Sweden heads to the ballot box Sunday for one of its most important elections in living memory. If polls are correct, a country long known for a strong welfare state and social democracy could see the far-right Sweden Democrats, which has neo-Nazi roots and an anti-immigrant stance, become the second largest party in parliament and a senior player under a right-wing governing alliance.
That’s a dramatic shift for a country that has traditionally seen left-leaning parties led by the incumbent Social Democratic Party and center-right parties led by the conservative Moderate Party tussle over power.
Below, what to know about the vote:
Runners and riders
Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson of the Social Democrats has been campaigning on a platform of reducing gang violence among minorities in underserved communities, protecting welfare, and increasing employment. Sweden’s parliament ousted her predecessor Stefan Lofven last year in a no-confidence vote after the Left Party withdrew their support over a government plan to loosen rent controls. But he was later reinstated because opposition parties didn’t have enough support. Andersson then came into power in November after Lofven resigned; he had led the country and party since 2014. “Everything has an end and I want to give my successor the very best conditions,” Lofven said, adding that stepping down was “not easy, but right.”
Ulf Kristersson of the Moderate Party, and leader of the opposition, has similarly proposed being tougher on crime to reduce gang violence. “He’s a typical opposition leader; he wants to blame the government for policy failures, particularly having to do with gang violence,” says Jan Teorell, a political science professor at Stockholm University.
Current polling puts the Social Democrats in first place at around 30%, followed by the Sweden Democrats at around 20%, and the Moderates close behind at 17%. The Sweden Democrats had captured just 0.4% of the vote in the 1998 election, but became the third largest party during the last election in 2018.
Swedish political parties rarely obtain a majority in parliament, meaning they must typically build alliances to form government. Polls suggest that a center-left bloc led by the Social Democratic Party is tied with a bloc forming parties on the right. The Moderates’ Kristersson has said his priority is forming a strong government, a sign he sees the far-right party as a potential partner this year, despite vowing in 2018 to never cooperate with the Sweden Democrats.
Why gang violence became a key issue
The leading contenders’ focus on gang violence is in response to an uptick in shootings this year. Since Jan. 1, Sweden has had at least 48 people killed by firearms. “It’s sort of spiraling out of control… People get a sense that this is not our country; how can this happen here?” says Teorell. “People have a sense that it’s drawing closer to their everyday lives.”
The Social Democratic government has recently introduced harsher prison sentences and an increase in police resources in response to the uptick in deadly shootings but opposition parties say it is not enough. Andersson has partly blamed “too much immigration and too little integration” for the issue, a sign that center-left parties are veering right on some issues in response to the surge in poll numbers for Sweden Democrats in recent years.
“So many of these members of the gang who commit crimes are quite young. Many of them get recruited when they are, say nine or 10 years old,” says Anders Sannerstedt, a political science professor at Lund University.
Increasing gang violence has pressured political parties to prioritize the issue on the campaign trail. While the Sweden Democrats have taken a harder line against immigration, the Social Democrats have also pushed for understanding the social roots of the problem. “They tried to stress that… we have to fix the welfare state… So they are focusing on the social side of why you become a gang member to begin with,” Teorell says.
Energy prices also top voters’ minds
Prime Minister Andersson has promised last week to provide $23 billion in liquidity guarantees to electricity companies amid a spiraling cost of living crisis that has seen costs of essential food items rise by close to 25% as well as rising interest rates and stagnant economic growth. “Many people are concerned with their electricity bills given Putin’s warfare on energy,” she said.
Kristersson has proposed using more nuclear power in response to soaring electricity bills. “The argument is that had we not shut down those power plants, we would basically be self-serving in terms of energy production, so we wouldn’t have to import any electricity from abroad and then the prices wouldn’t have soared as much after the war,” Teorell says.
Sweden Democrats have also criticized the country’s decision to close nuclear plants, calling it one of the “biggest political mistakes of modern times.” The current minority government led by the Social Democrats is committed to hydro, solar, and wind power.
Why many are concerned about the Sweden Democrats
A far-right party has never been part of the ruling government in Sweden before.
The leader of Sweden Democrats, Jimmie Akesson, has insisted that the party has moved away from its racist roots. “Those who founded our party are no longer taking part,” he has told the AP. “Most of them disappeared already after one or two years. So the Sweden Democrats today is something different from what was founded about 30 years ago.” But critics still accuse the party of continuing racist rhetoric and policies.
Earlier this month, the party’s spokesman on criminal justice issues, Tobias Anderson, tweeted a post of the Sweden Democrats’ campaign ad on the subway. He wrote, “Welcome to the repatriation train. You have a one-way ticket. Next stop, Kabul.”
The tweet sparked criticism from the Social Democrats and others. Andersson said she was worried about the Sweden Democrats’ “deep roots in the Swedish neo-Nazis and other racist organizations.” She highlighted an employee of the party sending an email out that invited people to celebrate the Nazi invasion of Poland. “That kind of invitation would never happen in any other parties in Sweden. Having said that, many of the voters of the Sweden Democratic party, they are decent people that are disappointed with the development,” she said.
Some worry that the Sweden Democrats’ rising poll numbers has pushed Andersson to tack right in certain areas, particularly around identity and immigration.
Last month, Andersson was accused of racist rhetoric from within her own party. A Swedish Somali politician, Saida Hussein Moge, left the Social Democrats after the Prime Minister made a comment about Sweden not having ethnic clusters in big cities. “We do not want to have Chinatowns in Sweden, we do not want to have Somalitowns or Little Italies.”
Akesson, for his part, welcomes the tougher stance. “Fundamentally, it is a good thing. We want to change society. We want to make things better. So we welcome when other parties adopt our policies,” he said.
It’s an example, some say, of the far-right party’s growing influence whatever the outcome of Sunday’s vote.
Correction, September 11
The original version of this story misstated which party leads Sweden’s center-left bloc. It is the Social Democratic Party, not the Sweden Democrats.
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