Sweden’s Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson resigned last week after her government narrowly lost the general elections. Andersson’s Swedish Social Democratic Party, which has been in power since 2014, was edged out by the right-wing Opposition which rode a strong wave of support for the Sweden Democrats (SD), an ultra-nationalist, far-right party which traces its origins to neo-Nazi groups of the 1980s. While Andersson’s party secured 30% of the vote, her centre-left coalition could muster only 173 seats, three less than the Opposition’s 176 in a 349-member Parliament where 175 is needed for majority.
The Sweden Democrats, with 20.5% of the votes and 73 seats, have emerged as the largest entity in the right-wing coalition, which also includes the Moderate Party (19% vote share and 68 seats); the much smaller Christian Democrats (19); and Liberals (16). In the 2018 elections, too, the SD had done well, securing 62 seats and prompting an avalanche of editorials decrying the rise of the far-right in Sweden. Back then, however, the dominant public opinion — in a country that’s deemed a gold standard of progressive politics — was so hostile to the SD that none of the Opposition parties dared to ally with them, allowing the Social Democrats to return to power. Not any more.
The 2022 elections are a watershed moment for the country: for the first time an ultra-nationalist, anti-immigrant party would be in a position to influence Sweden’s public policy as part of the ruling coalition. Before the elections, Moderate Party leader Ulf Kristersson was the Opposition’s candidate for Prime Minister, with none of the other coalition members keen on having the SD as part of the government. But with the SD emerging as the largest member of the bloc, there are likely to be protracted negotiations over government formation — a process that took four months in 2018. While Mr. Kristersson is still likely to be the next Prime Minister, it remains to be seen whether the SD, as kingmakers, would be agreeable to staying out of the government.
At any rate, the rightwing bloc seems united on the core issues that propelled the rise of the SD: immigration and law and order. Sweden has traditionally been accepting of immigrants and asylum-seekers, not merely as national policy but also as a matter of national pride. In 2015, when it had a population of 10 million, Sweden took in 163,000 immigrants, mostly Syrians and Iraqis — the highest per capita of any European Union country. Welcoming refugees is one thing, but their integration — especially when their numbers are large and the influx is sudden — is something else altogether.
Over time, it became clear that the coloured immigrant communities either could not gain acceptance or were not accepted, as part of the Swedish national identity, which elements like the Sweden Democrats began to explicitly define as ‘white’ only — in stark contrast to the state’s professed ideal of multiculturalism. Excluded from the mainstream — unemployment among Sweden’s immigrant population is four times that of native Swedes — the immigrants began to be seen as the ‘other’, as people who have come to exploit the country’s generous welfare system. The stereotyping of immigrants that’s a common theme of rightwing politics everywhere gained ground in Sweden as well.
Along with rising immigrant populations, Sweden also witnessed a sharp rise in crime, especially gang violence. Sweden has seen 50 deadly shootings in 2022 alone — a far cry from the boringly peaceful Nordic paradise of the popular imagination. The SD , led by 43-year-old Jimmie Akesson, saw in the rising crime rates a chance to move from the fringes to the mainstream, which they did by connecting a legitimate problem (worsening law and order) with their pet agenda — an end to immigration.
Sweden’s progressive politics was perhaps adequate in ‘normal times’. But after the Ukraine war, amid a cost of living crisis sparked by rising energy prices, and a government seen as too soft on crime, the SD had enough ammunition to stoke people’s unspoken, subterranean prejudices and anxieties.
Mr. Akesson’s slogan, not surprisingly, is Make Sweden Great Again, and it is fixated on two issues that hark back to a singular xenophobic agenda: clamp down on immigration (by making Sweden the toughest country for immigrants to enter, slashing welfare benefits for immigrants, etc) and crack down on criminals through tougher policing (immediate deportation of immigrant convicts, empowering police to raid ‘certain’ neighbourhoods without the usual procedural constraints). In other words, even the law-and-order agenda, which seems legit, is susceptible to be deployed as a dog whistle for anti-immigrant sentiments.
Sweden, to its credit, held out the longest against the wave of far-right populism sweeping through Europe. But clearly, even Swedish ‘exceptionalism’— it was the only country in Europe not to impose a lockdown at the peak of the COVID pandemic — has its limits.