Populist gains in Swedish elections explained


Sweden Democrats leader Jimmie Åkesson. Credit: Per Pettersson, Flickr/Creative Commons.

The rise of the populist Sweden Democrats, confirmed by Sunday’s election results, is a reminder that people long for security in a time of change, says Pasi Kuoppamäki, the chief economist of Danske Bank A/S Finland, and a visiting scholar at Wilson Center in Washington, D.C.

Sweden’s mainstream parties need to have a clear message how they supply security and how they suppress gang violence, even if they also want to steer clear from an openly xenophobic agenda, he writes for The Hill.

A few months before the elections, the mainstream parties realized that they had gone too long without addressing voters’ concerns about migration, and they began discussing these issues, notes Sheri Berman, a professor of political science at Columbia University’s Barnard College, and author of the forthcoming “Democracy and Dictatorship in Europe: From the Ancien Régime to the Present Day.”

But they did so entirely on the ground staked out by the populists: The emphasis was on crime, limiting overall numbers and family reunification, etc. There wasn’t much in the way of optimism or a positive vision for how these new citizens could enrich the country, and the Sweden Democrats’ vote share rose accordingly, she tells Freedom House.

Ultimately, the Social Democrats were handed somewhat of an electoral reprieve here. But their better-than-expected election night doesn’t mean questions about the big-picture future of the movement—both here and across the rest of Europe—will go away, Emily Schultheis writes for The Atlantic:

“In a way it’s also how societies are, they’re very shortsighted: It’s only this election period, these four years,” Anna Sundström, the secretary general of the Social Democrats–aligned Olof Palme International Center, told me ahead of the vote. “You sort of forget to talk about, what about in 20 years, or 50 years? We’ve not been maybe good enough at explaining where it is we want to go. Yes, we’ve created a fairly good society, but then what?”

The election results also show up as nonsense the theory that the have-nots and an economically-troubled underclass bolster the new right wing. Sweden enjoys solid economic growth, low unemployment and a functioning social welfare system, argues DW analyst Barbara Wesel:

The gap between rich and poor has widened somewhat, however, which some Swedes see as an affront to their right to a peaceful and secure life. Blame for this landed quickly at the door of migrants. The Sweden Democrats’ success is down to the insecurity they sow in voters’ minds. They thrive off exclusion and preach a brand of Swedish nationalism that, while antiquated and rather laughable, is highly effective. They sing from the same hymn sheet as their brethren elsewhere in Europe, like the Alternative for Germany (AfD).

Economically, Sweden has generally done very well over the past decade or so: Growth is high, unemployment is low (with high labor force participation), and the country is consistently ranked as highly competitive and innovative. Inequality has increased, and this is an issue, but it remains comparatively low, adds Berman, a contributor to the National Endowment for Democracy’s Journal of Democracy.

In fact, while migrants certainly have placed an additional burden on the welfare state, the decline in the quality and equality of service has more to do with these policy changes than anything else, adds Berman, a contributor to the National Endowment for Democracy’s Journal of Democracy. Many low-income voters without higher education now support the populist Sweden Democrats, who have presented themselves as strong defenders of the welfare state but blame immigration for its problems. (For the impact of welfare-state reforms and other economic factors on voting, see this recent analysis.)

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