Swedish elections: Beyond the culture wars

, by Pascal Letendre-Hanns

All the versions of this article: [Deutsch] [English]

Swedish elections: Beyond the culture wars
Aerial view of Riksdagen, the Swedish parliament house. Photograph: Swedish Armed Forces (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Early voting has now started for Sweden’s elections. In recent years the country has become the focus of global culture wars between liberals and conservatives. Depending on who you talk to, Sweden is either a Scandinavian paradise of tolerance and generous economic redistribution or a country on the brink of civil war, struggling to deal with recent inflows of migrants. In this context, much weight is being placed on the outcome of the elections to determine what the Swedes themselves really think about their country. So can we expect the social democratic status quo to prevail or will the far-right insurgency strike a decisive blow?

Undoubtedly there is a strong and attractive narrative to be found when considering the rise of Sweden’s main far-right party, the Sweden Democrats. As recently as 2006 the party barely showed up in Sweden’s elections. By 2014 they had jumped up to 12.9% of the vote. In the run-up to these latest elections, the party has been pushing up to 20% of the vote and some polls even predicted that the party would come first. If this happened, it would be a traumatic event for the Social Democrats who, even when they have not formed the next government, have nearly always received the most votes over the last century. A growing far-right party threatening to topple a long-established social democratic party in the context of increasing concerns over migration? The story writes itself.

Yet the ailing fortunes of Sweden’s Social Democrats are more complex than such a narrative would suggest, and the success of the Sweden Democrats may yet prove underwhelming. The Social Democrats have been consistently losing support since at least 2006, while the first signs of a downward trend can be placed in the 1990s. While the battle between Social Democrats and Sweden Democrats fits nicely into a global narrative of liberalism against conservatism, the Social Democrats’ main rival in recent times has been a liberal-centre-right alliance. The centre-right massively increased its electoral success in the 2000s by adopting some more liberal positions and winning over voters from the Social Democrats. From 2006 to 2014 the government was a coalition between the Moderate, Centre and Liberal parties. It is only recently, through a coalition with the Greens, that the Social Democrats have returned to power, and even then it is only a minority government.

Meanwhile, polling for the upcoming elections shows that it is not only the far-right who are gaining. Both the Centre and Left parties are expected to increase their share of the vote by 4-5 percentage points. This seems to be at the detriment of both the Social Democrat and Moderate parties, pointing to a general phenomenon of fragmentation as voters split off to many different parties. Though some polls did indeed have the Sweden Democrats poised to win first place, more recent polls have shown the party losing support, becoming locked in a fight with the Moderates for second place.

The Social Democrats have certainly been losing support but to pin it all on the recent surge of the Swedish Democrats is far too narrow a perspective. Moreover, this fragmentation of the political landscape points to another issue for far-right parties in Europe. To demonstrate this problem, it is worth turning to Slovenia. Most people in the West typically do not follow Slovene politics but when the anti-migrant SDS came first in the country’s parliamentary elections this year, many commentators jumped on this as further evidence of the populist turn in Europe and the inevitable demise of the European Union. Far fewer stuck around to see what actually happened next.

In a fragmented political landscape, parties work hard to differentiate themselves from one another. Far-right parties have the difficulty that everyone else tends to see them as toxic (indeed in the European Parliament even far-right parties see each other as toxic, hence they sit in multiple different groups). Other parties often try to build support, boost their legitimacy and construct an identity in opposition to the politics of the far-right. The end result in Slovenia was that while the SDS won the most seats, no one else wanted to govern with them. After multiple failed attempts to form a government, it is now the centre-left party, leading a multi-party coalition, who are heading into government. Proportional systems may allow far-right parties to win seats but forming a government is a whole other prospect.

Returning to Sweden, the Sweden Democrats could well find themselves in exactly this situation, especially if they underperform compared to the polls. Their saving grace could be the Moderate Party. Over the last couple years, the Moderates have engaged in a rightward drift, adopting more hard-line positions on migration, closer to the Sweden Democrats. In the past the Moderates have even engaged in dialogue with the Sweden Democrats, yet these attempts were not successful. It cannot be absolutely ruled out that the Moderate Party won’t shift its position again but its move to the right seems to be more about competing with the Sweden Democrats than opening up the path to an alliance. In the end the centre-right and the far-right competing over the same anti-migrant voters could generate the same result in Sweden as it has done in France: both lose.

Away from the easy narratives of the global culture wars, the Swedish elections will likely be a reflection of many things, some entirely specific to Sweden and nothing to do with any other country’s politics. The Sweden Democrats will probably do well but disappoint the hype, and the most likely outcome is that Sweden’s next government will be a centre-left or a centre-right coalition, as it has been for many years previously. Commentators focussing too heavily on a battle between the centre-left and the far-right are missing the wood for the trees.

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