On September 9, the next big election in Europe will take place in Sweden, a country renowned for its stable political system, strong welfare state and a long tradition of tolerance,. Historically, Sweden has always been hailed by some as one of several democracies ‘immune’ to populism.
Yet, this unwritten law now looks set to change. In the latest polls, the national populist Sweden Democrats—who want to lower the number of immigrants and refugees and hold a referendum on EU membership—is attracting between 17 and 22 percent of the national vote, well up on the party’s 12.9 percent at the last election, and the less than 2 percent of the vote that the party recorded as recently as 2002.
To fully we understand the latest election in Europe we need to step back and look at the bigger picture.
In the spring of 2017, after Geert Wilders failed to win elections in the Netherlands and Marine Le Pen failed to capture the French presidency, some observers hailed the end of national populism. Against the backdrop of Emmanuel Macron’s stunning rise to power, liberalism was back in fashion, or so it seemed. Yet more astute observers would point to what has happened since.
In the aftermath of Macron’s election, national populists have captured new seats in state parliaments in Germany, winning a record 94 seats in German parliament, returning to government in Norway, winning seats in the parliament of the Czech Republic, polling strongly in Slovenia, doubled their share of the vote in Britain and enjoy strong support in the polls of Netherlands.
While some radical left-wing and Green parties are also polling strongly, it is national populists who are enjoying the largest gains and the centre-left social democrats who have generally suffered most.
Sweden is interesting because it is now witnessing and grappling with many of the same trends as other democracies in the West. According to the latest polls, the traditionally dominant centre-left social democrats are in first place but displaced from their usual position. The centre-left has essentially lost around half of its vote over the past two decades.
Meanwhile, national populists and the centre-right fight for second place, ahead of an array of smaller parties that reflect the way in which the Swedish political system is fragmenting to a greater extent than witnessed previously.
Mainstreaming the fringe
Sweden was always ranked alongside Britain, Germany and the Netherlands as states that were not supposed to have successful populists, largely because of their strong institutions and traditions of tolerance or their entanglement with the dark legacy of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis.
If you take a look around these states today however, you will see Brexit, Geert Wilders and the Alternative for Germany. Not only does this reveal the extent to which writers in the 1990s—who boasted of the ‘end of history’ and the triumph of liberal democracy—underestimated nationalism, but also how quickly radical political change can occur.
In the early 2000s, analysts traced the traditional failure of populism in the Scandinavian state to four factors: working-class voters remained very loyal to the mainstream centre-left; economic issues were seen by voters to be more important than identity issues, like immigration; the main parties were doing a good job of offering voters distinctive appeals, which made it harder for an anti-establishment party to get off the ground; and the populist party, the Sweden Democrats, was plagued by its toxic roots in neo-Nazism and white supremacism.
Since then, much has changed. The Sweden Democrats have sought to downplay their more extremist roots and present a more legitimate and acceptable face to the public. Meanwhile, the number of voters who felt loyal to the established mainstream parties declined considerably, falling from 65 percent in 1968 to 27 percent in 2014.
At the same time, working-class voters generally became less loyal to the centre-right as issues like social class exerted less influence on how people were voting.
Like elsewhere in Europe, the centre-left had started to talk more to middle-class professionals and less to working-class voters; focusing more on socially liberal concerns like climate change and women’s rights, and less so on socially conservative issues such as immigration, integration and law and order.
In effect, this meant that more of the working class were ‘up for grabs’, and it was these voters, as well as those who were unhappy with the centre-right, who would jump over to the Sweden Democrats.
The rise of the Sweden Democrats was then turbo-charged by major changes in Swedish society, including the eruption of the refugee crisis in 2015 which saw over 160,000 asylum-seekers arrive in the country (a higher proportion of its population than almost every other European state). This changed the list of priorities for voters.
When asked to name the top issues facing the country, the percentage who said immigration, rocketed from 7 per cent in 1987 to 43 per cent in 2017, making it the top priority. This concern was intimately wrapped up in stories about gang violence, terrorism, arson, rape and higher overall rates of crime, which in turn fuelled public fear over crime; further playing into the populist narrative of a society falling apart at the seams and established ways of life under threat.
These shifts combined to create a very favourable climate for the Swedish Democrats, which has drawn much of its support from working-class voters, men, non-graduates and voters in the south of the country.
It is worth pointing out that while this was happening, Swedish public concern about unemployment and the economy was actually falling, which in turn reflected how the economy was generally strong and the overall rate of unemployment low. Though some argue that national populism is driven by economic scarcity, this is clearly not the case in Sweden.
Even if the Sweden Democrats fail to ‘win’ the election they have already had a demonstrable impact on the broader debate and domestic public policy.
The centre-left Social Democrats, currently in first place in the polls, might ‘win’ the election but they might also record their lowest share of the vote for a century. Meanwhile, the centre-left has already been pushed further to the right, largely in response to the rise of the Sweden Democrats and a markedly different public opinion climate.
The centre-left has pledged to halve the number of refugees in Sweden, cut back on welfare benefits for failed asylum-seekers, strengthen identity checks and ban asylum-seekers whose applications have failed and who do not leave the country voluntarily from ever returning.
The centre-right, too, has called for stronger measures to improve immigrant integration, otherwise they argue Sweden risks losing its famous welfare state model, as voters become less supportive of paying taxes to fund a system in which there are social problems and a lack of integration.
Some might argue that whoever wins the actual election, it is the national populists who—at least indirectly—have already won.