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Sweden is not a sign of populist retreat

Supporters of the Sweden Democrats in 2014. Photot: ANDERS WIKLUND / TT/TT News Agency / PA Images

Supporters of the Sweden Democrats in 2014. Photot: ANDERS WIKLUND / TT/TT News Agency / PA Images

December 10, 2018   3 mins

Sweden managed to stop the populist tide, and without giving in to populist demands or ideas. At least, that has been the dominant narrative in international media since Sweden’s September general election, the result of which is still not entirely clear. Two months after the ten million Swedes went to the polls, the established parties are still struggling to form a government which excludes the Sweden Democrats (SD) – the nation’s anti-immigration, anti-elite and anti-EU movement.

In a typical comment piece in The Washington Post, Anne Applebaum declared the election a loss not only for SD, but also for the global far-Right that was rooting for a popular revolt in a country which many see as a symbol of mass immigration and political correctness.

SD did indeed perform less well than many polls had suggested prior to the election, coming in third behind the centre-Right Moderates and the Social Democrats. But the Swedish case is more complicated, and carries a more disquieting message for the rest of the West, than many international commentators seem to realise.

The 2018 election confirmed that Swedish society is dealing with profound conflict along new lines – a significant shift in a country which has historically been characterised by high levels of social and political stability.

The SD, who only entered the Riksdag eight years ago, have become a considerable political force in Sweden – in spite of its roots in the Swedish far-Right movement. SD may not have become the largest party, but it did attract 17.7% of the electorate. And in the southern region of Skåne, SD is now the largest party in a majority of voting districts. These results reveal a popular upheaval of historical proportions in consensus-oriented Sweden.

And SD achieved this support despite the concerted efforts of established parties and the media to turn voters away from them. One of the country’s most respected public figures, former Prime Minister Carl Bildt of the Moderate Party, published an opinion piece ahead of the 2014 election cautioning Swedes not to vote for SD: “Decent citizens simply do not vote for such a movement”, he warned. Yet, a growing number of Swedes are casting their votes for SD, thereby siding with the ‘indecent’.

In a debate two days before this year’s elections, hosted by Sweden’s state-owned public TV, SVT, the broadcaster interrupted the debate to air an official message about SD’s leader. “We must begin by saying that Jimmie Åkesson’s comments were blatantly generalising and SVT does not stand by them.” 

SVT later admitted that interrupting a televised political debate shortly before the election to take a stand against one of the competing parties, was a mistake. But SVT’s move is typical for how the media have dealt with SD.

The more than one in six Swedes who cast their vote for the party this September sent a clear message to SVT, Carl Bildt and the rest of the country’s media, political and entertainment establishment.

International commentators have also largely missed another significant aspect of Sweden’s election results – SD’s loss of support at the end of the campaign. A few weeks before the election, SD was still the largest party in many polls, hovering around 24%.

This trend seems to be the result in part of a miscalculation by the SD leadership, which adopted a harsher tone on immigration as September neared. But SD’s success has never been attributable to xenophobia or radical anti-immigrant sentiment. Rather, Swedes who opposed the country’s immigration policy simply had no alternative.

Sweden took in more refugees per capita during the migrant crisis than any other European nation, including Germany – and after decades of large-scale immigration and failed integration. SD was the only party that challenged that policy.

In the run-up to the election, other parties adopted a more hard-line approach to immigration and the related issue of crime prevention – which is one reason why SD did less well in the elections than polls had indicated.

Sweden’s famous ‘opinion corridor’ – the ideas and views that can be broached in polite society – has widened considerably after the  influx of refugees, and continued to widen ahead of the election. One critical event was the airing by SVT of a documentary which confirmed that a majority of convicts of sexual assaults in Sweden in the last five years are first or second generation immigrants – which until recently was a taboo in public discourse.

The documentary was followed by a debate in which the Social Democratic Minister of Justice, and the Moderate party spokesperson on crime both promised increasing efforts to repatriate immigrant convicts of sex crimes. This represented a considerable change in rhetoric on the part of the political establishment.

As political correctness loosened its grip on politics and public discourse, and the traditional parties started to act on the concerns of anxious voters, the appeal of the ‘anti-establishment’ SD diminished. That should serve as a lesson not only to Sweden, but to the rest of Europe.

Paulina Neuding is editor-in-chief of the magazine Kvartal, and a columnist in the Swedish and international press.


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