Swedish elections a ‘political earthquake’

September 20, 2022
Ulf Kristersson, Jimmie Åkesson
Left: Moderates leader Ulf Kristersson. Right: Sweden Democrats leader Jimmie Åkesson and an SD sticker reading: 'Keep Sweden Swedish'. Photos: Wikimedia Commons

The Swedish Social Democrats lost government in the September 11 election. They will likely be replaced by a right-wing government consisting of the Moderates (conservatives) and Christian Democrats, possibly also by the Liberal Party. The new government will be completely dependent on the active support of the right-wing populist and xenophobic Sweden Democrats (SD).

Voters’ most important issue was health care and the climate disaster has become increasingly clear. Despite this, the aggressive right, with the help of a passive social democracy lacking ideas, succeeded in dominating the election campaign with claims of a connection between immigration and crime. They avoided dealing with the climate crisis and instead campaigned in favour of expanded nuclear power.

The right has painted a picture of Sweden as being hit by an uncontrolled wave of violence. In fact, crime, including violent crime, has generally fallen in Sweden in recent decades. But in one area there has been a considerable rise, namely armed confrontations between criminal gangs, mainly related to drugs. Hundreds have been killed, the vast majority gang members, but also bystanders. This has been used as excuse to demand significantly harsher penalties and repression.

The right block’s electoral success can be entirely attributed to the SD. The other right-wing parties all lost votes. The SD, on the other hand, increased its vote by more than 3% and is by far the largest party on the right. An incoming bourgeois government will be entirely dependent on its support. This means nothing less than an earthquake in Swedish politics.

For a long time, not least on the left, the view has been that the SD’s success was above all due to dissatisfied workers voting in protest for SD, but who could quickly be won back with a slightly more radical social democratic policy. This is grossly underestimating Sweden’s most successful political party.

Sweden Democrats

The SD has a skilled and determined leadership, with roots in racist and fascist movements. It has systematically built up a strong party. Not least, it has been able to use the favourable municipal and state grants that political parties receive to give gain organisational strength. The SD is also successful at using social media with xenophobia as the main unifying message. This has given them a growing influence among younger voters.

The SD’s electoral successes have been striking. At its parliamentary debut in 2010, it received 5.7%. Support rose to 12.9%, then 17.5% and 20.6% this year. No other party has the same strong cohesion. Attempts from the left to win over SD voters have failed. Eighty-six per cent of the SD’s voters from 2018 voted for the party again this year.

Indeed, the SD has continuously won over new voter groups, both from the right and the left. In this year’s election, 14% came from the Moderates and 12% from the Social Democrats. The SD has long been the strongest party among male workers. But large groups of entrepreneurs and — after the last election — farmers also voted for it. The party is politically homogeneous. The vast majority of their voters describe themselves as right-wing and they deeply identify with SD’s national conservative and xenophobic credo. The party’s roots in and connections to racist and fascist groups are no complication for them.

Until the 2018 election, there was a demarcation line of decency within the Swedish bourgeoisie against collaborating with a xenophobic and right extremist party. This line has long since been crossed. First was business, which managed to get the SD to accept continued privatisation of Swedish welfare. It wasn’t long before Christian Democrats leader Ebba Busch offered meatballs and opened the right to organised parliamentary cooperation.

But the SD was no easily-caught victim. On the contrary, its program has largely become that of the bourgeois parties. “No other party has stood up like the Sweden Democrats in strong headwinds against increased immigration,” declared the leader of the Moderates and intended Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson admiringly. Liberals leader Johan Persson said the SD has been a good example in the fight against crime.

We see the result now. Today, the SD has outgrown the traditional bourgeois parties and is the dominant right-wing party. In all the regions outside the big cities, it usually has 25–30% of the vote, surpassing the Moderates, the leading bourgeois party for the past 45 years, by up to 10%. Without doubt, the SD has exceptionally good opportunities to influence the new government’s policy, even if it declines to join formally.

Social Democrats adaptation

The Social Democrats have been in government for the past eight years, despite the bourgeois parties and the SD having a majority in parliament. This was possible because two bourgeois parties, the Liberals and the pro-market-liberal Center Party, reached a political agreement with the Social Democrats. One of the aims was to keep the SD out of political influence. Through the agreement, the Social Democrats made far-reaching concessions and accepted, among other things, lower taxes for high income earners, reduced job security for workers and the introduction of market-controlled rents.

The social democratic government also implemented measures to reduce immigration and place refugee policy at the European Union’s minimum level. Border surveillance has been tightened, family reunification has been made more difficult and refugees will no longer be able to count on permanent residence permits.

In this year’s election campaign, the Social Democrats’ tactic was to essentially adapt their program to that of the right. Issues such as the climate crisis or defence of the welfare state, formally part of the Social Democrats’ election platform, played a secondary role, if they were raised at all.

Rather, they tried to overbid the right in demands for tougher penalties — that the government has presented some 70 laws in this direction has been a constantly recurring message. Likewise, the connection between criminality and immigration has been underlined. Special legislation has been proposed for “non-Nordic” people and the prime minister has spoken condescendingly about “Somalitowns”. New nuclear power has also been accepted.

The most notable capitulation was the decision to abandon 200 years of formal neutrality and support accession to NATO. The initial social democratic reaction after Russia's invasion of Ukraine was that NATO accession would contribute to further destabilising the security political situation in northern Europe. However, after an intense campaign from the right-wing parties, the party leadership chose to give in to the pressure, without letting the party members take a position. The main reason was with all certainty to remove the issue from the election campaign agenda, and they have succeeded in that. NATO accession and the war in Ukraine were completely absent from the election campaign.

Left Party vote falls

The social democrats reached its second-worst result in 111 years, despite an increase in votes, from 28.3% to 30.4%, and thus lost government power. The increase of their vote can be explained by the fact that there was a shift to the right also within the left bloc. The Left Party got a mediocre result and fell from 8% to 6.7%. The party leadership made an American-inspired campaign around the party leader while trying to present themselves as the new social democrats. Particular attention was paid to the purpose of trying to win back “workers in mill towns” attracted by the SD.

For that reason, the Left Party downplayed issues that they thought such workers would disapprove of, such as demands for changes to save the climate or NATO. The party also supported a proposal from the bourgeois parties for a sharp reduction in the price of petrol. In addition, they demanded to enter an eventual red-green government that would also include the neoliberal Center Party — the only bourgeois party that insisted on not cooperating with the SD. As a result the Left Party lost particularly among the workers it tried to reach — while the SD continued its success in these environments.

On the other hand, the Left Party, like the Social Democrats, did well in the bigger cities. Sweden is thus similar to many other European countries with red big cities and a blue (or blue/brown) countryside.

It is clear that the forces that today mainly offer resistance to the right-wing wave are among movements that fight against the climate crisis, racism, sexual repression and social austerity. Some trade unions, above all within welfare and social service, have also been radicalised.

Today, the left has a huge task to build a broad counter-offensive with these forces, with the climate crisis and defence of the welfare state at the centre.

[Reprinted from International Viewpoint. Kjell Östberg is a Professor in History at Södertörns University in Stockholm.]

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