As next week’s Swedish elections loom, journalists are arriving in Stockholm on a mission to uncover why a party with undeniable roots in neo-Nazi movements is projected to become the nation’s second largest.
Already the coverage is predictable. Just as in other European election cycles since 2016, it will tell the story of a rising far-right, and it will not be untrue. And yet, it will miss the point.
Reporters will head to smaller cities in search of the “left behind”– the angry, white, working-class voters who have turned to the far-right Swedish Democrats. They’ll go to Malmö to talk about rising gang-crime, and tie it to immigration. They’ll return to Donald Trump’s obsessive (and untrue) tweets about Sweden’s supposed failings, or the Russian troll factories aiming to influence this round of European elections.
But Trump and Putin’s focus reflects their aversion to the country’s – somewhat romanticised – image as a society committed to openness and equality. Sweden’s political system has for years been dominated by the Social Democratic Party, arguably Europe’s most successful centre-left party.
Now it is evident from the turmoil of these upcoming elections that Sweden is becoming more “normal” and displaying the same trends as elsewhere in Europe. But the rise of the far-right is only one part of its story.
European elections have repeatedly displayed three narratives: the rise of the far-right, the collapse of traditional social-democratic parties, and the general fragmentation of the political system. While the first two are easy enough to see, the latter is just as important (if not more).
With several smaller parties, the Swedish political landscape has always been somewhat fragmented. Parties align themselves to one of two “voting blocs”: either the centre-left “red-green” bloc, dominated by the Social-Democrats, or the conservative “Alliance”, dominated by the Moderates.
Such blocs work to ensure stable governments under clear leadership from one of the larger parties. Yet with the Social-Democrats marching towards their worst ever performance (24 per cent) and the Moderates currently polling as the third party (17 per cent), there is no clear leadership in sight.
Both the incumbent Social-Democratic prime minister, Stefan Löfven, and his Moderate opposition, Ulf Kristersson, would find it extremely difficult to form a government under the current polling. This is largely due to the Swedish Democrats’ projected 20 per cent vote share, which would deprive both blocs – each currently polling around 40 per cent, with the left slightly ahead – of an overall majority.
Yet the far-right’s rise has not been the only problem facing the leaders, there is also the drainage of voters to other smaller parties. The increased support for the Swedish Democrats is mirrored by the rise of support for those parties most vocally opposed to its manifesto and what it represents.
Polling suggests the Centre Party, too, will be up nearly three per cent from 2014 to 8.8 per cent of the vote share, while the Left Party will gain around four per cent, taking it to 9.8 per cent. Both parties’ leaders, Annie Lööf and Jonas Sjöstedt respectively, are perceived as being Sweden’s “most principled”. Meanwhile, Lööf polls as the most popular party leader, along with Prime Minister Löfven.
Their projected gains come despite both parties having vocally lambasted the idea of cooperating with the Swedish Democrats – regardless the level of their support – and resisting pressures to follow the Social Democrats lead in hardening immigration policies in reaction to the far-right’s rise.
This suggests that the story is not the linear “the Social Democrats are losing support while the Swedish Democrats are gaining it”. Instead, on one hand, Swedish voters are looking for alternatives to the dominant parties. On the other, they do not necessarily support the Swedish Democrats’ desire to turn Sweden into a meaner, more insular society.
The nation’s increased fragmentation shows a lack of leadership from the main parties in setting the tone against the rise of the far-right. While the centre and left parties are reaping the rewards of resisting the Swedish Democrats, the current ruling Social Democrats’ calls to harden immigration have led many centrist and left-leaning voters to feel the party has abdicated its traditional role of the guarantor of Sweden’s image as an open, forward-looking society. They are now looking for alternatives elsewhere.
This shows that to regain voters’ trust, centre-left parties in Sweden and elsewhere need a new vision of social democracy. The problem is that it will not suffice to simply react to the far-right.
Small parties more easily shape themselves as voices of single-issue resistance, while social democracy needs to appeal to a broad majority while accepting that Sweden is essentially a multi-cultural, open society. In a fragmented system, this may be a difficult square to circle, but it might also be its only way for long-term survival.
Dr Itay Lotem is a postdoctoral fellow in Modern Languages and Culture at the University of Westminster.