Sweden, an Exception in Europe?
On September 9, 2018, Sweden will elect its representatives in the parliamentary elections. Long regarded as having set a political example, Sweden is no longer an exception next to its neighbor countries. The nationalist party Sverigedemokraterna, Sweden Democrats, is today the number three political force in the country, alongside the Swedish Social Democratic Party and the conservative Moderate Party, which have been the pillars of the government since 1917.
On November 10 2017, the World Forum for Democracy in Strasbourg, organized by the Council of Europe, came to a conclusion. Its topic: populism. Just three weeks earlier, the far right was massively supported by more than 530,000 voters in the Czech Republic legislative elections. From Austria to Hungary via Germany and Italy, the extreme right is undergoing a resurgence of widespread popularity, fueled by the migration crisis affecting the continent. Sweden, a typical example of the social-democratic welfare state model that combines social and economic efficiency, is systematically presented as an example of political stability, with the Swedish Social Democratic Party having dominated the political field for almost a century. However, the situation changed in 2010, when the authoritarian and radical party of the Sweden Democrats obtained parliamentary representation. In September 2014 it became the number three political force in the country with 13% of the vote and 48 seats in the Parliament. The latest polls show that the support for the radical right has reached 21.5%, putting the far-right party just behind the social democratic party, with 25.7% of the votes.
Moderation and continual growth
Under the chairmanship of Jimmie Åkesson, the party was created in 1998 as the three nationalist, racist and anti-immigration parties -Sweden Party, Keep Sweden Swedish and the Swedish Progress Party- merged. It is the first far-right populist party to enter parliament since Ny demokrati, New Democracy, which sat in the Parliament of Sweden between 1991 and 1994, before being dissolved.
As of 1995, Mikael Jansson, head of Sweden Party, strove to make the party more respectable, distancing it from the xenophobic and violent groups that it had close connections with in the early 1990s. In 2005, Jimmie Åkesson used the same tactic and dismissed members known for their Nazi sympathies, claiming that today that the party is no longer racist- a statement questioned by Prime Minister Stefan Löfven who called the party “neo-fascist” in 2014.
Until 2002, the support for the Sweden Democrats was minimal, with only 5 seats in 3 municipal assemblies. 4 years after its creation, the party got 2% of the votes, multiplying the number of representatives in the municipal assemblies by five. During the elections in 2006, the party became officially eligible for public funding and has since increased its mobilizing capacity.
The migration crisis as electoral ground
Sweden showcases an atypical model: the access to public services is equal for all inhabitants of Sweden. As a result, the country has always kept its distance from European assimilation criteria, refusing in 1991 the language test as a condition of integration. The Nordic country currently hosts more than twice as many refugees per capita than any other of the 34 OECD member states. The results of the “Scandinavian model” are an excellent standard of living, high wages and high rates of female economic participation. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has called Sweden and its neighbor Denmark as his ideals of “social democracy”.
However, Sweden’s exceptionalism regarding integration is challenged by the current political climate. The pension system, once generous, is now under pressure with the arrival of 160,000 refugees in 2015. The migration crisis is a topic that the Sweden Democrats take very seriously. In a campaign videoclip broadcasted in November, the leader of the Sweden Democrats said: “Mass immigration is not profitable, we know this today […] My name is Jimmie Åkesson and I am going to do everything in my power to solve this chaos that you social democrats and liberals have created.”
This message reached out to many, such as the inhabitants of Kristianstad, a small town in southern Sweden with 35,000 inhabitants, almost half of whom were born in a foreign country. Nicklas Nilsson, party leader on Kristianstad’s council, said in a local newspaper that the integration of Muslims, which has shown difficulties because of the cultural differences concerning a culture based on Islam, risks “weakening” the Swedish citizenship. Another Swede, Lars-Åke, 55 years, said the following to the British newspaper The Guardian: “There are too many refugees. So many Arabs that I feel I have to learn to speak Arabic.”
Keeping Europe in suspense
Even if Sweden seems to be moving away from this particular line that has long earned it the reputation as a European “exception”, the far-right populist party is still marginalized. The government refuses cooperation with or support for the Sweden Democrats, blaming their ideologies for spreading of political extremism. This month, a survey showed that election preferences for the Moderate Party have increased by 4.1% since last May- the largest increase registered, compared to a decline of 3.6% for the Sweden Democrats. The challenge of this campaign seems to be surrounding the issue of migration, facing discontent bubbling under the surface all over the country. According to Daniel Poohl, publisher of the anti-racist newspaper Expo; “The risk is that in a society where the Sweden Democrats have more and more to say and where immigration is presented as a fundamental problem, racist ideas and actions will become more normalized.”
Will Sweden take a path that many of its European comrades have started? The question will be answered in September 2018.