Uneasy Sweden: far-right election success takes a once fringe movement mainstream

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Election posters in the city of Stockholm, August 2022.

On 1 January, Sweden will take over the rotating presidency of the Council of ministers, the EU’s main legislative body.

For several months, the Social Democrat government has prepared for this, meeting the opposition parties, sharing inside information about ongoing legislative files, making sure everyone is onboard with the country’s EU priorities, so that the next Swedish government – whatever it would be – would impress the Europeans with a competent and smooth presidency. 

But one party plainly said no thank you to taking part in the talks: the far-right nationalist party the Sweden Democrats, either due to its old anti-establishment instincts or due to principled Euroscepticism.

Sweden’s former prime minister Magdalena Andersson resigned on Wednesday evening. By then, after three days of vote-counting, it was clear that the razor-slim lead of the right-wing coalition after Sunday’s parliamentary election could no longer be reversed.

The election has produced one winner only: the Sweden Democrats, led by Jimmie Åkesson, which came in second place with 21% of the vote.

All other parties are losers, whatever they may claim publicly. The Social Democrats, which, although came first (30%), can’t form a government. And the centre-right parties, which will form a government but have all lost votes compared to the last election.

Since the Sweden Democrats came into parliament in 2010, the party has risen steadily in every election. It draws voters from all strands of politics, not only the right, with its anti-immigrant policies and, lately, focus on gang-related violence. It taps into a widespread unease across Sweden over a rapidly changing society due to high migration and lagging integration.

The party today has as many working class voters as the Social Democrats, it attracts as many farmers as the Center party and as many business voters as the Moderates. 

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The Sweden Democrats, led by Jimmie Åkesson, won 21% of the vote in the September elections.

These are groups that wildly differ in their economic interests. But the Sweden Democrats have never had to actually deliver for its voters. And it probably won’t have to do it this time either.

The likely outcome of the election is a right-wing minority government without the Sweden Democrats, but relying on their many mandates in parliament. As such, the radical right party can assert a maximum of influence on its key policies, while not being responsible for any hard choices in government.

The last government, a centre-left coalition, was an unnatural alliance, weak and ideologically incoherent, with parties ranging from the radical left to the liberal Center party. It came together more because of what it opposed – the rise of the right-wing Sweden Democrats – rather than because of what it actually wanted. And the voters punished it for it.

The winning right-wing coalition, too, lacks ideological glue. It is made up of the parties who are ready to talk to the Sweden Democrats. Apart from being tough on crime and wanting less migration, the coalition parties have little in common. The Moderates want tax cuts, while the Sweden Democrats want higher pensions and unemployment benefits.

The feeling in Sweden is that politics is simply stuck in the mud, with the parties unable to move beyond the issue of migration and on their view about the populist right. When the Sweden Democrats made it over the parliament threshold in 2010, it was late to the party. Most European countries at that time had bigger and more established far-right movements. The party’s neo-Nazi roots was for a long time an obstacle for growth. But today, the party has outgrown many of its sister parties, notably in Denmark and Norway where they have imploded.

When it comes to Europe, the differences in the right-wing coalition are even bigger. Not on Russia and Ukraine; unlike its sister parties in France, Austria and Italy, the Sweden Democrats is not a pro-Putin party.

It is, however, nationalist and Eurosceptic, a fact that is especially uneasy for the pro-EU Liberal party. The Sweden Democrats want to backtrack on the EU’s current climate ambition, it opposes a European migration deal which would include national effort-sharing and it opposes scrapping the national veto when the EU adopts sanctions – three concrete examples where it opposes its centre-right coalition colleagues.

Sweden is readying itself for a new political reality and some uneasy months ahead, and with the start of its Council of ministers presidency coming in January, so too are those in Brussels.