden radicalization among Swedish voters.
To be sure, the Sweden Democrats have their roots in the right-wing extremists movements of the 1980’s and 90’s. A number of its representatives have also expressed racist or otherwise 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 voiced racist opinions.
Many object to the party’s current policies as radical. Pointing to its call for restricting access to abortion or introducing tests for citizenship, they compare the party with Poland’s Law and Justice party, Hungary’s Fidesz or the French National Rally.
These comparisons are misleading. The party’s ideas may be controversial in liberal Sweden, but many of its most controversial policies are in line with policies in other Western countries. The same goes for the Sweden Democrats’ promise to limit free health care and dental care for illegal immigrants.
The Sweden Democrats’ performance in the polls should be understood in light of Sweden’s migration policy and the established parties inability to address 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 govern for the past four years rather than form an alliance with the Sweden Democrats.
It’s also worth noting that there’s almost no support for political parties to the right of the Sweden Democrats. Support for the new far-right Alternative for Sweden — whose leadership consists in large part of ejected Sweden Democrats — in Sunday’s election was negligible.
For all the focus on the upcoming negotiations, the greatest upheaval is not political, but social. The election has highlighted a rift of historic proportions in Swedish society.
Almost one in five votes went to the Sweden Democrats, even though casting a ballot for the party meant taking a stand against virtually all of Sweden’s leading newspapers and traditional media. Active members of the party are even excluded from workers’ unions.
“No decent person would vote for such a movement,” is how Carl Bildt, Sweden’s former Moderate prime minister, put it in an op-ed ahead of Sweden’s previous election, four years ago.
Today, almost one-fifth of the Swedish electorate would qualify as “not decent” according not only to Bildt, but also large parts of the political and media establishment.
Politically, Sweden will manage. Socially, however, the country is going through a tectonic shift, with deep-running divisions, tensions and resentment that will leave their mark.
Paulina Neuding is the editor-in-chief of the online magazine Kvartal.