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Sweden’s Risky General Election

ARTICLES - 4 September 2018

On Sunday, Swedish voters will cast their votes, as they do every four years, to elect the 349 members of the Riksdag, a one-chamber parliament. This is one of the most important elections to be held before the European elections in May 2019 and it will, like many other national elections, serve as a test… with the same concern: will the far-right, anti-European and populist forces be able to win? And with what consequences?

Take A Chance On Me 

Traditionally, parties in the Riksdag cooperate by forming blocks. When the right-wing parties form a block, Swedes refer to the “Alliance” between the Moderate Party, the Centre Party, the Liberal Party and the Christian Democratic Party. The second block, known as “Red-Greens”, is formed by the Social Democratic Party and the Green Party - this is the coalition that has been governing since the 2014 election - and sometimes the Left Party. In this context of multiparty bursting, the pre-election polls all give the Sweden Democrats, which as its name does not indicate is a nationalist party strongly against immigration, winner or second of this poll with circa 20% of the votes - some polls predict even more.

This party, founded in 1988, originated as a somewhat confidential movement, particularly marked by the contribution of “racist, Nazi or white supremacist” circles [1] in Sweden. In the first general election following its creation, the party won 0.02% of votes, then 0.4% ten years later in 1998. In the 2000s, it grew steadily: 1.4% of votes in 2002, 2.9% in 2006, 5.7% in 2010 - the first year of representation in Parliament (22 years into its existence, the party managed to secure 4% of votes) and 12.9% in 2014.

According to a poll conducted in late August 2018 by Sifo (Kantar), the “Red-Green” block collected 41% of voting intentions. The parties of the “Alliance” got 37.7%. This means that none of the traditional blocks is likely to secure a majority, i.e. 50% of votes.

The Sweden Democrats would become the second largest party in the country with over 20% of voting intentions. This means that it will take on more importance than the Moderate Party, which would culminate at 18.5%. They are not the only ones progressing, since the Christian Democrats could do better than usual, as well as the Green Party, which may benefit from the large-scale forest fires this summer. As everywhere else, players at the margins of the system or challenging it are progressing at the expense of traditional political forces.

The Winner Takes It All 

This "dégagisme à la Suédoise" cannot be explained, as in France, by a feeling of public misery or generalized pessimism. In the latest World Happiness Report published this year by the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN), Sweden was ranked ninth, surrounded by Canada, New Zealand and Australia. In comparison, France came in 23rd, Great Britain 19th and Germany 15th. 

Nor is the Swedish economy the factor able to explain the rise of the far right. Although its economic growth halved within three years, between 2015 and 2017, it is currently over 3%, almost twice that of France.
Moreover, with an unemployment rate of 6.2% at the time of the election (it is 50% higher in France) - the lowest since 2010 -, Sweden is clearly a part of the Europe that succeeds, even if 20% of its population is estimated to be of foreign origin. However, we need to look at this situation without fatalism because projections of changes in the labor market seem to indicate that without immigration, the country would experience a significant shortage of manpower.

Super Trouper 

The leader of Sweden's Democrats since 2005, Jimmie Åkesson, has allowed for the rise of his party, modernizing it and practicing a firm policy of refusing racist statements, a real and very effective strategy of “de-demonization”.
This does not prevent Sweden Democrats from bearing all the stigmas of the nationalist and populist parties developing on this very model in Europe. On Wednesday 29th August, in a morning radio interview (on the day of the last official election debate), Åkesson declared that he could not choose between Emmanuel Macron and Vladimir Putin, implicitly joining the front that the Hungarian Viktor Orban and the Italian Matteo Salvini have decided to form against the French President.

That same afternoon, questioned by the Liberal candidate - “Do you not wish to choose between free democratic France and a country that is becoming a dictatorship?” - Åkesson replied, “I do not have to choose. No one should hesitate about what I think of Russia’s aggressive foreign policy or Putin’s aggressive imperialist regime in Russia, but that does not mean that I have to choose a leftist imperialism that goes through the EU. I do not want it”.
As a recent report conducted by Johan Martinsson for Fondapol shows, Sweden Democrats skillfully cultivate the Swedes’ strong attachment to the welfare state and the coherence of the national community. While the community is not defined ethnically, it is based on cultural, linguistic and identity principles, which can only lead to rejecting the arrival of migrants from countries outside Europe.

Immigration has become the most worrying subject for Swedish public opinion, especially since the migration crisis of 2015. Migration is not a recent phenomenon in Sweden, as another study by Fondapol, written by Tino Sanandaji, points out: “according to the OECD, Sweden has had the largest per-capita inflow of asylum seekers ever recorded” [2]. 

When All Is Said and Done

Many debates took place during the campaign, particularly through social media: topics ranged from the labor market, education and equality, to healthcare, climate change and the European Union. But the ones that came up the most were justice, security and immigration, which polarized public attention.

Social media noise particularly focused on right-wing discussions (during the November 2016 US election, Breitbart and its 920,000 interactions on Facebook had many more readers online than The New York Times or CNN). The number of right-wing pages steadily increased before the election, while the number of pages on the left remained relatively stable.
Facebook groups like “Politically incorrect” or “Sweden together” are two prime examples of populist publicity, raised by the Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter (they were mentioned in a recent article). They experienced a peak of attendance in early August, with an extremely strong pace of publication.

The campaign also revealed that 17% of Twitter accounts that publish on Swedish politics are actually fake. This figure comes from the Swedish Defense Research Agency’s study devoted to these elections and it was published in the tabloid Aftonbladet. Between July and August, the number of bots doubled (from 600 accounts in July to 1200 in August). The tweets issued by these bots were obviously favorable to the Sweden Democrats, by attacking Islam, the Liberal Party and all established media.
The elections next Sunday are very similar to other polls that have been held in Europe for two years: anti-system sentiments, refusal of immigration, rise of far-right populism, influence of social media... Not to mention the fear of Islam and the rejection of Islamism, with amalgamations: in the last hours of the campaign, the major newspaper Svenska Dagbladet published an important report against Salafism in Sweden.
[1] Johan Martinsson, “Sweden Democrats”: An Anti-Immigration Vote, Fondapol, August 2018.
[2] Tino Sanandaji, “Swedes and Immigration: End of Homogeneity?”, Fondapol, August 2018.


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