Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson resigned on Thursday, conceding a close election to a right-wing opposition bloc. In Sweden’s general elections last week, a group of right-wing parties — the Moderates, the Christian Democrats, the Liberal Party and the far-right Sweden Democrats — gained three more seats in parliament than their center-left rivals. That means that the leader of the conservative party, the Moderates, Ulf Kristersson, is likely to be Sweden’s next prime minister.
It’s not yet clear which right-wing parties will be formally part of the government, but this will be the first Swedish government ever to govern with the support of a far-right party, the Sweden Democrats. As I explain in a recent book chapter, in recent years the mainstream conservatives of the Moderate party have embraced a party founded by neo-Nazis.
It’s hard to overstate the significance of the Sweden Democrats’ rise
Public opinion suggests that Sweden is one of the most liberal countries in the world. Only four years ago, it was unthinkable that any party would collaborate with the Sweden Democrats, including the Moderates. Unlike other far-right parties that have come to power elsewhere in Europe, the Sweden Democrats began as a neo-Nazi party in the late 1980s.
Not only did Kristersson include the Sweden Democrats on his “side of politics” during this year’s elections, but his party campaigned on far-right issues, as well as the increase in energy prices. The party singled out crime and social issues popularly associated with immigrants, such as gang violence, sexual assault and welfare benefits dependency.
The Moderates used to be a cosmopolitan party
In the 1990s, the Moderates mostly focused on free markets and tax cuts. The party had begun in 1904 as a traditional conservative party but had moved away from nationalism to embrace Sweden’s role in the global economy. Two decades ago, the party was progressive on social questions such as LGBT rights, gender equality and cultural diversity. It became the leading party on the right, and in 1991, the party formed a minority government with Carl Bildt as the first Moderate prime minister in postwar Sweden. The party increased its share of the vote but couldn’t stay in office, and had to give power back to the dominant Social Democrats party.
The party then moved away from advocating tax cuts and deregulating labor markets, rebranding itself the “New Moderates.” In 2004, it was able to form a new coalition of parties, the Alliance, which challenged Social Democratic dominance. This coalition, led by Moderate leader Fredrik Reinfeldt, governed Sweden between 2006 and 2014. In 2010, the Moderates even gained more than 30 percent of the vote, challenging the Social Democrats’ position as Sweden’s largest party, for the first time in nearly a century.
However, after the 2010 electoral breakthrough of the Sweden Democrats, the Moderates began to lose support, much like mainstream right parties in many other European countries. Voters who were hostile to immigrants were the primary supporters of the Sweden Democrats, though it was not a single-issue party. The coalition of mainstream conservative and centrist parties disagreed over whether they could form a minority government with tacit support from the Sweden Democrats.
Then the Moderates moved sharply to the right
At first, the Moderates doubled down on their socially liberal and cosmopolitan identity. But as support for the Swedish Democrats kept growing, the Moderates’ grass-roots supporters pressed them increasingly toward the right. In 2015-2016, when Europe saw a significant increase in asylum requests from refugees from Syria and elsewhere, Swedish public discourse became less favorable to cosmopolitan ideals.
That led the party to change its strategy. The Moderates moved away from cosmopolitan language and started to claim that it was the socially conservative party that could get things done.
Once, the Moderates tried to sell voters on a moral framework in which the Sweden Democrats were portrayed as “completely deviant,” with no legitimate place in Swedish politics. In recent years, they just claimed that they were more politically competent than the far right. For example, during a debate with far-right leader Jimmie Åkesson, the soon-to-be Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson argued that the Sweden Democrats had been “good at identifying problems,” but that the party “never presented concrete proposals that would really solve those problems.”
The party no longer ruled out formal collaboration with the Sweden Democrats. The Moderates had been defeated in 2018, and two parties in the former Alliance decided to support the incumbent Social Democratic prime minister to keep the Sweden Democrats away from power. One of those parties eventually switched back, but it was clear that the Moderates had no path to power without the support of the far right.
The new government faces challenges
The Moderates will be able to form a new government, but they face some vexing problems. Embracing the Sweden Democrats only seems to have strengthened the far-right at the expense of traditional parties. Now, the Sweden Democrats will be able to point to their power as kingmakers, without taking responsibility for solving the difficult social and political challenges that the new government faces. While the Sweden Democrats are not likely to be given a formal role in government, the party will be able to use its legislative clout to demand concessions on its core issues: law and order, immigration policies, lower gasoline prices and decreased foreign aid.
All this will create difficulties for the government coalition. The Moderates’ allies in government have somewhat different approaches to social and cultural issues. They may disagree on some of the Sweden Democrats’ demands.
Equally, the Sweden Democrats are substantially to the left of the government coalition on economic issues. They want to keep unemployment and sickness benefits, which benefit their supporters. That may create another source of dissension in this highly fragile coalition — where the government will be paralyzed if only two members of parliament decide to switch sides.
Anders Ravik Jupskås is deputy director at Center for Research on Extremism (C-REX), University of Oslo, where he is doing research on party politics and the far right in the Scandinavian countries. Find him on Twitter @arjupskas.