Swedish elections show face of ‘new Europe’, leave politics deadlocked

Sweden Democrats have their roots in neo-Nazi groups that have turned respectable.
Sunday 16/09/2018
Prime Minister and leader of the Social Democrat party Stefan Lofven waves at an election party in  Stockholm, on September 9. (AP)
End of bloc politics. Prime Minister and leader of the Social Democrat party Stefan Lofven waves at an election party in Stockholm, on September 9. (AP)

Sweden had its first election since the government allowed 163,000 migrants into the country — the most per capita of any European nation — during Europe’s migration crisis, polarising the country’s 7.3 million voters and magnifying concern about a welfare system many said was already under strain.

With the centre-left bloc taking 40.6% of the vote and the centre-right claiming 40.3%, complicated negotiations will be needed to build a majority or — more likely, a minority — government that will not be easily sunk.

The surge in support for the populist anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats, which won 63 seats in the 349-seat Riksdag, was less than feared but, with 17.6% of the vote was well up on the 14.1% it scored in 2014. It will want to make its influence felt but how much it succeeds depends on the coalition of parties that eventually forms the government.

The governing Social Democrats, led by Prime Minister Stefan Lofven came first — as they have in every election in 100 years — but their tally fell to 28.4%, the lowest since 1917. The centre-right Moderate party slipped to 19.8% as smaller parties — the ex-communist Left, the centre-right Centre and Christian Democrats and the Green party — advanced.

If a left-coalition is formed, cooperation with Sweden Democrats is ruled out but if cross-bloc alliances between centre-right and centre-left parties are formed, the rising populist party might well have a say in policy shaping.

Sweden Democrats Chairman Jimmie Akesson expressed an interest in cooperating with other parties and made clear to the Moderates in particular that they wanted to show them “how to govern the country.” He was not shy in boasting of his desire to strengthen his “kingmaker role.”

Lofven was quick to dismiss Akesson’s remarks, saying Sweden Democrats “can never and will never offer anything that will help society. They will only increase division and hate.”

That said, were Moderates Chairman Ulf Kristersson to seek to form a minority centre-right administration, possibly in coalition with the Christian Democrats, he would implicitly seek ad hoc parliamentary support from Sweden Democrats.

As in Germany, the decline of the two big centre-left and centre-right parties, which have dominated the political scene for decades and in Sweden since 1917, growing income in equality, long waits for operations, shortages of doctors and teachers and a police force that has had difficulties dealing with a spate of gangland shootings and grenade attacks, often in deprived areas with high concentrations of immigrants, have shaken faith in Sweden’s prized model of generous welfare and inclusiveness.

Another often-overlooked factor is that the Scandinavian countries are traditionally very homogeneous socially, racially and religiously and, having had no colonial empire to speak of, are not used to dealing with Asian, Middle Eastern or African minorities in their midst, as are France and the United Kingdom. Whipping up feelings against Arabs, Muslims and Africans is therefore easy. Integrating refugees from the Balkans was a challenge in the 1990s but nobody in government drew the conclusions notably on how to deal with violent, young men, especially when the later got involved in drug-running, often with native Swedish groups.

Sweden Democrats have their roots in neo-Nazi groups that have turned respectable. In Germany, right-wing populism was also fuelled by the often-overlooked factor that Communist East Germany had never “de-Nazified” in depth after the second world war as was done in the German Federal Republic.

But, more than anything else, the feeling has grown, in Sweden as in Germany, that traditional parties did not respond to the grievances born of the fallout of the financial crisis of 2008 and growing social inequalities and insecurity about the future that resulted.

Far-right parties are in government in Austria, Italy, Norway and Finland. Sweden may not be added to the list immediately but September 9’s poll shows that strong anti-immigration and anti-Muslim rhetoric brings votes.

Traditional parties have swung between demonising the populists and pandering to some of their ideas. Whatever the future holds, the failure of traditional parties to respond to the sense of discontent that exists, in a context when every other talk show points a vengeful finger at Islam and turmoil in the Middle East, underlines the loss in faith in the political system.

Sweden is not alone in this. Whoever governs Sweden in the years ahead will have a much more restrictive policy towards immigrants and refugees from Africa, the Middle East and South-east Asia. Whether they join a future government or give it ad hoc support in parliament, Sweden Democrats will yield influence on the country’s politics. The post-1945 world is gone; the euphoria that followed the collapse of the Soviet empire is as well.

However much they dislike it, Middle Eastern and African countries will have to get used to the new Europe.