Swedish voters go the polls on Sunday to elect a new parliament, in an election that has attracted more than usual international attention. As has become routine across Europe in the two years since Brexit, commentators are talking up the prospects of the far right.
This poses a dilemma. On the one hand, the growth of the far right is real and serious; it would be wrong to preach complacency in dangerous times. On the other hand, much of the commentary on the subject is a gross overreaction, reaching to sheer nonsense. There is a fine line to be walked between the two.
At the last election, in 2014, the centre-left Social Democrats were returned as the largest party, as they have been in every election for more than a century. However, their 31.0% of the vote was their second-worst result since 1920, up only 0.3% on their worst, four years earlier.
Together with the Greens (6.9%) and the ex-Communist Left (5.7%), the left-of-centre parties had 43.6% of the vote, 4.2% ahead of the coalition of four centre and centre-right parties known as the Alliance.
Sweden runs a system of relatively pure proportional representation (
D’HondtSainte-Laguë), so seats won reflected those numbers very closely: 159 left-of-centre to 141 for the Alliance. The far-right Sweden Democrats were the only other party to pass the 4% threshold; they won 12.9% and 49 seats, thereby holding the balance of power.
As I explained last week, that led to an early bout of parliamentary instability, followed by an agreement between centre-left and centre-right to lock out the Sweden Democrats. The big question this time around is whether or not that agreement will be renewed.
If the Alliance wins more seats than its left-of-centre rivals, there’s no doubt what will happen. The Social Democrats will commit to not voting with the far right to unseat it, and Ulf Kristersson, leader of the centre-right Moderates, will become prime minister.
But although that’s possible, on the evidence of the opinion polls it’s unlikely. More probably the left-of-centre parties will again finish ahead of the Alliance, and Kristersson will have to decide whether to let them govern or to try to do a deal with the Sweden Democrats.
His counterparts in neighboring countries – Erna Solberg in Norway, Juha Sipilä in Finland and Lars Løkke Rasmussen in Denmark – have in recent years all made agreements of one sort or another with the far right to gain power. None of those countries seems to have succumbed to fascism as a result; on the contrary, polls in all three show a swing back towards the mainstream parties.
But there’s no certainty that Kristersson will do the same thing. The Sweden Democrats are a somewhat different beast to the rest of the Scandinavian far right, with much more explicit neo-fascist origins. Even if the Moderates were to reach agreement with them, it’s doubtful whether their Alliance partners would all follow them.
If the Centre Party, for example, which has been wooed by the centre-left before, were to defect, it could well give the left-of-centre forces a majority. If the Liberals came across as well it almost certainly would.
These numbers for possible coalitions will matter more than who actually tops the poll. But the latter, of course, has symbolic importance. Although there are regular reports that the Sweden Democrats “are on course to become the country’s largest party,” that still seems unlikely.
Of the 20 most recent opinion polls, as collected by Wikipedia (that’s a bit over a week’s worth), only two show the far right in the lead. The other 18 all have the Social Democrats ahead as usual, by an average of 6.2%. Of those, 12 put the Sweden Democrats in second place, while the other six have them third, behind the Moderates.
No-one should view with equanimity a vote of 20% or so for a neo-fascist party in a modern European democracy. Nonetheless, it needs to be viewed in perspective. The same has happened in France with (as yet) no sign of permanent damage to the body politic. It still means that four voters in five are rejecting the far right’s toxic message.
The vital thing, in Sweden as elsewhere, is that the other parties – and especially the mainstream centre-right – should send a co-ordinated message that the far right is not a legitimate option, and should be willing to overlook some of their own differences to make a common stand against extremism. The Swedish parties did that in 2014; next week they will probably need to do it again.
For more, the report in the New York Times is particularly good, and Bloomberg has a sensible review of the economic issues. Results (if not their implications) should be clear by breakfast time on Monday in Australia; check out the electoral commission’s website here.