By Oliver Schmidtke, Director of Centre for Global Studies, University of Victoria
The populist shake-up of Swedish politics: gridlock in Parliament and an emboldened extreme right
Sunday’s elections have confirmed what many observers of Swedish politics have dreaded: Sweden is not immune to the advance of populist and anti-immigrant parties that has spread across Europe and elsewhere. Its standard bearer in that Nordic country, the Sweden Democrats (SD), have received 17.6% of popular support; not the landslide victory some expected but still its best result in national elections this far. Probably more important is the fact that the SD will be in a position of greatly increased political influence holding the balance of power. While the SD will almost certainly not become part of any governing coalition, its level of support has deprived both the ruling centre-left and the opposition centre-right of parliamentary majorities. Thus, the drama of election night is likely to continue for weeks until a government can be formed that will be able to survive budget and confidence votes in the Swedish Parliament. All other parties have vowed not to cooperate with the SD. Yet, with the backing of almost one in five Swedish voters, the SD will feel emboldened to press its populist anti-immigrant and anti-EU agenda.
What explains the rise of right-wing populism in a country known for its open society, inclusive welfare state and humanitarian traditions? The party, with roots (now disavowed) in neo-Nazi movements, has long focused on stopping immigration, and received a major boost after the refugee crisis in 2015. Within the space of a year, about 160,000 asylum-seekers entered Sweden, the highest per capita of any European country (In proportional terms, that is equivalent to half a million refugees coming to Canada in the same time span). New entries have since plummeted dramatically with the introduction of tough new regulations, and the focus has shifted to the enormous integration challenges. The SD has effectively used these difficulties to advance its politics of fear blaming immigrants for violence and social disintegration.
Yet, research from Stockholm University suggests that the SD's rise is in fact more closely aligned with economic dislocation than immigration. Economic policy reforms and the financial crisis have given rise to greater income inequality and job instability. There is a growing gap between those doing well in Sweden's relatively strong economy and those left behind, especially in rural Sweden. This is where the SD has found its core support. The party’s appeal is rooted in the claim that immigrants are singlehandedly responsible for the shortcomings of the welfare system, including the challenges with schools, health care, rising gang crime and unemployment. This critical shift in political discourse towards immigration and law & order issues has left the currently ruling Social Democrats under Prime Minister Stefan Löfven struggling. Similar to recent elections across Europe, the Swedish social democratic left finds itself on a prolonged downward trajectory. In Sunday’s election, the Social Democrats had to face their worst election result in generations. The party that has successfully advocated for universal health care and comprehensive social rights throughout the 20th century seems to have run out of a captivating political vision that speaks to contemporary experiences of social inequality and injustice.
Political energy in the coming weeks will be devoted to tough negotiations on which constellation of parties will be able to form a stable government. The Sweden Democrats were excluded from such negotiations after the 2014 election but will likely have a stronger hand this time. They will try to offer parliamentary support to the more right-leaning parties in exchange for some movement towards their agenda, - a winning strategy for populist parties in other Nordic countries. A broad political consensus to contain the influence of the Sweden Democrats could lead to a movement of parties across the left-right divide to form a majority government. Yet this development could have an unintended deteriorating effect: a broad coalition government would cast the Sweden Democrats as the main opposition party and are likely to boost their fortunes in the future. Without a doubt, the elections herald a challenging and unprecedented period in Swedish politics.
Should Canadians be concerned? Canada benefits from a stable Sweden, open to the world and being a leader in promoting human rights, sustainable development and progressive free trade. Our own policies have been inspired by Sweden's approach to gender equality, sustainable development, climate change and innovation. Sweden has long looked to Canada for ideas on how to foster the integration of immigrants and recognize the benefits that a diverse society can bring. The rise of the populist right and a prolonged uncertainty about forming a stable government could deprive Canada of a much needed like-minded partner on the international stage.