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  • Greta Scott

Swedish Elections 2022: The Shock of the Predictable

Sweden just voted out its Social Democratic government in favour of a right-wing government propped up by the far-right Sweden Democrats.

To anyone who follows Swedish politics, the results of this year’s elections were predictable. But who follows Swedish politics? I asked some of my friends how they feel.

Disappointed, but not surprised. - August, 25, Stockholm
I am very pleased and relieved, mostly for its symbolic nature, illustrating a change in the direction of Swedish politics. - Adam, 21, Salem, Moderates
HATE it. - Astrid, 22, Stockholm, Left Party

The Swedish Parties from C to V

Swedish politics is largely party-centric, and the party system has historically been extremely stable. There are five traditional parties, split into two blocs. On the right are the Moderates (M), the Liberals (L) and the Centre Party (C). On the left, there are the Social Democrats (S) and the Left Party (V). The Social Democrats have dominated Swedish politics for most of its democratic history (because why mess with a perfectly good national stereotype?): they have held government for 73 of the last 90 years.

However, in the 1980s, new parties entered the Swedish political scene, making the Swedish party system one of the most fragmented in Western Europe. The new parties include the Christian Democrats (KD), the Greens (MP) and the now infamous Sweden Democrats (SD).

But who on Earth are the Sweden Democrats?

The Sweden Democrats were formed in 1988 by former members of white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups. For a long time, Sweden avoided the European lurch to the right: it seemed that the traditional left-right economic cleavage which structured Swedish politics kept radical-right parties at the fray. However, the SD’s new leaders in 1995 (Mikael Jansson) and 2005 (Jimmie Åkesson), outlined a zero-tolerance policy for racism which brought the party into the political mainstream. This policy has ironically been applied irregularly, as the Youth Wing continues to receive accusations of neo-Nazism and the party’s international allies remain staunchly far-right.

The SD had a slow start, but are now Sweden’s second-largest party, overtaking the Moderates in these elections.

The Riksdag Before 2022

There is a strong culture of consensus and political bargaining in the Swedish Parliament (the Riksdag), and typically, governments look for broad legislative support for their policies. This rests on the Scandinavian principle of “negative parliamentarianism”, according to which the government only requires toleration by a parliamentary majority, not its active support. Sweden relies on the simplicity and stability of its party system to function, but with the emergence of new parties, this stability has been tested.

The two political blocs have been increasingly struggling to win a majority of the seats in the Riksdag. In 2018, the electoral success of the Sweden Democrats made coalition-building extremely difficult, as no parties were willing to work with them. During the post-war period, government formation typically took six days - in 2018, it took 134 days.

The Social Democrats’ minority governments which followed the 2018 elections were weak. Statsminister Stefan Löfven was forced to resign and was replaced by Magdelena Andersson after his legislative proposal was rejected by the majority of the Riksdag in 2021.

In the meantime, since the 2018 elections, the right bloc (who once vowed never to do so) has agreed to work with the SD. As Moderate Anders Borg explained: “If you want a government that is not based on the Social Democrats you need to cooperate with the SD.” This leaves the blocs thus:

I could never vote for M, KD or L due to their collaboration with SD and the democratic consequences their politics have on Swedish society. - Evelina, 23, Uppsala, Centre Party (political official)

An electoral debate dominated by immigration and crime

The rise of new parties has taken a hammer to the traditional economic left-right split of Swedish politics by putting fresh issues (such as the environment, European integration and immigration) on the political agenda.

What were the most important issues for you in the elections?

The climate, women’s rights, racism, all people being seen as valuable and equal. - Astrid, 22, Stockholm, Left Party

This most recent electoral campaign was dominated by the issues of immigration, integration and violent crime, all favourable ground for the Sweden Democrats.

Law and order and migration were important issues for me. Specifically, increasing the consequences of violent crime, taking further actions towards quenching violent crime (extra focus on gang violence) and decreasing migration to a level which would facilitate integrating those who have arrived in the past 15 years into Swedish society. - Adam, 21, Salem, Moderates

Violent crime, one of voters’ top concerns, has been connected to residential segregation, as vulnerable housing developments in the suburbs, home to many immigrants and asylum seekers, have become associated with gang violence. Sweden has one of the highest levels of gun crime in Europe – so far this year, 47 people have died from shootings. Indeed, just before the elections, there was a shooting in a shopping centre in Malmö.

The shift from the Moderates to the Sweden Democrats is purely reactionary, since a good chunk of M voters seem to shift to SD based not on policy, but rather on if some heinous crime has been committed that week. With criminal conflicts being a recurring issue, it’s not surprising that more people voted for SD since voters appear to believe (falsely in my opinion) that SD somehow holds the key to eliminating all organised crime. - August, 25, Stockholm

The Sweden Democrats therefore proposed some of the strictest immigration legislation possible within the EU’s asylum and migration frameworks, such as rejecting asylum seekers based on their religion, gender or sexuality. A testament to how little progress the party has made, an SD spokesman tweeted a picture of a metro train in the party’s colours, saying, “Welcome aboard the repatriation express. Here’s a one-way ticket. Next stop, Kabul.”

Unsurprisingly, this discourse has dragged other parties into debates they would rather not engage with. Both the Moderates and the Social Democrats have highlighted the importance of “getting tough” on crime and expressed conservative views on immigration. The Social Democrats have been drawn into patting themselves on the back for making it harder for migrants to enter Sweden and bringing Sweden’s acceptance of asylum seekers (down) in line with other EU countries.

Sweden has been toying with the idea of multiculturalism since the end of the Second World War. After a brief flirtation with multiculturalist policies, in 1986 the government quietly turned back to integrationism, making this shift explicit in 1997. The government argued that multiculturalism had created an us-v-them dichotomy and stigmatised immigrants.

This U-turn coincided with the rise of far-right parties, including the assimilationist Sweden Democrats. Indeed, SD voters tend to have lower trust in immigrants and a more exclusive view of who is Swedish. These parties have significantly increased the debate on immigration.

Swedes are not as happy living in a truly multicultural society as they believed. - Adam, 21, Salem, Moderates

The turn of the century has seen increasing social discontent among urban immigrant populations. Moreover, Sweden accepted 163 thousand asylum seekers in 2015 (the highest intake in the EU per capita). Today, multiculturalism is portrayed as misguided or dangerous.

However, some multiculturalist culture remains. All parties except the SD recognise Sweden as a culturally diverse society, and in 2021, 89% of survey respondents were more likely than average to reject discrimination.

I voted for basic human dignity instead of racism, sexism, and discrimination. - Astrid, 22, Stockholm, Left Party

The Election Results

In light of this campaign, it’s unsurprising that attentions have been focussed on the electoral success of the Sweden Democrats, becoming the second-largest party in the Riksdag.

A small elite of people living in their ivory towers located in homogenous, ethnically Swedish, upper-middle-class neighbourhoods are no longer able to set the agenda of the rest of the country (who are the ones who have to live with the consequences of their policies).- Adam, 21, Salem, Moderates

The Social Democrats kept their lead, and even managed to increase their vote share to 30.3%. However, since the left bloc lost out overall, Magdalena Andersson has stepped down as Statsminister. The right bloc only has a 3-seat lead over the left.

The right bloc, led by the Moderates, have announced their coalition agreement (dubbed the Tidö-agreement). The SD have not received any ministerial posts, but the new government will heavily rely on their support. In return, the SD have demanded serious concessions. These dynamics mean that, although out of government, the SD are very much in the driver’s seat. Sweden will now join Denmark, Finland and Norway with a government which relies on an anti-immigrant party.

The party I voted for was in desperate need of every single vote it could get (to have a stronger bargaining position against the Sweden Democrats when negotiating the government formation). - Adam, 21, Salem, Moderates

Several Liberals, including the party youth wing, describe the Tidö-agreement as “authoritarian”. The Liberals are internally divided on working with the Sweden Democrats, and so the cooperation of individual Liberals deputies could make or break the new government - this is a party that before the elections had been speculated to not even make it into the Riksdag. Already, several prominant Liberals have expressed their concerns, with former leader Maria Leissner saying that the Tidö-agreement is such a betrayal of the party’s values that it made her cry. Party leader Johan Pehrson has retorted that the agreement “contains sweet, salty and some sour things”.

The Tidö-agreement states that Sweden should allow the DNA testing of foreigners, visitation zones, secret surveillance - and a long list that allows deportation has been made, including "bad manners". […] The agreement confirms how authoritarian the upcoming government will be. The included parties are not even allowed to criticise suggestions within the agreement that are made to the media. […] Prohibiting conversation with media and civilians is democratic backsliding and a method used in dictatorships. -Evelina, 23, Uppsala, Centre Party (political official)

So is Sweden a write-off?

I hesitate to argue that Sweden is illustrative of growing support for the far-right in Europe – if this article has any message, it’s the particularity of the Swedish case. Sweden is not Italy, and ultimately the Sweden Democrats’ vote share has only increased by 3% since 2018. If their power has grown, it’s because of the right wing’s classic pragmatism in choosing to see a government reliant on the SD as a lesser evil than a left-bloc government.

We’ll get a bit more restrictive with immigrants compared to otherwise, but in general, I don’t think much will change. […] I’m confident that they’ll do what they think is best for Sweden… even if it’s through policies I’d oppose. - Isak, 26, Lysekil, Social Democrats

Election results invariably feel dramatic, like the best or the worst thing to happen to [insert country name here]. But especially in Sweden, where compromise is king (sorry Carl Gustaf), and where the new government will certainly be unstable, I am unsure of how much will change. Although the Moderates rely on the Sweden Democrats to stay in power, they also rely on the Liberals.

If L slots into this [kingmaker] spot within the new government, we could see a bloc where the ideas of SD would not be as pronounced, and then we would primarily see changes that are agreed upon by consensus of the entire blue-yellow block. This is even more relevant since all it takes are a handful of L defections to block proposals from passing in the Riksdag. Yet this is dependent on L standing up for their values and ideas - if they do not, then I expect the next four years to be far more capital-C conservative, with all that it entails. - August, 25, Stockholm

Meanwhile, Sweden has built its national brand on social democracy, open arms to refugees, gender equality, international benevolence… How will the world see Sweden now that its citizens appear to be demanding something new?

As for Sweden’s international brand, I believe that it is largely misrepresentative of the country. Some will view Sweden as some far-right haven and others will view Sweden as no longer being run by the far-left, depending on the viewers political disposition. The truth, of course, is somewhere in-between. - Adam, 21, Salem, Moderates

Part of the reason why Europe is so up in arms about the Swedish elections is their expectations of the country. But Sweden is neither the utopia nor dystopia people make it out to be. I will leave you with these words:

The Swedish image is Sweden’s greatest gift and curse. We are a great country which we promote as the best country. I see Sweden as the best country in the world for me, I would rather live here than anywhere else for the rest of my life, but there are things in Sweden that could be better and things that I, and many of my fellow swedes, would like to improve. Yet this is incompatible not only with the negative “failed state hellhole” image pushed by some political actors but also with the image of the perfect engineering free market giant of the north, the capital W welfare state that has everything all figured out and who produces some of the best music in the world (this last point is true though). Modern Sweden is neat but has always had a fair amount of issues that simply do not come up when discussing Sweden abroad, the image of Sweden skips nuance for the well-ordered, IKEA catalogue, Nordic-minimalism society that we see when Sweden is discussed internationally. Comparing reality to this idealised imagining will always make what's real seem unflattering, and instead of realising that Sweden never has been perfect, some people come to the conclusion that Sweden was perfect, but now it has been “ruined" by any societal change you can think of. This is, of course, false and I would even go so far as to ask the reader not to fall into this very trap when reading that SD is now the second-largest party in Sweden. Sweden was not perfect before 2022, 2014, 2006 or any of the other times Swedes went to vote or changed our society - cast that thought from your mind. So no, my image of my home country has not changed, since Sweden is as complex a country as any other. I think that Sweden is good, but it still has its flaws and issues. Buying into the image of a perfect Sweden would promote stagnancy at home when positive change is what’s needed if we are to tackle the pressing issues of today and tomorrow. - August, 25, Stockholm



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