A right-wing bloc including a group with fascist roots has won victory at the polls. Adam Fabry analyses the growth of the far right – and finds a familiar picture of neoliberalism, racism and growing inequality very far from stereotypes of Swedish social democracy.
Last Sunday, 11 September, Swedish voters went to the polls. In a neck-and-neck race, a right-wing bloc of Moderates, Christian Democrats, Liberals, and the far-right Sweden Democrats narrowly defeated the centre-left coalition of Social Democrats, Greens, the Centre Party, and the Left. As final votes were confirmed on Wednesday, the right-wing coalition won 176 seats compared to the centre left’s 173. The leader of the Moderates, Ulf Kristersson, has declared himself the winner of the elections and started discussions with the other right-wing parties about forming a new government.
Winners and losers
The main winners in the elections are the far-right Sweden Democrats, who came second with 20.5 percent of the votes, an improvement of 3 percent compared with 2018. The party was formed in 1988 out of the ‘Keep Sweden Swedish’ movement and included explicitly racist and neo-Nazi groups, such as the Nordic National Party and the National Action Group. In the 1990s, the party gradually distanced itself from neo-Nazism and violent street actions, presenting itself instead as a ‘respectable’, anti-immigrant, Eurosceptic, nationalistic party. It’s a similar approach to the French far right forces of Marine Le Pen’s National Rally. The change of image and strategy seems to have paid off. The party achieved its first electoral breakthrough on the national level in the 2010 elections, when it won 5.7 percent of the votes and 20 MPs. Four years later, it doubled its vote to 12.9 percent and obtained 49 MPs, becoming the third largest party in parliament. In addition to its growing influence on national politics, the Sweden Democrats have also governed several municipalities in southern Sweden, the traditional base for the far right. With 15.3 percent of the votes in the 2019 European elections, they also have 3 out of Sweden’s 20 MEPs.
If the Sweden Democrats were the main winners of the elections, there were plenty of losers on both sides of the political spectrum. On the left, the ruling Social Democrats – with politics broadly similar to Britain’s Labour Party – managed to gain 2.2 percent more than their record-low 28.3 percent in the 2018 elections. However, the result was a far cry from the party’s ‘golden age’ during the mid-1930s and mid-1980s, when it received around 45 percent of the votes – and even as late as 2002, it still won 39.9 percent. The Social Democrats’ response to their declining voter share has been to gradually moved to the right. From the early 1980s onwards, in a way similar to their sister parties elsewhere in Europe, they abandoned corporatist economic policies in favour of ‘Third Way’ neoliberalism. Indeed, during their time in power between 1994 and 2006, they introduced neoliberal economic reforms including the deregulation of financial markets and labour laws, and the privatisation of pensions, while welfare spending was slashed in line with Thatcher’s famous dictum that ‘there is no alternative’.
On the right, the main losers in the elections were the conservative Moderates, who had presented themselves as the main challengers to the Social Democrats. In fact they had to settle for 19.1 percent of the votes, down 0.7 percent compared to the 2018 elections and third place, behind the Sweden Democrats. During their time in power in the early 1990s and late 2000s, Moderate-led centre-right coalitions deepened the neoliberalisation of the Swedish economy, introducing measures such as tax cuts for the wealthiest, liberalisation of telecommunications and energy sectors, privatisation of health care, and the introduction of voucher schools. Under the leadership of Fredrik Reinfeldt – party leader between 2003 and 2015 and prime minister between 2006 and 2014 – the Moderates moved towards the political centre, but in recent years the party has returned to the political right. In December 2019, their new leader, Ulf Kristersson, met with the leader of the Sweden Democrats, Jimmie Åkesson, and announced that the parties would work together in parliament. This represented a major shift in Swedish politics, as until then the Sweden Democrats had been ostracised by all other parties in parliament. As a result, the door was left open for the ‘normalisation’ of far-right ideas in Swedish politics.
So what explains the electoral success of the Sweden Democrats?
The rise of the far right
While the Sweden Democrats have been on the upsurge since the early 2000s, their most recent success was made easier by the themes of the electoral campaign. The major issue was the question of ‘law and order’, with voters continuously identifying crime as the ‘most important issue’ in polls. In recent years, Sweden has seen a surge in gun violence and deaths, the result of fights between opposing criminal gangs in the three major cities of Stockholm, Gothenburg, and Malmö. Although these are overwhelmingly internal disputes involving a few hundred people, the fact that the resulting shootings often take place in public areas has contributed to a growing moral panic. This has been spurred on by right-wing tabloids and pundits, who blame ‘unrestrained’ immigration for rising criminality.
To try to win over voters from the far-right, most mainstream parties attempted to present themselves as ‘tough on crime’. On the left, in their most recent period in government the Social Democrats legislated for higher prison sentences, as well as increased funding and further repressive powers for the police. The parties of the right-wing coalition have attempted to go even further. The Moderates promised to put more police officers on the streets, double the punishments for gang criminals, and introduce ‘stop-and-search’ areas where police can stop people without any explanation. This Easter saw riots across Sweden, after police protected a racist provocateur who announced plans to burn a Quran. The leader of the Christian Democrats, Ebba Busch, responded after protesters threw stones at police by asking ‘why wasn’t live ammunition used?’ Yet these measures pale in comparison with the proposals of the Sweden Democrats, who have not only called for more police officers, but also a crackdown on Islamist extremists, as well as the deportation of foreign criminals and removing citizenship from immigrants who commit serious crimes. According to an exit poll by Swedish Television, the Sweden Democrats’ hard line proposals resonated in particular with younger, male voters, blue-collar workers, entrepreneurs and farmers, principally based in southern Sweden. Having said this, the centrist strategy of catering to the far-right on crime and immigration blatantly backfired. As Mikael Gilljam, a politics professor at the University of Gothenburg, argues, ‘it turned out that voters wanted the real thing rather than “Sweden Democrats lite”.’
While crime and immigration were at the centre of the electoral campaign, little or no mention was made about growing class inequalities, institutionalised racism, or the ongoing climate crisis. As Göran Therborn has demonstrated, Sweden has seen a drastic polarisation of incomes since the early 1980s. Between 1981 and 2016, the wealthiest 1 percent of Swedish society more than tripled its share of households’ disposable income, from 2.5 to 9 percent. The wealthiest 10 percent increased its share from 17.5 to 26.1 percent. During the same period, the GINI-Index, which measures income inequality within a country, grew by 60 percent, from 0.20 to 0.32. As a result, income inequalities in contemporary Sweden resemble those of the 1940s.
The Left Party campaigned on an anti-racist platform, promising to ‘take back control over welfare and make life better for ordinary people’, but in the end it lost 1.4 percent compared to the 2018 elections. The party also promised to tackle the climate crisis by promoting green technology and infrastructure – in contrast, the Social Democrats voiced support for nuclear energy. Having said this, their overarching strategy was, as Petter Nilsson and Rikard Warlenius note, to gain votes in ‘rustbelt’ rural areas, but this was not successful.
What next for Sweden?
For many progressives in Sweden and abroad, the country remains an ‘exception’ to the wider shift towards neoliberal capitalism since the late 1970s and early 1980s. In this view, the country has been able to maintain a progressive welfare society with high quality public services and high levels of income and gender equality. Until now, the country was also one of the few remaining European countries – such as Belgium, Germany, France and indeed Britain – where the far-right had not participated in a national government. While this idealistic view of Sweden was already a mirage before last Sunday’s elections, the electoral success of the Sweden Democrats poses a serious challenge to Swedish democracy. Even the liberal national newspaper Dagens Nyheter is warning of a confident far-right and the risk that ‘in the long run, the Swedish bourgeoisie will follow the same path as the American right. It hoped to lean on and control radical forces but has been swallowed up by them.’
Undoubtedly, the incoming right-wing government will face numerous of difficulties in the next four years – from having to reconcile Liberals with Sweden Democrats within the coalition, through the prospect of an economic recession next year, to a spiralling cost of living crisis as a result of soaring energy prices. However, for now, that doesn’t seem to bother the Sweden Democrats. Party secretary Rickard Jomshof summed up the buoyant mood within the party’s ranks on Sunday night, ‘This is an incredible milestone. For the first time, we are a legitimate partner in a new government. We are not alone anymore.’