Julie Ward says it was anti-migrant rhetoric that enabled the right to take power in Sweden
Sweden’s outgoing Social Democratic prime minister, Magdalena Andersson, gave a frank account of the September elections in her country whilst speaking at a panel in Berlin during the recent PES Congress. Despite increasing their share of the votes, the SDP and the Greens fell victim to the increasing polarisation of politics, with the left and centre parties losing critical support. These four parties had agreed to work together as a bloc and, despite the SDP winning the highest number of votes across the country, collectively they were unable to garner sufficient votes to counter a surge of support for the far-right Swedish Democrats, whose vote share rose to 20.5%, making them the second-largest party in the Riksdag. Unwilling to go into coalition with a party that has its roots in the neo-Nazi movement, Andersson resigned as prime minister.
Meanwhile, the centre-right parties (Moderates, Liberals and Christian Democrats) had already established an informal alliance with the Swedish Democrats in late 2021 with a view to presenting Ulf Kristersson, leader of the Moderate Party, as candidate for prime minister. Whilst the Swedish Democrats will have no ministerial positions, they wield enormous power behind the scenes – contributing to an anti-immigration, nationalistic 63-page co-operation programme called the Tidö Agreement, negotiated following the elections.
The agreement sees a rollback of Sweden’s existing ambitious carbon-reduction targets, lower taxes, an expansion of prison and police services, and grant caps for people on welfare benefits. There is a radical shift on migration policy, making it harder for people to seek asylum and settle in the country, with a focus on transit centres, deportations, revocation of residence permits and stricter rules about family migration and asylum. The nationalistic agenda extends to the sphere of education, culture and media, with a plan to create a Swedish ‘cultural canon’ which is likely to exclude the contribution of those with mixed heritage.
Sweden’s elections took place against a tumultuous backdrop of events at home and abroad, with Putin’s war against Ukraine forcing the country to confront the issue of NATO membership. Along with Sanna Marin (the socialist prime minister of Finland), Andersson made the application to join NATO in May, reversing the position usually held by left parties in Sweden. In a country increasingly concerned about security, one would have thought Andersson’s strong leadership in a time of international crisis would draw more support. But the Swedes had other things on their minds in addition to the Russian threat.
Sweden’s unique approach to the management of Covid saw a ‘business as usual’ approach, with limited restrictions in order to keep the economy going. Individual freedom is highly valued in the country and protected by law. By and large, people approved of the independent Public Health Agency’s approach, but statistics show that 47% of Covid-related deaths occurred in nursing homes, and Stefan Löfven, who was the SDP prime minister at the beginning of the pandemic, came in for some criticism for not acting swiftly enough.
Scenes of life carrying on as normal in Stockholm with young people enjoying social time in cafes were frequently broadcast in news bulletins around the world while many other countries endured strict lockdowns and were, therefore, perceived as better at protecting their elderly. Stockholm and other urban areas with large populations of younger voters maintained their support for the SDP in the recent election, whereas rural areas and older voters turned to conservative and extreme right-wing forces. While the state’s Covid response was not a major factor for the majority of voters, the close result reveals a divided electorate. Sweden’s high standard of living may indeed have played a minor role in the outcome of the election, as the 80+ (females) age group was the second-largest voting group after the 18-25 (males) age group.
But the issue which appears to have dominated the election campaign was not, in fact, Covid, or the war in Ukraine, but migration, with Sweden’s record of doing more than its fair share in respect of receiving refugees deemed by some as unsustainable and by others as a dangerous folly.
In her speech to fellow PES members in Berlin, Andersson focused on the need to examine the success of right-wing extremists in communicating their simplistic xenophobic messages that foreigners are to blame for falling living standards and rising crime. It’s a proven formula that has worked in the UK, Hungary, Poland and Italy, with the French maintaining a near-perpetual flirtation with the extreme right. How to counter this racist, right-wing, populist narrative must be at the forefront of the PES European election campaign strategy. With less than two years to go, socialists and democrats across Europe need to make both the economic case for migration and the compassionate case for asylum in a joined-up world, with climate change contributing to increased migration along with conflict, increasing inequality and deep-rooted poverty. With authoritarian, anti-democratic and populist forces on the rise everywhere, clear messaging backed by strong social policies is crucial for a population increasingly fearful of losing the comfortable life they have come to enjoy as part of the post-war European project.