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NIAS Europe Studies
Elections in Sweden

  Sourina Bej

Political tilt to the right routs the centrist-left predominance.

Elections in Sweden

On 11 September 2022, the legislative elections in Sweden marked the entry of the country’s right-wing populist party, Sweden Democrats, for the first time in the Riksdag. The incumbent ruling party, the Social Democrats, received the largest percentage of votes (30.3 per cent), and the Sweden Democrats emerged as the second largest political party with 20.5 per cent of votes in their best-ever electoral performance. The largest opposition party, the Moderates, received close to 19.1 per cent votes. A statistical count of the votes indicated that no party emerged with a clear majority, seemingly implying that the right-wing Sweden Democrats could now claim a position as a coalition partner in the power-sharing arrangement in the Riksdag.  

The exit polls on 10 September indicated a clear victory for the Social Democrats’ centre-left coalition, which has been in power since 2014. However, as the counting of votes progressed, the right-wing bloc consisting of the Liberals, Christian Democrats, Moderates, and Sweden Democrats gained 49.5 per cent of the votes.  The left-wing coalition, comprising the Social Democrats and the other Left parties tailed with 48.8 per cent of the votes. The Social Democrats Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson conceded defeat and it is the leader of the Moderates, Ulf Kristersson, who is slated to be the next Prime Minister of Sweden. On 17 October, the Riksdag voted for the centre-right Moderate Party leader Ulf Kristersson as the Prime Minister with a narrow margin. The new government will consist of the Moderates and two center-right parties but the coalition will be supported from the outside by the Sweden Democrats. 

The elections in Sweden signify the gradual coming of age of the political right at the centre stage in the Riksdag. This begs the question, do the elections mark the decline of the predominance of the traditional centre-left parties in Sweden? 

Key political parties in Sweden: Who stands for What? 
The Social Democrats
The current ruling party, the Social Democrats, has been in power for the better part of the 20th century except for a few election cycles. As the architect of the folkhemmet or creating a “people’s home,” the Social Democrats in the 1930s were responsible for setting up much of Sweden’s robust social welfare system. As one of the traditional political parties promoting social welfare as its ideology in Sweden, the party has been leading the coalition with the Green and the other Left parties. The Social Democrats’ position in the political landscape in Sweden has been relatively stable except in 2014 when Prime Minister Stefan Löfven’s budget proposal was unanimously rejected and criticised by the majority of lawmakers in the Riksdag. His position weakened and in November 2021 his colleague, Magdelena Andersson, was appointed as the Prime Minister to form a one-party minority government. 

The Moderates 
The second largest political party in Sweden are the Moderates, a centre-right party and the main opposition to the Social Democrats. They differ from the latter in their support for free market principles, economic liberalism, and tax cuts. From 2006 to 2014 they were the lead party in coalition with the Christian Democrats, Liberals, and the Centre Party. Yet when the Sweden Democrats became the Riksdag’s third largest party in 2018, the Moderates broke their conservative alliance with the Liberals and Center Party to partner with the Sweden Democrats. The centrist conservative parties, which are the Liberals, and the Center Party then offered support to the Social Democrats, refusing to make a common cause with the Sweden Democrats to form a conservative government. Since 2018, the Moderates have steered more towards its free-market values and social conservative approach, opposing the welfare politics of the Social Democrats. As the opposition to Left centrists, the Moderates balance the political spectrum in Sweden with their voices for Liberal market principles. 

The Sweden Democrats
Against the backdrop of de-industrialization, public spending cutbacks, rising unemployment, and the violent breakup of Yugoslavia that caused an influx of refugees in Sweden, the Sweden Democrats were founded in 1988. In the past four decades, the Sweden Democrats have unified the various far-right groups in Sweden and in 2005, the current party leader Jimmie Akesson ushered the party away from its far-right roots to a more populist image. Akesson, a former member of the Moderate party, aligned the political ideology of the Sweden Democrats with social conservatives thereby branding it as a people’s party. Like other right-populist movements across Western economies, the party also built its narrative against a corrupt elite at the height of a global recession and adopted a gentler image by changing the party’s logo from a flaming torch to the pennywort flower. The party gained six per cent votes in the Riksdag in 2010 and gained traction after the migration crisis of 2015. Sweden received the second-highest number of applications from asylum seekers, and with it, the party built a strong anti-immigrant opposition that had just begun to burden Sweden’s welfare system. The party more than doubled its position in the 2014 election, gaining around 13 per cent of votes. When the centre-right Moderates agreed to cooperate with the Sweden Democrats in 2019, this set the stage for its eventual entrance to governing. In 2022, the votes for the Sweden Democrats surpassed that of the Moderates, and it has emerged as the second-largest party in Riksdag. 

Sweden’s Political Landscape: Party Shifts, Social Fractures and Welfare Chauvinisms 
Swedish Exceptionalism 
The political principles governing Sweden have been off centrist consensus emphasizing humanitarianism and social welfare. With a nationalist narrative of “Swedish Exceptionalism,” Sweden has taken pride in welcoming refugees and providing asylum since the end of World War II. The Swedes might have guarded their ethnic homogeneity before, but with the influx of refugees, Sweden has found it increasingly challenging to be the exception. Even as other European countries has increasingly put in place strict immigration policies in the 1990s and 2000s, Sweden opened its borders to accept more applications from asylum seekers. However, this exceptionalism ended in 2015 when in November 2015 the Social Democrat Prime Minister Stefan Lufven noted, “Sweden is no longer capable of receiving asylum seekers at the high level we do today. We simply cannot do any more.” The statement marked a steady shift in the social perception towards immigrants that was echoed simultaneously in political quarters where the welcome was relative and the identity politics over access to social benefits had begun. The same year, the Sweden Democrats positioned themselves as the only party representing Swedish ethno-nationalist identity and called to curb immigration. 

Welfare State
The Swedish political structure and the party ideologies like the social structure are largely divided or shaped by class and labour-capital relationships. As political sociologists Lipset and Rokkan conceptualised, the socio-economic cleavages in Sweden have been periodically expressed through workers’ movements and subsequently the growth of the welfare state. As the welfare policy sought to bring in equity for all and bridge the socio-economic cleavages after a series of workers’ movements, the 2015 migration crisis added 1,62,877 asylum seekers to Sweden’s labour class. This further compelled Sweden to spend six billion kronor on language training and facilitated jobs for the asylees who are now part of Sweden’s unemployed youth bulge. With no continuation in policy at local levels, a majority of asylum seekers in Sweden tend to be placed in rural areas which are already witnessing an economic decline. 

On the other hand, the increase in taxes to fund the robustness of the welfare schemes has created a perception that unemployed migrants receive unfair benefits. This has triggered a public discourse on welfare chauvinism, further politicised by the ring-wing caveat that better social services should be the privilege of the native-born. An understanding of the intra-class divisions along identity lines was evident in the 2010 Sweden Democrats’ electoral campaign that showed a group of burqa-clad women with strollers outrunning a pensioner for government assistance. 

Shifts in political ideology and the emergence of the majority’s minority complex
With social fractures beginning to surface in post-2015 Sweden, the anti-immigrant narrative by the ring-wing parties boded well with constituencies who had begun to view the minority migrant communities, largely Muslims, as a liability. With low-income levels and increasing involvement of the migrant communities in violence, riots, and gang crimes, the Swedes came to see themselves as paying the price of being overtly peaceful with open borders. A growing inward-protectionist attitude within the ethnic Swedes was further captured by the Sweden Democrats when the traditional centrist parties focused only on economic class divisions and poverty concerns over larger caveats of cultural divisions. In the last decade, identity politics defined the borders of social and civic belonging, thereby impacting the party’s grouping and the public’s political participation. The political shifts were manifest in the elections of 2018 when Sweden Democrats were not only supported by the Moderates but also received a vote share to have a legislative position.

Controlled Media, and Alternative News
Extremism and violence such as the 2008 Malmц Mosque Riots, the 2010 and 2017 Rinkeby Riots, and the 2013 Stockholm riots, have instilled a sense of fear in Sweden. Irrespective of the cause or severity of the riots in Sweden, the narrative that violence is getting worse and more grotesque because of immigrants is shaping public opinion and finding a place in political campaigns as well. This is due in part to an “alternative media” ecosystem, which allows sharing of politically slanted news primarily through Twitter and Facebook, in closed groups. The media sources, Samhallsnytt and Nyheter Idag founded by Sweden Democrats are increasingly shaping the alternate news industry in Sweden. In the leadup to the 2018 elections, Swedish Twitter users shared one link from this ecosystem for every two links shared from professional news. The news related to riots on these websites tended to report more on violence in immigrant communities and people of colour, despite contradictory reports from police sources. 

The 2022 Elections: Issues and Concerns
Radicalisation and gang violence
The issue of radicalisation, religious extremism, and gang violence among immigrants emerged as the primary issue addressed by most parties in their electoral campaigns. The key issue in public debate was residential segregation. The outskirts of Sweden where socially vulnerable immigrants and asylum seekers live have become associated with organised crime.  Increasingly visible criminal violence and gang activity are also playing a role in strengthening Sweden Democrats’ anti-immigrant stances. Sweden saw over 100 bombings in 2019, twice that of 2018—one of the highest percentage increases for any other industrialized nation in Europe. Even though no clear connection between violence and the rise of political right could be made at this stage of analysis, public concerns over safety overshadowed the electoral campaigns in 2022.  

Pandemic and its economic impacts 
During the pandemic, the Left Party acted as cheerleaders for the Social Democrats government and when state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell’s herd immunity policy led to the death of thousands, it opened a space for the Sweden Democrats to pose as opponents. Social Democrats’ disastrous policies, particularly in nursing homes where the sick and elderly people were involuntarily euthanized, were another major issue for public debate. The rising cost of living, the growing energy crisis, and the importance of green transition were other cumulative concerns in the elections. 

Ukraine war and security concerns
The past eight years of Social Democrat-led governments have also been characterised by a massive military build-up, with Sweden sharply increasing defence spending, reintroducing military service, and offering military aid to support the war waged in Ukraine. Further, the Social Democrats steered the country away from its traditional opposition to the NATO military alliance and led Sweden to join. The regional decision-making by the Social Democrats was also tested in this election. 

Decoding the Election Result: More than a win for the Political Right
The concerns in the 2022 elections ranged from domestic challenges posed by gang violence to regional challenges due to the war in Ukraine. This heavily shaped the voting patterns and also brought to light the fundamental shifts in political participation in Sweden. After the elections, a gradual political legitimacy of the far right parties in Sweden was observable and along with it five trends marking a shift in the political landscape of Sweden could also be discernible.      

First, depoliticization of the traditional socioeconomic issues and increasing salience of sociocultural issues. With the social conservative bloc slated to form the ruling coalition and a simultaneous increase in vote share for the ring-wing populist party Sweden Democrats, it indicates a gradual breakdown of the political parties from the left-right milieu. Coalition politics have long emerged as a political norm in Sweden; however, the 2022 elections have strongly positioned the right-wing conservatives in the Riksdag. The election has also resulted in an increased geographical realignment of the Swedish parties. The left bloc won most votes in large cities and university towns, whereas the right bloc overturned dozens of municipalities historically dominated by the Social Democrats. These developments could probably increase the political polarisation in Swedish politics, further. 

Second, the growing convergence among mainstream parties on socio-economic cleavages. The inevitable outcome of coalition bloc politics and power arrangement has been a partial de-politicization or neglect of socio-economic issues that have helped explain the rise of radical right parties. According to political scientists Rydgren and Mair, the traditional political parties in Sweden have all argued for equitable economic interests, where differentiating the ideology of one party from another has become increasingly difficult. Along with it, coalition politics has further dwindled the ideological hold in the Riksdag. In 2018, since the Left and Green parties could not secure the Social Democrats a parliamentary majority, the then leader of the party struck a deal with the right-wing four-party alliance to stay in power. Cutting across class lines, the coalition marked a shift in the centrist way of power arrangement. The power-sharing deal involved Social Democrats agreeing to enforce strict budget discipline based on the Alliance’s spending plans and anti-immigrant measures. When this predictably resulted in the Sweden Democrats gaining further ground in the 2018 election, Social Democrats moved further to the right and formalised their ties with the Centre and the Liberals. 

Third, the decline of class-based voting. A dealignment of voters’ relationship with the centrist parties and splits within the working-class voters themselves could be observed as an outcome in the 2022 elections. Historically, Swedes have voted along class lines. The working class has benefited from the strong welfare state supported by the Social Democrats and the industrialised cities have benefitted from the free market principles of the Moderates. However, as in many Western European countries, the platforms of left and right parties have become more similar in economic terms. The Social Democratic party has also moved toward more libertarian positions on both social and economic issues to gain or keep middle-class votes. This has alienated its working-class voters, especially rural voters who tend to be more socially conservative. The working class shift to the right-wing occurred more when the social conservative proletariat felt threatened by cheap immigrant labour. Further dividing the working class along ethnoreligious identity lines, the working class in Sweden has come to view the present economic conflict as being between the native-born Swedes and the immigrant labour rather than between labour and capital. This has been reflected in the voting patterns in 2022 when the rural regions voted more for the Sweden Democrats who took a strong position against immigrants and violence.

Fourth, the emergence of new identity-based cleavages as electoral issues. The GAL-TAN divide referring to the contrasting spectrum of views between the Green-Alternative-Libertarian and Traditional-Authoritarian-Nationalist attitudes dominated the election in 2022. During the pandemic, the rights of Christians, women, greens, and the LGBT community emerged as key issues along with health concerns. Simultaneously, the issue of social exclusion of the immigrants in Swedish suburbs also shaped the voting patterns. With radicalisation and gang violence, the suburbs have transformed into sites of “parallel society,” that have sought to threaten the social cohesion of Swedish society. The political parties have time and again, polarised this psyche even as society fractured along identity lines. The inherent “Swedish values” are important resources to strengthen social cohesion but these particular values have also gradually become markers of difference. 

Lastly, conservative regional foreign policy over internationalism. While Social Democrats have pushed the country’s foreign policy away from being a ‘peace exceptional,’ the right bloc could only be expected to build on this foreign policy framework. With the war in Ukraine and its implications being felt on the energy prices in Western Europe, it is only a matter of time as the Moderate led bloc charts an inward-looking regional policy over internationalism for Sweden. 

In keeping with the larger trend in West Europe, where political centrism has declined as political legitimacy of the far right parties has strengthened, the election in Sweden also witnessed a similar political pattern. The Sweden Democrats will now extend an external support to the ruling coalition. The political tilt to the right marks a gradual shift in the political participation in Sweden. A decadal analysis of the election results of the Riksdag shows that on one hand the traditional centrist parties have become more politically aligned over socio-economic issues, on the other hand larger socio-cultural issues have emerged to provide new grounds for political divisions. Following the elections, three key trends define the political changes in Sweden: first, the 2015 refugee crisis in Europe has emerged as a singular event that changed the working class. The class based voters have been divided over cultural and identity grounds which also contributed to the decline in the predominance of the traditional political parties. Second, new identity cleavages now shape the election issues where existing political parties are organising behind identity issues over social-economic factors. Thereby, as the political spectrum gradually shifts towards larger legitimacy of the far right parties, a larger trend towards strong identity divisions as social blocks could also be observed, such as in Sweden.   

Sourina Bej is a doctoral candidate and a KAS-EIZ scholarship holder at the University of Bonn.

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