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10 September 2018

What the end of Sweden’s political “togetherness” reveals about our post-democratic age

Like the Northern Lights, the rise of Sweden’s far-right may appear late and fleeting. But that could make it the biggest warning sign yet. 

By Simon Reid-Henry

The electoral gains made by Jimmie Åkesson and his anti-immigrant nationalist Sweden Democrats in yesterday’s elections, where they took nearly a fifth of the national vote, seem on the surface of things to have been a stunning success.

The surge in their vote seems to conform to the (by now) usual drama that has played out across the western democracies of late: small, right-wing nationalist party makes dramatic gains at the expense of the major traditional parties of centre-left and centre-right.

But the real story from yesterday concerns the breakdown in the old social democratic consensus. Sweden’s governing Social Democratic Party (SDP), the single most successful social democratic party ever, recorded its worst electoral performance in a century, obtaining just 28.4 per cent of the vote.

The centre-right Moderate party also had a bad night, coming away with just a fraction more of the vote than the Sweden Democrats themselves. The leading parties of Sweden’s two main political blocs now face an uphill battle to reassert the status quo.

It is not clear that either of them will succeed in doing so. For it was not just the Swedish Democrats who did well. A number of smaller parties, including the Greens and the Left Party also increased their share of the vote, rendering fraught the task of building a governing coalition.

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Like the air that has gone out of an overcooked soufflé, Sweden’s entire political landscape is collapsing as new forces come to the fore. Battered and beaten by an electoral campaign in which issues of immigration, welfare, and integration all gave the traditional social democratic recipe a pounding, the result will be, for Swedes as they embark on a potentially protracted period of coalition wrangling, something that both looks and tastes very different.

Certainly, in the run up to this election, political debate in Sweden was markedly different than I can ever remember (and I have lived in neighbouring Norway for a decade). It was lacking, above all, in any sense of underlying political consensus as to what Scandinavians call samhold (togetherness)

Samhold sounds a little twee to the hardened English ear. But for a society organised around the central pillar of a universalist welfare state, it is the basic political glue that has long kept national coalitions (along with the values they code for and the institutions they support) largely in place.

This is the delicate melange that Åkesson has blown right through these past few months. Yes, the election was in large about immigration – and Åkesson’s anti-immigrant yet pro-welfare, stance has prised open innumerable gaps between the traditional parties on how, in chastened economic times, they propose to square that particular circle between rising welfare demands and rising immigration.

But the issue is ultimately less what Åkesson said and more how other politicians responded to him. Sweden’s mainstream political parties tried (perhaps for too long) to shut the Swedish Democrats out of the debate altogether. Similarly, the national broadcaster, SVT, distanced itself from some of Åkesson’s statements during a party leader debate.

For some Swedes, the fact that the other parties don’t want to even talk with the Swedish Democrats, much less form a coalition with them, is a “democratic” problem in itself now that the party has a fifth of the popular vote. For others, the fact that a large number of people share in Åkesson’s nationalist views does not mean they warrant debating; not when those views are based on pejorative beliefs, rather than demonstrable facts.

Either way, what the Swedish Democrats have done in this election is to reveal that the old rules governing Swedish politics no longer hold. The normative assumptions of a political culture based on samhold, and the reality of contemporary political debate, now stand in confrontation with one another. As the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten reported last week: “The Swedes have taken their slippers off and put their boxing gloves on.” What we are witnessing, in other words, may well be the death of the social democratic political style more generally: the mid-late twentieth commitment to secularised multiculturalism and distributional compromise bought into by the political left and right alike.

Ultimately this raises a question for the rest of us: if in politically more fraught and economically more chastened times, even the Swedes cannot hold some version of that governing political consensus together any longer, what does it mean for less conformist liberal democratic states?

We have in part already begun to glimpse the answer to that, of course.

We have seen it in Germany, where a similar breakdown in political discourse nearly felled Angela Merkel in elections in Germany this same time last year (she responded by moving her right-hand man, Wolfgang Schäuble, to the position of speaker of the Bundestag, the better to keep an eye on the galloping rise of the anti-immigrant AfD party as it entered parliament for the first time).

And we have seen it in America, where Bernie Sanders still likes to point to Sweden as a model to be emulated, while Donald Trump has busied himself with showing the likes of Åkesson how to speak loud and clear and to be rewarded for this, regardless of the consistency or the integrity of the utterance.

We should also heed the results of this election in Britain, as we fumble in our post-Brexit political nocturne. Here, too, immigration often grabs the headlines, but it does so – as in Sweden – because something else has gone awry first: that something being the loss of a normative political compass: of any sense of precisely what values we might ultimately all agree to form a consensus around.  

A little like the famous Northern Lights, the rise of right-wing, anti-immigrant nationalist parties in Sweden may appear both late and fleeting. But for that same reason it could also be the most illuminating instance yet of the more profound shift we are living through in our post-democratic age.  

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