Tolerant, prosperous, progressive: Sweden has long been seen by its supporters as a model of European social democracy. That stability has been shaken by Sunday’s election.
The Swedish Democrats, a far-right political party with its roots in the neo-Nazi movement made significant gains, echoing similar patterns elsewhere in Europe. The party made immigration a central theme of the campaign after Sweden took in thousands of migrants in 2015.
However, the far-right vote share was not as high as many had predicted, as the party finished third with around 18%, a gain of 5% on the previous election in 2014 – far below polls taken in the summer that pointed to a victory for the Swedish Democrats.
Nevertheless, many Swedes were shocked at the rise in far-right support.
“It’s strange, it’s not Swedish, it’s something like non-democratic, I think. It’s really alarming and it’s quite a scary situation going forward here in Sweden,” said Stockholm resident Johan Einarsson, echoing the views of many voters who have grown used to successive comfortable victories for center-left parties.
For now, the future is political deadlock. The governing center-left coalition, led by the Social Democrats, is marginally ahead of its center-right Alliance rivals on around 40% each. Tough coalition talks lie ahead as both center-left and center-right have refused to work with the Sweden Democrats. Prime Minister Stefan Lofven, leader of the Social Democrats, vowed to stay on, calling for other parties to unite against the far-right.
“Of course, I am disappointed by the fact that the party with Nazi roots could gain so much ground. It’s also a party that, in this election, has had representatives that wanted journalists to die, which has glorified Adolf Hitler and humiliated the victims of the Holocaust,” he said Monday in the wake of the election result, adding, “We are going to gather all the good forces and resist and show that another society is possible.”
Not all Swedes share those sentiments. Sweden took in around 140,000 refugees and migrants in 2015, a higher number per capita than Germany. Swedish Democrat voters say they have suffered the consequences.
“Housing, health care, schools. It strains the council in every possible way,” said Staffan Myrman, a resident of the central county of Ljusnarsberg.
His friend Leif Danielsson agrees, “The 70s and 80s were a fantastic time to grow up here. Now it’s all falling apart.”
Such nostalgia has been at the core of the far-right’s campaigning – themes echoed in recent elections across Europe, says analyst Anders Hellström of Malmo University.
“Sweden has grown to become more similar to other countries in Europe as well, it’s no longer exceptional. It’s less shameful these days to say that you vote for the Sweden Democrats.”
Hellström says it is wrong to say Sweden is shifting to the right.
“You can talk about a Europeanization of nationalism. But it’s important to not only talk about a Europeanization of nationalism, but I would also emphasize there are strong mobilization forces against those movements. So you can instead talk about a strong polarization.”
Polls suggest 41% of Swedish voters changed their vote compared to the last election. As in many parts of Europe, politics is volatile and fragmenting – and the big parties are struggling to respond.