Democracy Dies in Darkness

Global Opinions

Sweden’s election represents the new normal of European politics

September 10, 2018 at 12:36 PM

Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven, leader of the Social Democrats, waves during an election party on Sunday in Stockholm. (Claudio Bresciani/TT via AP)

For better or worse, Sweden has emerged from its Sunday election as part of the new normal of European politics. What we saw in the result of the election was broadly in line with the trends that we have seen throughout Europe during the past few years.

Most notably, the Social Democrats captured 28 percent of the vote, in their worst election result since 1908, conforming a downward trend for a political force that was once among the strongest throughout Europe. When the party lost power in Sweden in 1976, after having governed for four decades, it scored 43 percent of the vote; today it registers just above half that number.

Its main opponent during the past four decades, the Moderate party, scored badly. Although both parties did somewhat better than the opinion polls had suggested, the days of large traditional parties dominating Sweden’s politics seem to be over.

New forces are emerging in Sweden in its more fractured political landscape. The rightist-nationalist Sweden Democrats continue their advance, much to the consternation of everyone else. But impressive as the party’s rise was, its gains were less than expected, and the Sweden Democrats remain only the third-largest party.

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The far-right Sweden Democrats, a party with neo-Nazi origins, garnered 18 percent of votes in Swedish elections Sept. 9. (Michael Birnbaum/The Washington Post)

The Sweden Democrats’ continued rise was undoubtedly helped by the great refugee crisis of 2015, when a million desperate refugees from the catastrophe of Syria marched into Europe, with Germany and Sweden as their preferred destination.

But measures taken since then, primarily by the European Union, have significantly reduced the number of refugees coming down to levels not seen for years. The challenge now, which played a large role in the campaign, is how to integrate those who have arrived into the economy and society. It has been done before in Sweden, notably with the great influx after the Balkan wars, but will be more demanding this time, considering the fact that the refugees’ numbers are larger and their education levels are lower. Trade unions and other vested interests are, however, reluctant to loosen labor-market regulations and increase wage flexibility, tactics that most experts consider necessary in order to meet the new challenge.

Apart from the refugee and migration issue, the world was largely absent in Sweden’s election debate. There is a consensus on the need to increase defense spending, although there is a dispute over how much and how fast. And the right-wing Sweden Democrats weren’t helped in their campaign by their hostility to the E.U. Few are willing to voluntarily repeat the chaos that Britain has created for itself.

The two weeks until the new Parliament convenes on Sept. 24 will likely bring intense political maneuvering over the formation of the next government, but at the end of the day, the present government of Prime Minister Stefan Lofven will have to step down, and a new government will likely emerge out of the center-right so-called Alliance. The only thing that is certain is that no one will be willing to go into talks about formation of a government with the Sweden Democrats.

The earthquake many feared in the Sweden Democrats becoming the largest or second-largest political party of the country didn’t happen. Even though it will take time to set up a new government, the country remains essentially the same — even if governance will be more difficult.


Carl Bildt is a former prime minister of Sweden and a contributing columnist for The Post.

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