Rise of Far-Right Party in Sweden Was Both Expected and Shocking

STOCKHOLM — The rise of the far-right Sweden Democrats to become the country’s second-largest party, with a claim to government, has been a slow-moving earthquake over the past decade. But even as their success in Sunday’s election seemed inevitable, it still had the ability to shock.

The world still regards Sweden as a bedrock of Nordic liberalism, and its move toward the more populist right, based on grievances about crime, migration, identity and globalization — and the way they affect health care, schools and taxes — has been slower than in other countries. So the election’s result was something of a wake-up call.

“Sweden is very much an activist and ideologically charged nation, and in part because we had such an idyllic 20th century, we thought we could afford it,” said Robert Dalsjo, director of studies at the Swedish Defense Research Agency. “So the popular discontent over globalization and migration and crime we saw in Trump took longer to leak itself through the protective structures of the establishment here.”

The Sweden Democrats have been gaining political ground and a form of respectability for some time now, much like other Nordic far-right populist parties, including the Danish People’s Party and Norway’s Progress Party. But the Sweden Democrats, founded in 1988 with roots in neo-Nazism, are probably closer to the parties of Marine Le Pen in France and Giorgia Meloni in Italy, whose Brothers of Italy has roots in Mussolini’s Fascist Party.

That is not in the cards for the leader of the Sweden Democrats, Jimmie Akesson, whose party was the largest vote winner in what is expected to be a center-right coalition. The bloc of right-wing parties previously agreed to support a government led by the center-right Moderate Party, but not one led by the Sweden Democrats. They will most likely not even take cabinet seats in a government led by Ulf Kristersson, leader of the Moderates, a conservative party.

But Mr. Kristersson, who would become prime minister, will need the support of Sweden Democrats in Parliament, as well as that of two other parties, the Christian Democrats and the Liberals. And Mr. Akesson has made it clear that his support will be expensive in terms of government policy.

“If we are going to support a government that we’re not sitting in, it’s going to cost,” Mr. Akesson said before the vote.

The Sweden Democrats’ showing in the election provided the center right a thin majority of three votes in Parliament, prompting the leader of the Social Democratic Party, Magdalena Andersson, to resign on Thursday and throwing Sweden into several weeks of political maneuvering. Negotiations to form a new government will be complicated, and it will take several weeks at least, with some hoping to have a new prime minister by month’s end.

The Sweden Democrats’ victory over the Moderates is likely to strengthen their hand and make the negotiations harder, especially since the small Liberal party has refused to join any coalition in which the Sweden Democrats have ministerial posts.

One option for Mr. Kristersson is to try to form a minority government with the Christian Democrats while keeping both the Sweden Democrats and the Liberals out of government. And the four parties of the right-wing coalition have their own differences over policies like foreign aid and increases in benefits for workers and the unemployed.

It could all get a bit messy, and a new coalition may not last very long.

Anna Wieslander, chairwoman of Sweden’s Institute for Security and Development, said of the far right’s gains, “In a way, their success is not so surprising, given that no government dealt really with the migration issue, which has been there for years, affecting society more and more, and with the way crime has been tied to immigrant groups.”

Even the main parties, including the long-governing Social Democrats, have moved closer in this campaign to the hard-line position of the Sweden Democrats on crime and immigration, analysts noted, while easing up on some of the stricter environmental rules that have angered voters in rural areas and working-class neighborhoods, where the Sweden Democrats draw their strength.

Daniel Suhonen, head of Katalys, a trade union think tank, and a founding member of Reformisterna, the largest group in the Social Democratic party, said the Sweden Democrats had “blown up the whole bloc politics, the right-left divide.”

They have won voters from the three main groups, he said: rural voters from the Center Party, small-business owners from the Moderates and workers from the Social Democrats. They have also won many young voters.

The three losing parties — the Moderates, Christian Democrats and Liberals — will govern on behalf of one winning party, he said.

Sverker Gustavsson, a political scientist at Sweden’s Uppsala University, said that the Sweden Democrats “want an ironclad agreement with the Moderates and Christian Democrats that will include concrete measures in the area of culture, schools, immigration and criminal justice policy.”

To monitor that agreement, instead of having ministers, “they are saying they want watchdogs inside the departments to monitor that their policies are being followed,” he said. “That is the new and interesting thing.”

Sweden’s application to join NATO, which the Sweden Democrats supported, is not in question, analysts said. But there are some worries in Brussels about European Union unity with a new Swedish government potentially influenced by the Sweden Democrats ahead of a difficult winter defined by soaring energy prices, the ongoing war in Ukraine and record inflation.

“I don’t think the unity will crack, but it means that E.U. ambitions will be lower,” said Fabian Zuleeg, head of the European Policy Center, a Brussels-based research institution. “And this is dangerous given the crisis of this magnitude that we are facing.”

Sweden is poised to take over the rotating presidency of the bloc in January, which means it is going to take the lead in negotiations over a series of new laws, including a legislative package detailing how to phase out fossil fuels, as well as new rules on managing migration.

“The presidency can change things,” Dr. Zuleeg said. “It sets the agenda, and it often initiates compromise between different E.U. institutions.”

For her part, Ms. Andersson, who will serve as prime minister until a new government is formed, did well in her year of power, bringing new voters to the Social Democrats, who remain the country’s largest party. But she did so by leaching votes from her potential coalition partners, and thus falling short.

She did suggest on Thursday that if it all proved too complicated and difficult for Mr. Kristersson, he could always talk to her about forming their own coalition. Of course, she would remain prime minister.

Steven Erlanger reported from Stockholm, and Christina Anderson from Bastad, Sweden. Monika Pronczuk contributed reporting from Brussels.

Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2022/09/15/world/europe/sweden-election-far-right.html