Sweden has long been seen as the model of an open, liberal country with low crime and a strong social welfare system. But a campaign dominated by immigration and law-and-order issues has helped propel the far-right Sweden Democrats to new electoral heights: Nearly 1 in 5 Swedish voters backed the party, which has fascist and white nationalist roots and advocates a hard-line stance on immigration.
With nearly all the results in Sunday night, the Sweden Democrats won 17.6% of the vote — slightly less than projected, but still a significant increase over the 13% they won four years ago. They were again the third-strongest political force in Sweden, behind the center-left Social Democrats with 28.4% and the center-right Moderates with 19.8% of the vote.
Though all of the major parties have said they would be unwilling to form a coalition with the Sweden Democrats, their share of the vote will make forming a government without them extremely difficult.
Sunday’s election results in Sweden appear to reflect the broader political headwinds in Europe, which have seen right-wing populist parties such as the Sweden Democrats rise at the expense of traditional centrist parties such as the Social Democrats and the Moderates. In just the last year, similar parties have made significant gains in Germany, Italy and Austria, among others.
The Sweden Democrats’ gains come after they refocused their campaign largely on issues of law and order, a topic that has played a central role in Swedish politics since the 2015-16 refugee crisis in Europe. Sweden took in the highest per capita number of refugees in Europe: In this country of just under 10 million, more than 160,000 arrived in 2015 alone.
During the campaign, the Sweden Democrats ultimately painted a picture of a country in decline, blaming the influx of refugees for increasing discontent among the electorate. They advocate for a full halt on asylum-seekers and insisted the Swedish government focus its attention and resources on Swedish taxpayers first.
Though the unemployment rate is at a 10-year low and economic indicators suggest Sweden is doing well, a spate of incidents this summer fed the Sweden Democrats’ narrative that all is not well in this Nordic country. In mid-August, for example, the torching of dozens of cars in the western city of Gothenburg dominated Swedish and international headlines.
Sweden “used to be a great country,” said Markus Wiechel, a Sweden Democrats member of parliament and the party’s spokesman on foreign policy. “We used to be one of the richest countries in the world, we used to have the best welfare in the world, we used to be a peaceful country where people trusted each other, where people felt connected to each other.”
“All of that is gone today, and it’s getting worse,” he added. “We wish to restore this.”
Prime Minister Stefan Löfven, however, has pushed back on the idea that Sweden is a society that has spiraled out of control — and ultimately, his Social Democrats performed better than expected Sunday. The recent unrest in the country, Löfven told the Los Angeles Times last week, means the government needs to invest more in its much-lauded social welfare system — and that populist, emotion-driven rhetoric had supplanted facts in the national political conversation.
“We have forces that have used this as a way of painting a very dark picture of Sweden,” Löfven said. “Sweden has a very strong economy, unemployment is going down … so we have a strong position. But we do have challenges as well. The reality is not black or white, it is a mixed picture.”
Some Swedish voters shook their heads at the Sweden Democrats’ strong performance, saying it’s a disappointment to see such strong numbers for a right-wing party.
“It’s embarrassing for Sweden that we have a party that is so clearly rooted in a Nazi racist culture, and that is where they come from,” said Linnea Nyberg, a government employee who lives in Stockholm and voted for the Greens on Sunday.
But others understand the appeal, even if they didn’t vote for the party themselves — and say Sweden’s traditional parties waited too long to address growing anxiety over the influx of refugees in 2015 and 2016.
“I don’t mind immigration itself, but when you’re here, you need to actually become part of the society,” said Carl Johan Hagströmer, a doctoral student in Lund, who voted for the center-right Moderates. “I understand why [the Sweden Democrats] are becoming increasingly popular: They’ve had a bit of a monopoly on the immigration issue, and people have been too afraid to address it or … acknowledge that they may be right in some places.”
Schultheis is a special correspondent.