The moment I first arrived at the gates of the campus of Stockholm University, I was greeted by multiple campaigners handing out leaflets for their respective parties. This is when I realised I had arrived at the “right time”, in time for a paramount election, not just for Sweden, but for Europe too. Nevertheless, the young student campaigners were useful for finding directions around a new campus, as well as a good chat on politics! But beyond the mechanics of my semester abroad, this was a hotly contested election, marked by the rise of a far-right party called the Swedish Democrats, a trend seen across Europe.
The results gave no party or party alliance a majority, and the governing centre-left coalition lost its majority. This was expected, given the increasing unpopularity of the governing Swedish Democrats, led by Prime Minister Stefan Lofven. They faced a record fall in seats, with parties on the fringes making notable gains instead, the biggest of them being the Swedish Democrats. The Swedish Democrats campaigned on an anti-immigrant and anti-EU platform, very much reminiscent to Brexit in the UK and Trump in the US. This was a blowback against the Social Democrat’s largely open-borders policy towards refugees, leading to one of the biggest refugee populations in Europe when measured per capita. The strong welfare state and its ironclad safety-nets are being increasingly questioned by many on the centre-right, something that the governing centre-left coalition largely defended.
It has been almost two weeks since the results were announced, yet Sweden still finds itself without a government. The rise of the Sweden Democrats means both the previous centre-left coalition (Social Democrats and Greens), as well as the “Alliance” opposition coalition (made of the Moderate Party, Liberal Party, Centre Party & Christian Democrats) both cannot command majorities in the new Riksdag (Parliament). The elephant in the room, the SD, and its stronghold of 62 seats means that a new coalition will most likely have to govern with their support. The Centre Party and the Liberal party have threatened to leave the Alliance coalition if the other members choose to take that route.
Among the latest of developments is the vote to oust sitting PM Stefan Lofven. He will remain as a caretaker PM until a new government is formed, though he can still return as Prime Minister if his bloc is able to form another coalition. This is something he has hinted at, should the Social Democrats manage this feat. The frontrunner for PM seems to be Ulf Kristersson, head of the Moderates (the second largest party), but he will not be able to lead without support from the Swedish Democrats, a political risk given the widespread opposition to the emergence of this party.
Nevertheless, the Swedish Democrats have been making significant gains with voters, largely due to their anti-immigrant platform that aims to take Sweden outside the EU and toughen the policies on refugees. The party holds 18% of the vote from this election, up from 13% in the previous election. Establishment parties must take this as a warning sign and work to address the concerns that have led to this development if they wish to remain the leading parties in Sweden.
This election is therefore not only important for Sweden’s future, but also for Europe’s future. As Europe fights an onset of far-right populism and a backlash towards EU neoliberalism and its handling of the refugee crisis, the established parties are running out of time. Debates need to be had regarding the future of Europe, people’s genuine concerns need to be heard, and answers need to be devised soon before it is only the far-right that is left to do that.
(Full disclosure – As a leftist myself, I find encouraging signs in the doubling of the vote of the Left Party in Sweden, and a slow but notable resurgence in anti-austerity politics in Europe through leaders like Jeremy Corbyn in the UK and Melenchon in France. This alternative movement aims to bring back growth and prosperity in Europe through a more inclusive platform, one that aims to wrestle austerity, inequality and the burning injustices in our economies today)