There are plenty of things you might associate with Sweden — Viking hats, a certain flat-packed furniture store, bad Europop. Political instability, however, is not likely to be one of them.
But this Sunday, Swedes are set to shatter the political image of their country as calm and boring when they vote in a general election. Current polls indicate that the far-right Sweden Democrats look set to make the most gains. Here’s a rundown of what you need to know about the election, as well as why it’s so important.
What’s set to happen?
Sweden is a parliamentary democracy, which means that Swedes vote for political parties who are then tasked with appointing a prime minister. Because of the number of political parties in the country, very rarely does one win an outright majority, and must instead form governing “blocks” with like-minded parties.
This is likely to happen again on Sunday. The Sweden Democrats are poised to capitalize on the weakness of mainstream political parties like the Swedish Social Democratic Party and the Moderate Party, and gain roughly a fifth of the vote, making them the nation’s second or third most popular party. This could position them as kingmakers within Parliament and give strength to their Euroskeptic, anti-migration platform.
Why are the Sweden Democrats so popular?
Sweden has long prided itself as being what political scientist Lars Tragardh described as a “moral superpower.” Like other Nordic countries, it maintains an extremely generous welfare system, and has historically been extremely welcoming towards refugees. As Foreign Policy pointed out, since the 1980s, it has taken in refugees from Iran, Eritrea, Bosnia, Somalia, and Iraq to name just a few countries, all granted access to the same high-quality health care, maternal leave, and unemployment benefits that Swedish citizens enjoy. In 2015, Sweden took in 163,000 migrants — more new arrivals per capita than any European nation.
Since then, however, the national mood has soured. Fears about rising crime have been compounded by a number of high-profile incidents, like the 2017 attack in Stockholm that killed four, a surge in reported rape cases, and most recently a series of coordinated arson attacks by masked youths. Despite the links between migrants and crime being tenuous at best, these incidents have been seized upon by far-right commentators — as well as Donald Trump — to give the impression that the country is coming apart at the seems. Fake news sites are also flooding Sweden with far-right misinformation ahead of the election.
Give the public a break – The FAKE NEWS media is trying to say that large scale immigration in Sweden is working out just beautifully. NOT!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 20, 2017
There are also concerns that Sweden’s fabled welfare state is being exploited by migrants, leaving “ordinary” Swedes out in the cold, which in turns leaves them questioning the sustainability of the welfare state. Together, these factors present a perfect opportunity for the Sweden Democrats to thrive.
What makes their political rise so worrying?
Sweden Democrats have done their utmost to present their political platform as mainstream. As the Guardian noted, leader Jimmie Akesson has stressed that immigrants who learn Swedish and accept its culture are welcome. He has also established a “zero tolerance” policy towards any party member making racist or anti-Semitic statements — which is important for the Sweden Democrats, bearing in mind the party was originally founded by a former member of the Nazi Party’s Waffen SS as an openly racist group called Keep Sweden Swedish.
Despite this, their political rise has emboldened extreme far-right groups within Sweden, notably the neo-Nazi Nordic Resistance Movement (NRM). A fortnight ago, the group held an open rally in the middle of Stockholm. Earlier in August, a member of the NRM was arrested for plotting to murder two Swedish journalists. Police found a shotgun, a silencer and detailed information about the intended victims within the suspect’s home.
What’s more, despite Akesson’s promises, far-right extremists keep surfacing within the Sweden Democrats. In late August, two SD politicians were forced to leave the party after it was revealed they had bought Nazi memorabilia online, and one wrote on Facebook that Anne Frank was “the coolest Jew in the shower room.” According to the Swedish newspaper Expressen and anti-racism group Expo, there are at least six on-the-ballot Sweden Democrats who are described as “deeply rooted in the Nazi environment”. For more evidence of Sweden Democrats’ sympathizers among the far-right, look at how popular the election is on 4chan’s /pol/ board and Reddit’s The_Donald — two of the main online nodes of the far-right.
What are the wider implications?
It is important not to fly into a panic about the upcoming Swedish elections. Despite their popularity, the Sweden Democrats look set to win only about 20 percent of the vote, and many Swedish political parties are extremely reluctant to work with them.
The bigger picture is that reforming immigration and fighting crime are major campaign promises of multiple Swedish political parties, not just the Sweden Democrats.
“There’s no doubt that this is an extraordinary election in Sweden: politicians’ handling of the 2015 migrant crisis was disastrous. They looked helpless in the face of gang crime, shootings and arson attacks in some areas,” The Local’s publisher James Savage wrote on Friday. “But foreign media currently reporting here are presenting a picture of Sweden that exaggerates the problems.”
However, the likely electoral success of Sweden Democrats on Sunday is in-keeping with the growth of far-right political populism across the continent, be it Alternative fur Deustchland in Germany, the Five Star Movement and League in Italy, or Viktor Orban in Hungary. More importantly, it presents a dangerous moment for hundreds of thousands of hard-working Swedish migrants within the country who do want to integrate.
“I’ve lived here all my life, and I feel a little bit less Swedish because I’m wondering if my heritage is a problem for me,” Kareem Zuwa, who is originally from Tanzania and runs a youth center in Gothenburg, told the Washington Post.
“We do everything. We celebrate Midsummer. My mother loves the Swedish royal family. It’s fine to talk about integration, migration. But when it becomes the main issue, that’s when I get scared.”