Sweden has long sought to nurture an international reputation as a “moral superpower”. In the 1970s and 1980s, its prime minister Olaf Palme distanced himself from both superpowers of the Cold War, criticising both the Vietnam War and the crushing of the Prague Spring. The country is, after Turkey, the most generous recipient of asylum seekers per capita in the OECD group of countries, with refugees making 2.6 per cent of its population. In 2014, the country became the first in the world to declare that it would pursue a “feminist foreign policy”, with gender equality declared a core goal of the country’s diplomacy.
Accordingly, for decades Sweden has served as a byword for tolerance and openness. Though not always justified – Sweden is the 13th-largest arms exporter in the world, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute – the Scandinavian country has cultivated an international image as a leading champion of progressivism. This perception is in large part a product of the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SDP)’s dominance of Swedish politics in the postwar era, when it was in government for decades at a time, dipping into opposition only briefly.
That reputation is now at risk following the victory of a right-wing bloc in the general election held last weekend, of which the far-right Sweden Democrats (SD) are the largest party. The SDP leader and Swedish prime minister, Magdalena Andersson, has conceded defeat to that bloc, which is led by Ulf Kristersson, who will likely become the country’s next prime minister – even though his Moderate party came only third in the election.
The SD will yield unprecedented power in the new parliament. A right-wing government led by Kristersson will probably be reliant on SD votes to stay in office, with or without a formal coalition agreement. The SD – which unified various factions of the fascist and white supremacist scenes in Sweden when it was founded in the late 1980s – now has a good claim to being Europe’s most successful party originating in the neo-Nazi movement. Although its leader Jimmie Åkesson has tried to clean up his party’s image since he became its leader in 2005, kicking out some of the most avowed extremists and banning expressions of outright racism, its origins have very much been on display since last week’s vote, with one politician from the party appearing to make a pun on the Swedish translation of the Nazi salute “Sieg Heil”, while veiled threats to “push journalists around” issued by the party’s chief of staff were criticised as an attack on press freedom by the NGO Reporters Without Borders.
The SD will now seek to use its new-found influence to advance its core priorities, notably including a drastic cut to the number of asylum seekers Sweden takes in, increased deportations and a crackdown on violent crime. Even though it will not head the government, it seems likely that a Moderate-led government supported by the SD will lean further to the right than any Swedish government in recent history. Sweden now risks its international image tipping from a beacon of tolerance to its opposite.