Sweden’s far right rises
Sweden’s September election, following a campaign dominated by the issues of immigration and crime, saw the far-right Sweden Democrats, once on the political fringes, come second. Combined, right-wing parties have a narrow majority, giving the Sweden Democrats great influence over the likely new government; even if the party isn’t part of the governing coalition, its votes will be crucial. The failed efforts of other parties to win back supporters from the Sweden Democrats by borrowing their policies have only served to further legitimise them and their anti-migrant rhetoric. Attacks on the rights of minorities, civil society and media freedoms are now likely to intensify.
A political era has ended in Sweden. Its 11 September election saw the far-right Sweden Democrats make major advances, becoming the second-biggest party in the Riksdag, Sweden’s parliament. As the last few votes are being counted, it’s all but certain that parties on the right of the political spectrum will form the next government. The centre-left Social Democrats, long the dominant force in Swedish politics, are on their way to opposition.
From the fringes to the mainstream
For the Sweden Democrats, which grew out of the country’s small and violent neo-Nazi movement, the result marks the conclusion of a long march to respectability. In common with Europe’s other successful far-right parties, particularly France’s National Rally, its leaders have worked to play down their extremist origins and dress in the clothes of respectable politicians.
Their strategy was rewarded with an increase in vote share over seven successive elections. The Sweden Democrats only passed the threshold needed to gain parliamentary seats – four per cent of the vote – in 2010, but now they’re not only the country’s second-biggest party but also the most successful party anywhere with neo-Nazi origins.
Established parties long refused to have anything to do with it, but a decisive shift came in 2020, when the centre-right Moderate Party, long Sweden’s second-placed party, announced it was willing to work with it.
Cooperation isn’t the only compliment established parties have begun to pay to the Sweden Democrats. Parties – including the Social Democrats – followed the typical response of European mainstream parties to the far-right threat: they adopted toned-down versions of the Sweden Democrats’ platform in an attempt to win back voters. To counter the threat, they tried to offer less threatening versions of it.
And as usually happens, this strategy failed. Sweden Democrats continued to gain electoral support at the expense of other right-wing and centre-right parties, which all saw their vote shares fall in the latest election. By borrowing and adopting the Sweden Democrats’ policies, established parties legitimised their appeal and normalised their extreme positions, making them appear just another respectable member of the political community.
Crime and immigration to the fore
Sweden Democrats’ chosen territory was, predictably, immigration. Recent years have seen a spike in crime and violence, accompanied by lurid reporting, with migrants blamed. Parties across the spectrum have picked up on the Sweden Democrats’ messaging, making crime, and by implication immigration, the dominant issue of the campaign, overshadowing even other pressing issues such as high energy prices and declining public services.
Sweden has undoubtedly changed quickly. In the days of the Social Democrats’ ascendancy, Sweden was a largely monocultural country, apart from minorities such as Finns and the Indigenous Sámi people. But recent decades have seen accelerating immigration, particularly from the Middle East, including Iran, Iraq and Syria. Over a third of the current population was born in another country or has a parent who was.
Muslim people are the target: politicians openly blame them for the country’s problems, fuelling a febrile atmosphere. In April this year, violence was sparked when a far-right group staged a protest burning copies of the Quran.
Sweden Democrats have positioned themselves as the party that will save Sweden’s cherished social welfare system – traditionally a core part of the centre left’s appeal – by turning back the clock on migration. During the campaign, the party openly promoted the idea of repatriation. It wants to make Sweden Europe’s harshest country for immigration.
Social democratic decline
The election could signal a realignment of Sweden’s politics, long dominated by the Social Democrats, which made the county, with its stable governments and high-quality public services, the envy of many.
The party has come first in every election since 1914, including in 2022, and has usually gone on to form a government. It has typically led minority or coalition governments, since it’s rare for one party to win over half the seats. Minority governments are enabled by a rule called ‘negative parliamentarism’, which states that a prime minister doesn’t need the support of a parliamentary majority: they only have to show they don’t have a majority against them, meaning the government wins if votes against it are outnumbered by votes for and abstentions combined.
But the times when the Social Democrats used to win commanding shares of the vote, like the 45.2 per cent they achieved in 1994, are long gone. Its last government was fragile and dogged by crisis.
In June 2021, the governing coalition of the Social Democrats and Green Party collapsed after it lost a confidence vote; the Left Party, which usually propped up the government by abstaining or voting with it, called for the vote and voted against the government over a proposal to weaken rent controls. Prime Minister Stefan Löfven only stayed in power because the Moderate Party wasn’t able to form a government.
In November, Löfven stood down, replaced by Magdalena Andersson, who became Sweden’s first female prime minister, a hundred years after Swedish women won the right to vote. But she almost claimed the record for the shortest term as well.
On the day Andersson carried the parliamentary vote to become prime minister, her budget was defeated and an alternate budget proposed by right-wing parties, Sweden Democrats included, was passed instead. This led to Andersson’s resignation and the departure of the Green Party from the coalition, before she prevailed in a second confidence vote to lead a minority government commanding only 100 of parliament’s 349 seats.
On 14 September, Andersson announced her resignation in the wake of the election. Even though her party’s vote share rose, up two percentage points from 2018, the changed political landscape left her with no apparent means to sustain a government.
Andersson’s government had been sustained partly by fear of what has now happened. Most parties had an interest in avoiding an early election in which the Sweden Democrats could only benefit from disaffection at the political fallout. But they only postponed the far-right party’s rise.
Combined, right-wing parties can form a government that commands the slimmest of parliamentary majorities – but only if they work with the Sweden Democrats. The party is already in talks with other right-wing parties and will demand ministerial appointments if it joins a formal coalition.
However, the Liberal party has said it will only join a coalition if the Sweden Democrats are excluded. With only 16 seats, it’s parliament’s smallest party, but with the balance so finely poised, those votes could count – although any defections from the party line could matter too.
Even if other parties maintain their previous approach of shunning the Sweden Democrats, the party can make that work to its advantage. More moderate right-wing parties could try to work together as a minority government, relying on the Sweden Democrats not to vote against, enabled by the negative parliamentarism rule. But such a government would face serious questions about its legitimacy if its largest member is a party that finished third with under 20 per cent of the vote.
It might suit Sweden Democrats not to be part of government: in other countries the experience of taking a government role has led to far-right parties losing support. Once in government, they risk no longer being viewed as the disruptive force they market themselves as – the Sweden Democrats come to prominence by attacking established parties left and right – but as members of the establishment. They risk being exposed as incompetent and uncommitted to the principles that attracted many voters.
Even if not in cabinet, the Sweden Democrats will be able to use the influence of their 73 members of parliament to extract concessions in return for supporting key votes, while continuing to position the party as an anti-establishment force. This is likely to make for an unstable government – and each crisis it faces will present a further opportunity for the Sweden Democrats to win support.
A European problem
Sweden offers yet another reminder that the rise of the far right across Europe isn’t over yet. Italy’s election, on 25 September, is likely to result in a government including not one but two far-right parties.
A new anti-rights bloc could be forming within the European Union: Italy and Sweden could work in concert with Hungary and Poland – although attitudes to Russia could remain a key dividing line: Hungary’s authoritarian leader Viktor Orbán and Italy’s League party have a history of sympathising with Vladimir Putin while the Sweden Democrats, in common with most Swedish parties, backed the country joining NATO in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
As has happened wherever the far right has won influence, it can be expected that human rights will come under attack. Already right-wing politicians are criticising public media. Civil society’s space, long open, could become more constrained. The rights of migrants and visible minorities will likely be threatened, and anti-rights groups, including violent forces, emboldened.
To respond, forces of the centre and left, including the Social Democrats, need to learn the lessons: appeasing the far right and trying to dilute their support by borrowing anti-rights policies doesn’t work. It’s a race to the bottom they can’t win. Rather than attacking those with the least power, they should reach out to discontented people with a positive message about making their lives – and everyone’s – better.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
Centre-right parties should commit to not forming a coalition government that includes the Sweden Democrats.
Civil society should work to defend the rights of migrants and other minorities that are likely to come under attack.
The European Union should ensure that Sweden continues to abide by its human rights standards.
Cover illustration by CIVICUS