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12 September 2022

Sweden’s tight election could result in a far right-backed government

The Sweden Democrats are no longer treated as pariahs by mainstream conservatives despite their neo-Nazi roots.

By Jeremy Cliffe

At the time of writing, 95 per cent of the votes from Sweden’s election on 11 September have been counted. On the current numbers, the prime minister Magdalena Andersson’s centre-left Social Democrats consolidate their first-place position, rising 2.2 points to 30.5 per cent (with particularly strong gains in Stockholm). But under Sweden’s system of proportional representation, the make-up of the government depends primarily not on which party comes first but on the relative respective strengths of the left and right blocs.

The country faces a so-called valrysare; literally an “election thriller”, or in more idiomatic English a “nail-biter.” Currently the right bloc is poised to take 175 seats in the Riksdag to the left bloc’s 174 seats. That is thanks not to Ulf Kristersson’s centre-right Moderates, traditionally the leading force in the right bloc, but to Jimmie Åkesson’s far-right Sweden Democrats, who leaped into second place on 20.6 per cent of the vote.

The final results will not come in until midweek, with votes from abroad and some other last postal votes to be counted from Wednesday (14 September). But according to calculations by the broadsheet Dagens Nyheter, the “Wednesday vote” in previous elections has tended to slightly increase the count for the Moderates and the centre-left Greens, and decrease it for the Social Democrats and Sweden Democrats (a reflection of the sociological make-up of Sweden’s expatriate electorate). Applying this pattern to the current result, the newspaper’s analysis indicates, would see one seat switch from the left bloc to the right bloc.  

That suggests Kristersson has a better chance of forming a majority. Before the election, the Moderates ruled out bringing the Sweden Democrats into a coalition, but it is now up to Kristersson to confirm that this remains their position even though the far right are the largest force in his bloc. The far-right party are claiming that their result entitles them to a discussion about cabinet seats. If the Moderates resist, however, the most likely outcome is a minority coalition of the other right-of-centre parties (Moderates, Christian Democrats and Liberals), supported from the outside by the Sweden Democrats. 

Even short of a full coalition, that would be a historic shift for Sweden – a country known for its long decades of Social Democrat dominance and a left-liberal international image. That image has always been justified to a certain extent, but it was also never entirely reflective of the complexities, and more reactionary aspects, of Swedish society. The Sweden Democrats have roots in the white nationalist, fascist and neo-Nazi scenes in Sweden. Despite moves to detoxify their image, their policies remain overtly anti-immigrant and favour a hard-line, authoritarian stance on law and order, including the deportation of any foreigner convicted of a crime. The rise in violent crime of recent years has fuelled the party’s rise. 

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For many years, any sort of cooperation with the Sweden Democrats was taboo. In 2015 Fredrik Reinfeldt, the then-leader of the Moderates and prime minister, referred to the party’s leaders as “racists and the stiffly xenophobic”. In 2018 I reported from Hässleholm, a town near Malmö in Sweden’s south, where the local Moderates had relied on support from the far-right party to oust a centre-left local council. Even that had caused a national scandal. Yet only four years later, the Sweden Democrats are on the verge of being kingmakers to the country’s national government.

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Sunday’s election result recalls Austria’s election in 1999. Then, too, a social democratic party came first. Then, too, the far-right leapfrogged the centre-right into second place. Then, the third-placed centre-right party (in this case, Wolfgang Schüssel’s People’s Party) broke the old cordon sanitaire and used support from the political extremists (in this case, Jörg Haider’s Freedom Party) to oust the centre-left incumbent – although in that case by bringing it into a full coalition. The big difference between then and now is the wider European context. In early 2000, when the Schüssel-Haider government came to power, there was continent-wide outrage and the rest of the EU placed diplomatic sanctions on Vienna. Yet since then, the rise of the hard-line right across Europe has made such a singling-out impossible. Parties somewhat comparable to the Sweden Democrats have formed coalition governments or support relationships with sitting governments in Italy, Austria (again) and Norway. Hard-right parties govern in Poland and Hungary. Marine Le Pen took 41.5 per cent of the vote in the second round of the French presidential election in April. 

The transformation has taken place as much within mainstream parties, and especially mainstream centre-right ones such as the Moderates, as it has within the far-right parties themselves. In Spain, the conservative Partido Popular in April formed a regional coalition with the far-right Vox party – quite possibly a model for a national government coalition after next year’s general election. Centre-right parties in countries like France and Britain have adopted policies (such as Brexit, or deporting asylum seekers to Rwanda) that would once have been confined to the right-wing margins. Even in Germany, where the cordon sanitaire remains comparatively robust for obvious historical reasons, there have been state-level flirtations between the Christian Democrats and the far-right Alternative für Deutschland. Further proof of these trends will likely come next week when, on 25 September, Italians vote in a general election. Fratelli d’Italia, a party that like the Sweden Democrats has fascist roots, currently leads the polls and stands a good chance of forming a tripartite government with the far-right Lega and Silvio Berlusconi’s conservative Forza Italia.

Examples from most European countries – with the debatable exception of Britain, in which the first-past-the-post electoral system tends to internalise within the big parties shifts that elsewhere occur between parties – suggest that this lowering of the cordon sanitaire often strengthens the far-right parties in question rather than diluting their electoral appeal. That is certainly the case in Sweden, where the Moderates’ opportunistic decision shortly after the Hässleholm council pact to move to the right and open up cooperation with the Sweden Democrats has clearly backfired: early analysis of Sunday’s results suggests that 14 per cent of those who voted for the Sweden Democrats had backed the Moderates at the previous election in 2018.  

Sweden has a long history of being an exception within Europe: from the long political hegemony of the Social Democrats to its standalone resistance to Covid-19 lockdowns. Once, the prospect of a Swedish government reliant on the Sweden Democrats would have been another exceptional case. But in today’s Europe, sadly, it is entirely typical.

[See also: Magdalena Andersson and Sanna Marin’s fight against far right misogyny]

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This article appears in the 14 Sep 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Succession