Jimmie Åkesson, leader of the Sweden Democrats, a hard-right party with neo-Nazi roots. Photo: Stefan Sollfors / Alamy

Could Sweden fall to the far right?

The traditionally tolerant Nordic nation is taking a worrying turn
August 21, 2018

In one of the defining moments of the last Swedish general election, the country’s then prime minister and leader of the centre-right Moderate Party Fredrik Reinfeldt called on Swedes to “open their hearts” to refugees and argued that they would help to build a better Sweden. The world looked on at a traditionally tolerant nation embracing openness. 

Now, as Sweden prepares to head to the polls once again, its image is of a country divided. Things began to shift in 2015, just a year after the last election, when the Nordic nation took in a record 163,000 asylum seekers. Local authorities struggled to cope with the influx amid intense national debates about potential integration problems and rising support for the country’s anti-immigration party, the Sweden Democrats. The government changed tack, slamming shut the country’s open-door policy, which had previously granted asylum to all Syrian refugees.

None of this has stopped the march of the nationalists. After winning 13 per cent of the vote in 2014, their support swelled to around 20 per cent, and has stayed there. Several recent polls have them running narrowly behind the centre-left Social Democrats, led by the country’s current Prime Minister Stefan Löfven, which is currently on course for a record low of 24 per cent. The centre-right Moderates languish in third. 

The Sweden Democrats’ neo-Nazi roots do not seem to matter. They’re framing the debate, forcing Sweden’s traditional political parties to toughen their tone. Cutting high unemployment levels and subsequent welfare payments to the foreign-born population is at the crux of the Moderates’ current campaign, alongside a promise to tackle the rising numbers of high-profile shootings in the troubled suburbs where many immigrants live. On the centre-left, the Social Democrats have pledged to continue to slash refugee numbers and argued that Swedish lessons should become compulsory for -foreigners seeking to claim benefits.

While both sides of the mainstream have made integration a focal point of their campaign, their policies remain hazy. Immigration was something of a taboo in Swedish society in recent decades, especially among the middle classes. Nuanced debates about policy just didn’t take place. The discussion only got going when things started to spiral out of control at the height of the refugee crisis, and the Sweden Democrats were free to own the issue from the start.

Arguably, the fact that the nationalists are still gaining ground might suggest that voters looking for a harsher line on immigration still doubt the mainstream will deliver on their newly populist promises.

Yet while stricter immigration policies have done little to stem the flow of voters from the mainstream to the nationalist right, more liberal supporters of both the Social Democrats and the Moderates are now jumping ship. The Left Party has seen its support double to 9 per cent since the last election, reeling in disenfranchised Social Democrat voters attracted to its more humanitarian approach, while the Centre Party, which has campaigned against restrictions on the right to family reunification, has also picked up voters from the Moderates. 

In this fluid and fragmented landscape, Sweden has a tough challenge ahead. Forming a traditional centre-right or centre-left government won’t be easy, with neither bloc likely to have a majority and both sides ruling out a coalition with the Sweden Democrats.

Potential political constellations move into view. Some of Sweden’s smaller centre-right parties could end up teaming up with the Social Democrats. There is even talk of a potential German-style grand coalition across the political mainstream. That’s unlikely, but conceivable as a last resort to keep the nationalists out of power.

Neither situation is one that Sweden’s traditional big parties are keen to discuss. Even though it is conversations not had that have got the Sweden Democrats this far, the final stretch of the battle against them looks set to be dominated by more political evasion.