Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Takeaways from Sweden’s Election: Stability is History
Takeaways from Sweden’s Election: Stability is History

Takeaways from Sweden’s Election: Stability is History

On September 9, the people of Sweden went to the polls. It was an election in which all parties wanted to avoid defeat, but few really seemed to want to win. There are many upsides to short election seasons, but when the main strategists of the major parties all seemed to still be on vacation mode throughout July—at least that’s what it looked from my vantage point in Stockholm this summer—you’ve got to wonder whether anyone truly cared about winning.

Things didn’t get much better when the season started in earnest. Most party proposals were predictable, standard stuff and lacking in credibility. 2018 was a unique election by Swedish standards, the first one in a long time where most parties were either in government or had government in recent memory. Sweden’s Social Democratic hegemony was broken in 2006 by a coalition of center-right parties, Alliansen, with the Moderate Party (the largest party on the center-right) having made an ideological transformation from traditional moderate conservatism to focusing almost exclusively on labor market issues and tax incentives for employment.

The reason that governing experience mattered in this election was that the voters could now look at broadly popular policy promises and ask: why should we trust you this time, since you were in charge when the foundation was laid for the current mess? Tighter immigration restrictions and toughness on crime, punishment and policing are broadly popular policies, but promises were harder to trust from either side this time around.

What’s “the mess?” In the past few years, Sweden has gone through a refugee crisis of massive proportions. In 2015 alone, 162,550 people applied for asylum in Sweden, and the number of asylum seekers per capita was higher in Sweden than anywhere else in Europe. As late as mid-September of that year, Prime Minister Stefan Löfven made public pronouncements that “refugees” were “welcome.” Many (perhaps even most) who came to Sweden had already passed through safe countries along the way, and according to European Union laws, asylum seekers are supposed to apply in the first safe country they arrive in.

Likely, Sweden’s generous welfare system and high standard of living were strong pull-factors for many, rather than a need for immediate protection from war and persecution. According to internal figures from the EU’s border control agency Frontex, by 2016, 60 percent of all asylum applicants came for economic reasons. Sweden’s burden continues to be heavy. The government instituted border controls in November 2015, only two months after Löfven told refugees that they’d be welcome. Though the number of asylum applications went down significantly after the government instituted border controls, it is still high. And many of Sweden’s municipalities grapple every day with the effects of the crisis, such as housing shortages, particularly as many who were earlier granted asylum were also able to have their families follow suit. In the longer run, immigration has been a key factor for the rise in violent crime in Sweden of the past few years, and law and order has become one of the most central issues for Swedish voters.[1]

In short, this election was one where voters had good reason not to trust any of the establishment parties that have governed in the past, or been in parliament for a long time. Whoever ends up governing will have to grapple with a social transformation the likes of which Sweden has not seen in decades, and arguably never in modern times. The economy appears to be doing fine on the surface, but Sweden’s GDP-growth per capita is currently the lowest in the whole European Union. The next government is in for a tough four years, and everyone knows it.

Nonetheless, the anti-immigration Sweden Democrats did not gain nearly as much as polls suggested they would. Some polls had them as the biggest party in parliament, but they finished at a fairly meager 17.5% (though votes are still being counted). The party originally sprang from the neo-Nazi movement of the 1990s, and all other parties regard them with great suspicion. The other party in parliament with totalitarian ideological roots, the Socialist Party (formerly closely aligned with the Soviet Union), also gained less than some expected they would, given that disillusioned former Social Democrat voters tend to move to the left during times when the party governs, such as the past four years.

The election result is tricky to read. On the one hand, the meager performance by the Sweden Democrats is greeted with great relief in much of the country. On the other hand, many of the established parties running moved to virtually identical positions on issues such as crime and immigration as that of the Sweden Democrats over the past few months, so the results shouldn’t necessary be taken as a disapproval of the former’s policies, but rather, of the party itself. And still, close to one in five votes went to the Sweden Democrats, hardly a poor result had expectations not been higher.

The fear of an overall right-wing extremist upswing seemed to have been unfounded. Over the past few months, Swedish media has been reporting at great length about the activities of very minor movements, such as a small neo-Nazi group, and a right-wing splinter movement of former Sweden Democrats. These minor parties only received a negligible number of votes. On the left, too, the minor parties have virtually gone electorally extinct. The Feminist Initiative, led by the charismatic and famous former Socialist Party leader Gudrun Schyman, only received a 0.4% of the votes. Some of these minor parties tend to have a strong social media presence, but it’s clear that they received far more attention among the media than the electorate.

So what happens now? No one really knows. The Social Democrats, for their part, hope to govern in a coalition with the Green, Liberal, and Center (agricultural) Parties, but it’s tough to imagine that such a coalition would be sustainable. The Liberal and Center Parties are both lightyears to the right of the Social Democrats when it comes to crucial areas such as taxation (as I have written about elsewhere). Over the past four years, the Social Democrats and the Greens governed together, and their cooperation was at times so bad that the Social Democrats reportedly refused to share documents pertaining to budget negotiations with their supposed coalition partner.

The Sweden Democrats are hoping to cooperate in parliament with the Moderate Party, but the latter has stated unequivocally—for now—that such a cooperation is out of the question, even though a majority of their voters approve of such a route. Instead, the center-right parties are hoping that the speaker of the parliament will formally ask the Moderate Party leader to form a government, in the hope that a majority of parliament at least won’t vote against such an alternative. This would require that the Social Democrats, Greens, Socialist, and Sweden Democrats all vote against such a government formation, controversial because some would argue that it’d be tantamount to parliamentary cooperation between the left and the Swedish Democrats.

Whatever happens, the old stability of Sweden, where the Social Democrats were virtually unthreatened and governed from a large minority position in parliament, is gone. With Social Democrat leader Stefan Löfven reaching out to the minor center-right parties rather than the Socialists, the current political winds are blowing towards the center-right, and the dismal result of the Green Party further enhances that perception. Whatever happens, Sweden has arguably never been closer to a re-election than this time around.

[1] For longer reads on immigration and crime in Sweden, I recommend these two pieces by Paulina Neuding in Politico Europe, and Fredrik Erixon recent one in The Spectator.