European Politics

Fragmentation, not the far-right, is the story of Sweden’s election

Another European election, another round of bad takes about the far-right from the British media. Sweden's election saw the rise of the Sweden Democrats, but that's far from the whole story.

THOSE of us used to a majoritarian electoral system of government instinctively find it odd when an election results in no clear winner.

Admittedly, even in pluralistic Sweden, where government-by-consensus is the order of the day and parliamentary majorities are uncommon, the results of this year’s general election are somewhat exasperating. Neither of the two political alliances – the centre-right Alliance and the governing, centre-left ‘red-greens’ – has won a clear governing majority; over the coming days, weeks and months, intense negotiations and backroom deals will be required to cobble together a coalition that can command enough support to survive a confidence vote.

Most of the minor political parties – particularly the Centre, Left, and Christian Democrats – made gains at the expense of the two major forces, the Social Democrats and the Moderates. Indeed, support for the Social Democrats, typically Sweden’s party of government, fell to its lowest level since 1911, reflecting a deep Europe-wide crisis within social democracy. But in another echo of elections across the continent, it was the third-placed Sweden Democrats, a far-right, anti-immigrant group with Nazi roots, led by the dapper young Jimmie Åkesson, that benefited most from this dissatisfaction with establishment politics. However, even their gains were relatively modest compared to opinion polls, some of which showed the SD finishing second, or even first.

If you’ve been following the election in English-language media, you may well think that Sweden was in the throes of a far-right revolution. The BBC, shirking its responsibility to balanced journalism once again, has been particularly irresponsible in its reporting, speaking of a country swinging sharply to the right, and the apparent collapse of its liberal order under the weight of 160,000 refugees. Meanwhile, in a shocking but predictable display of British ignorance of pluralistic European electoral systems, The Guardian has suggested that the Sweden Democrats now hold the ‘balance of power’, and could act as ‘kingmakers’ for a new government.

Immigration was a dominant topic, but it was only one of many. Swedish voters, according to state broadcaster SVT, viewed healthcare and inequality as far more pressing issues. Nonetheless, an inordinate focus on refugees and integration by both the Moderates and Social Democrats allowed the Sweden Democrats to take command of the narrative, and this has been reflected in an international media obsessed by the rise of the far-right; burning cars and Muslim ghettos are far more attractive headlines than public spending, regardless of their authenticity. These stories have acted as catnip for far-right commentators, who have in turn amplified them across social media.

Ultimately, the real result of the election is fragmentation. Far-right parties have risen across Europe, but this is always accompanied by the establishment parties leaking votes across the political spectrum – this is invariably underreported by the English-language media. In this new paradigm, it is parties like the Greens, Liberals and Centre that are decisive, not the Sweden Democrats.

In fact, the Sweden Democrats have underperformed considerably, and the balance of power is only marginally different from 2014, when the party was already big enough to make it difficult for either political bloc to form a parliamentary majority without them. However, once again every mainstream party has repudiated the far-right. Prime minister Stefan Löfven has said ‘the Sweden Democrats can never, and will never, offer anything that will help society – they will only increase division and hate,’ while opposition leader Ulf Kristoffersson has already rejected Jimmie Åkesson’s overtures.

Stefan Löfven said ‘the Sweden Democrats can never, and will never, offer anything that will help society – they will only increase division and hate.’

While it is true that the Moderates and Christian Democrats may eventually be tempted to accept Åkesson’s offer of cooperation, their Alliance allies in the Centre and Liberal parties would reject this outright. This makes it especially hard for the centre-right Alliance to enter power, so it will probably fall to the prime minister to make the first awkward overtures to his opponents. Already, in the early-morning aftermath of the election, Löfven declared an end to ‘bloc politics’. He will seek to reach across political lines to form a government by courting the Liberal and Centre parties – or even a kind of ‘grand coalition’ with the moderates.

A Moderate-led government supported by the Sweden Democrats isn’t out of the question – a similar situation exists in neighbouring Denmark. This may even be good for Sweden; far-right populists often collapse under the weight of their own contradictions when voters can finally see that they offer no solutions to their problems beyond blaming immigrants.

Until then the Sweden Democrats are exposed, Swedes will continue to see the answers to their problems in their easy populism. That’s why they’re voting for them. They’re concerned about inequality, unemployment, healthcare and public spending, as well as how to integrate refugees in a country that welcomed more than most; too many Swedes don’t see these answers coming from the establishment parties. But this is also why people are voting for the Left Party, a former communist party, as well as a the centrist Liberals and Centre Party – this narrative thread has been absent from the British media, who are eager to find the next chapter of European far-right populism in response to the refugee crisis.

Unless the Social Democrats and Moderates can offer a robust alternative to the far-right, abandon outdated bloc politics, and create a forward-thinking, open-minded vision for Sweden’s future divorced from their regressive narrative, we may see the British media’s fear-mongering proven right four years from now.

But until that time, the English-language media desperately needs to become more honest in its coverage of European affairs. It’s not just Sweden – the British media has translated its simplistic and one-dimensional understanding over to Italian, German, Dutch and French politics, in many cases parroting the far-right itself to construct its stories. Coloured by perpetual, patronising tours through deprived former industrial regions (brilliantly lampooned by Helen Lewis in The New Statesman in 2017), this results in an underbaked analysis that too often follows the easy, headline-grabbing thread of the refugee crisis and the far-right.

As ever, the truth is much more complex than the one offered by our media. Refugees and immigration are just one part of a story that takes in local issues, the vagaries of proportional electoral systems, and a wide range of concerns and anxieties that have disillusioned people from traditional party systems. The simplistic media version also writes out liberals and internationalists, who often abandon mainstream parties for more openly globalist ones. This story encompasses not just the far-right, but Emmanuel Macron’s centrist En Marche, Germany’s pro-immigration Greens, and the far-left Podemos in Spain. The rise of all these political forces from across the spectrum reflects this widespread dissatisfaction with the status quo and establishment malaise.

It’s about time the British media understood that.

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