On Sunday, Sweden will vote in a much-anticipated national election. Public opinion polls suggest that the extreme-right Sweden Democrats are likely to increase their vote share over the 13 percent they received in 2014.
As the election approaches, supporters of this populist, anti-immigrant, anti-European Union, far-right party are energized. Critics of this movement are nervous. The modern trend of radicalism is not specific to Sweden, of course. But the run-up to the Swedish election again raises the big question: Why is right-wing populism on the rise in advanced democracies?
Immigration anxiety plays a role
Many experts point to the role of people’s views on immigration in motivating voter support for radical-right parties in Europe. Immigration anxiety regarding economic, cultural and security impacts increasingly figure into people’s electoral decisions. The hard-line immigration positions of radical-right parties make them the electoral beneficiaries of such public concerns. Academic research supports this narrative, rooting the rise of the far right in complex social, economic and psychological trends and processes.
But there’s another important factor: Election timing
New evidence points to a simple institutional mechanism that influences the vote shares of right-wing populists in national electoral contests: the relative timing of municipal elections.
In conducting research for my new book on radical right-wing voting, I assembled data on approximately 300 legislative elections in more than 30 advanced democracies, mostly in Europe, over three decades (1980 to 2010). Statistical tests show that when a country’s local elections are held in the same year as its national legislative elections, right-wing populist parties receive on average six percentage points more support at the national level, compared with cases where local elections are instead held in “off years.” This effect holds when accounting statistically for other factors such as immigration, unemployment and electoral turnout rates.
Why does the timing of local elections matter for the outcomes of national elections? I analyzed large-scale public opinion surveys including the European Values Study and conducted interviews in rural France in 2008 to better understand far-right voter motivations. I found that people who feel strongly tied to their local areas are particularly supportive of radical-right parties.
In contrast, people who routinely take part in community activities such as hobby clubs do not have much appetite for these extremist parties. And although those who feel tied to their local areas are often the same people who participate in them, a gap has been widening over time.
In many countries, feelings of local attachment have increased yet engagement in civic life has declined. This means that a growing number of citizens have potent feelings about their communities, which can promote political extremism, but are not particularly committed to norms of democratic political moderation that are buttressed by routine social engagement.
Here’s how this plays out in the political arena. Strong local devotion is most relevant for politics during times of local electoral contests. At these moments people are focused on local problems and weighing proposed local solutions. Thus, holding local and national elections at the same time can yield a nationally aggregated sense of local protectionism. Think of it as a magnified NIMBY (not in my backyard) reflex that can ultimately shape national partisan dynamics.
In some respects this “localism,” as I call it, is connected to anti-immigration sentiments; some voters wish to prevent foreign-born residents from moving into their communities. But I learned from my research that immigration is just one facet of a larger set of changes that people perceive as threatening to their localities. It is this broader syndrome of change — what many think of as “globalization” — that radical-right parties deftly campaign to reverse. Those who are nostalgic for a past era — whether real or imagined — find the appeals of far-right populists especially attractive.
Now back to Sweden
National and local elections are scheduled for Sunday. The 290 municipal assemblies and 20 county council assemblies have significant authority in Sweden. For instance, these local governing bodies have autonomy to levy certain taxes and craft various regulations. Such powers make Swedish local elections particularly meaningful flash points in comparison with countries where formal decision-making is more concentrated in the halls of national governments.
This new research suggests that the coordination of local and national elections bodes well for Sweden’s far right. Accordingly, the Sweden Democrats look positioned to make electoral gains on Sunday.
Democracies in Europe and elsewhere increasingly tend to hold multiple levels of elections simultaneously — this can save on election costs and elevate voter turnout. But election schedulers have probably not considered an unanticipated consequence: the boost that radical-right parties can receive from this popular administrative trend. What seems like a mundane, bureaucratic choice may have significant implications for democratic systems.
Jennifer Fitzgerald is an associate professor of political science at the University of Colorado-Boulder. Her work focuses on public opinion and voter behavior in advanced democracies. She is the author of “Close to Home: Local Ties and Voting Radical Right in Europe“ (Cambridge University Press 2018).