It was supposed to be the Swedish Social Democrats’ triumphant return. But two months after forming a minority coalition government with the Greens, Stefan Lofven, the Social Democratic leader, has been forced to step down as prime minister. The four-party centre-right opposition alliance enlisted the support of the far-right, anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats to vote down his budget, pushing through a budget of its own instead. Mr Lofven might have let the other parties try to form a new government. But instead he plans to call an “extra” election on March 22nd.
As The Economist explains, the game-changer was the decision by the pariah Sweden Democrats to oppose the Green-Red budget, although it is more accurate to say that the SD took this step for themselves. They are shunned by all Sweden’s establishment parties. No one really ‘enlisted’ them.
The SD, which has very unsavory origins, was given its chance by the failure of the Swedish political mainstream to permit any discussion (except in approving terms) of Sweden’s extraordinarily permissive immigration regime. Like many of Europe’s ‘populist’ parties, the SD combines opposition to mass immigration with some policies that are on the right, others on the left. It has also been clever enough to (start to) smarten up its image. Writing in the (London) Spectator the other month the respected (libertarianish) Swedish commentator Johan Nordberg noted: “that they have done more than their opponents will admit to in shedding the aggressive image they have had since being formed from 1980s neo-Nazi and racist organisations”.
It’s worth noting this detail from a BBC report on the party back in September:
There are obvious parallels with France’s National Front which, under the leadership of Marine Le Pen, has moved into the political mainstream. The two parties go back many years, and Ms Le Pen visited Jimmie Akesson [the SD leader] last year in Stockholm. A few months ago he praised the National Front’s “modern, quite fresh direction”.
Some background on Sweden’s immigration situation can be seen in this Washington Post report, written after riots in the Stockholm suburbs earlier this year, riots that did the SD cause no harm.
But the racially charged riots, which have taken place largely in poor immigrant communities, actually expose deep social divisions that have threatened Sweden for years. There is, essentially, the Sweden of legend — and then there are large, poor immigrant communities where unemployment is rampant, especially among young people, and political participation is down.
One key to understanding that community is grasping its size — according to Reuters, roughly 15 percent of Swedish residents are now foreign-born.
Meanwhile, I note from this Guardian report that (which is based on 2013 numbers) that Sweden was the OECD’s highest per capita recipient of asylum seekers. Most recently these include a large influx from Syria. Under the circumstances, it might also be worth mentioning this (from The Local):
After three young Swedes died fighting for the Islamic State (Isis) over the weekend, Ibrahim Bouraleh, the chairman of the Järva Islamic Association in Stockholm says that Swedish authorities must work harder to prevent other killings in future.
The establishment parties have not only continued to give enthusiastic backing to Sweden’s existing immigration regime, they have also tried to make opposition to it a taboo, a powerful tool in a society that puts a high premium on consensus, but on this occasion it has backfired: The success of the Sweden Democrats owes a great deal to the arrogance of Sweden’s leading parties, whether of left or right.
Elsewhere in the Nordic region, the establishment parties have been far smarter and, yes, more sensitive to their democratic responsibilities. In both Norway and Denmark, outsider parties of the populist right were gradually brought into the general political process in a way that both softened (somewhat) their message, but also responded to the concerns that that message represented. Norway’s Progress Party is now in the governing coalition, and the Danish Peoples Party tacitly supported former center-right governments for years. In Finland, the Finns Party is kept out of government, but is definitely part of the game. By contrast, the Sweden Democrats have been excluded from the democratic discussion (the former center-right government even tried to change the parliamentary rules in 2010 to shut them out of the parliamentary committee posts to which they were entitled). The result has been that the party is beginning to establish itself as the only ‘real’ opposition. That has played well, and may well continue to do so.
Yes, the shock of a fresh election could well drive Swedish voters back to more conventional voting patterns, but I wouldn’t bet on it, in which case we could be looking at the stalemate to continue. Under those circumstances, Sweden might have to look at a grand coalition (center-left/center-right) on German lines, which will look a lot like an establishment carve-up, and will be far from bad news for the SD.