As Populists Gain Ground, Sweden Sheds Its Taste for Compromise

As Populists Gain Ground, Sweden Sheds Its Taste for Compromise
Young women listen to a member of the Sweden Democrats, Stockholm, Sweden, Aug. 31, 2018 (AP photo by Michael Probst).

As the nationalist, anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats claimed their best result yet in Sweden’s parliamentary elections last Sunday, the nation’s newspapers went bold with their headlines. “Chaos,” read the front pages, in all caps, of the two largest tabloids. Dagens Industri, a financial newspaper, called the outcome “a political earthquake.” But the subject of their worry was not the rise of the Sweden Democrats, the latest party to surf Europe’s anti-establishment populist wave. Instead, it was the utter fragmentation of the country’s political landscape.

That few focused their attention on the far-right party’s performance—it gained seats but still came in third behind the center-right bloc and the ruling center-left coalition—speaks to its normalization. It now has 62 of the 349 seats in the Riksdag, Sweden’s parliament, only a few less than the Moderates, which has long been the largest party on the right. Even more than many of its European counterparts, the Sweden Democrats used to be shunned by other parties. But that has changed as efforts by its leader, Jimmie Akesson, to shed the Sweden Democrats’ past support of neo-Nazism and biological racism have begun to pay off. Akesson has toned down the party’s rhetoric, though not its message, booted some of its worst offenders, and made new friends abroad. This summer, the Sweden Democrats were admitted into a mainstream right-wing European alliance that also features the British Conservative Party and Poland’s Law and Justice.

So by the time voters went to the polls Sunday, the Sweden Democrats had already drastically reshaped the political climate. Immigration, once the exclusive rallying cry of the Sweden Democrats, dominated much of the pre-election debate in a country renowned for its humanitarian values. Over 160,000 asylum-seekers arrived in 2015, adding to a population that has rapidly grown more diverse. Of Sweden’s current population of 10 million, 18 percent were born abroad. Changing demographics are not new to Sweden—just ask the indigenous Sami population—but never before have they influenced an election like this one.

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