Sweden’s mainstream parties cravenly opened the door to anti-immigrant populists | Drude Dahlerup

Welcome to Europe, Sweden! A sad welcome. Following last week’s election results, the Sweden Democrats, an anti-immigration, rightwing populist party, will for the first time be included in the “blue” majority coalition, which won a narrow victory over the Social Democrats and its allies in the “red” block. Magdalena Andersson, Sweden’s first female prime minister, lasted only a year in the post, even if her Social Democratic party increased its share of the vote by 2% to 30%.

Sweden has now joined the fate of many other European countries in which nationalist, anti-immigration parties have taken their seat at the formal coalition negotiation table or even in government. First out was the Freedom party in Austria. Then Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, the Danish People’s party, the Progress party in Norway, True Finns. And so it continues…

There tends to be a story in common here in which avowedly anti-immigration parties move from the outside at the invitation of mainstream conservative/Christian democratic parties. Of course, these parties represented a growing number of voices of protest in their countries but they entered the halls of power on the back of the conservative parties’ own ambitions.

The electoral success of the Sweden Democrats (20.5% of the vote) will probably not give it a seat in the new government. The fourth party in the blue block, the Liberals, explicitly refuses to sit in the same cabinet as the Sweden Democrats, who will probably take up a position as a permanent, if unpredictable, support party to the government. But, in any case, does the party need to be in government to be influential?

On its route to “acceptance”, the party has operated a policy of what it calls a “zero tolerance for racism”. Some years ago, the whole youth organisation of the party was expelled. Yet, on social media, racist and harsh anti-immigrant speech emerges frequently.

From its new position as the biggest party in the blue block and the second largest in parliament, the self-confident Sweden Democrats has already presented a list with 100 policy demands, including a halt to all immigration, a ban on begging and the immediate deportation of convicted criminals of foreign descent. Will they be able to fundamentally change Swedish politics? many ask. This is the wrong question. The Sweden Democrats have already influenced the country’s immigration policies, as well as the public conversation around immigration, and most recently provoked a transformation in the whole party structure.

First, based on the unprecedented number of refugees who came to Sweden in 2015, Sweden’s generous immigration policy has been tightened. Second, what previously marked a linguistic border between decency and populism is now common speech in wider circles: linking crime and immigrant background; asking for a ceiling on the number of immigrants; and the concept of “mass immigration”, introduced by the Sweden Democrats, has now become customary. So much so that the party has now turned to the use of “gigantic immigration”.

What’s more, the whole party structure has changed, especially since the last election. At the final TV debate in 2018, all other parties promised that they would never make themselves dependent on the Sweden Democrats. At one point, liberal parties left the blue block, doubting that the conservatives would keep this promise – fears that proved true.

In terms of issues that influenced the election result, law and order was dominant, especially on account of the many deadly shootings in the streets related to gang criminality. Since the beginning of this year, there have been 47, often executed by very young gang members.

This agenda no doubt contributed to the performance of the Sweden Democrats who, according to the surveys, were judged the most credible party on the issue. Some researchers tried to intervene in the discussion with a report showing that if one includes knife killings, the number of deadly attacks was in fact larger in the 1980s and 90s than today. Surveys of the 2022 election also reveal an increased gender gap among voters, a trend in many countries. For women, the most important political issues were welfare matters such as health policies and schools – and climate change. These issues were “owned” by the Social Democrats, the Green party and the Left party in the view of most voters. In contrast, law and order was the most important issue for men. Overall, however, voters, both male and female, moved to the right.

Yet, 79.5% of Swedes did not cast their vote for the Sweden Democrats. In a way, I would argue the Sweden Democrats have arrived too late – at least as seen from their own ideological position. Today, 25% of Swedish citizens have an immigrant background, with two parents born outside Sweden. Sweden is, and will stay, a flourishing, multicultural society.

Drude Dahlerup is professor emerita in political science, Stockholm University

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