On 11 September 2022, Sweden held general elections to elect the 349 members of the Riksdag, the national legislative assembly. The election was a victory for the opposition alliance of three centre-right parties and the right-populist, anti-immigration Sweden Democrats party, which gained substantial support.
The electoral campaigns of several parties focused on the recent rise of gang violence and shootings, especially in immigrant neighborhoods but also in public spaces where crime had not been a major issue before. The rise in crime has already concerned voters for several years, but the recent uptick has made fatal shootings in Sweden more prevalent than elsewhere in Europe. The opposition parties accused the incumbent Social Democratic-Green government of being lax on crime, although it had boosted police resources and introduced tougher prison sentences. The Sweden Democrats and the opposition in general were also able to draw in voters who were concerned about energy and gasoline prices. Concerns about climate change, which had previously been more prominent, took a back seat during the elections, which hurt the left parties and especially the Greens. Ultimately, the Sweden Democrats received 20.54 percent of the vote, replacing the liberal-conservative Moderate Party as the second-largest party after the historically dominant Swedish Social Democratic Party, which earned 30.33 percent of the vote of the vote.
The leader of the Moderate Party, Ulf Kristersson, has begun talks to form a new centre-right coalition government. It is not clear whether the Sweden Democrats will be included in the Cabinet. As recently as 2018, neither the centre-left nor the centre-right blocs would accept the Sweden Democrats as government coalition partners.The negotiations are expected to be difficult. Sweden’s party system is one of the most fragmented in Europe. Since 1932, the Social Democratic Party has been dominant, and there have been only five previous elections (1976, 1979, 1991, 2006, and 2010) in which the center-right bloc has received enough seats to form a government.
The momentum for the Sweden Democrats’ dramatic win has been building for over a decade. A relative newcomer in the Riksdag, the party first gained parliamentary seats in 2010, receiving 5.7 percent of the vote. In the 2014 election, the Sweden Democrats received 12.9 percent of the vote, and and 17.6 percent of the vote in 2018. By contrast, in 2018, the Social Democrats’ vote share fell to 28.3 percent from 31 percent in 2014, the lowest in more than a century, while the vote share of the Moderates sank to 19.84 percent from 23.3 percent in 2014.
Compared to other Nordic right-wing populist parties, which emerged in opposition to excessive bureaucracy and taxation, the Sweden Democrats party was decisively nationalistic and anti-immigration from its beginning. The party counts various elements of Sweden’s far-right milieu, including Neo-Nazis and proponents of white power, among its membership. However, since the mid-1990s, new party leadership has ejected openly extremist members and publicly denounced Nazism, while retaining the party’s anti-immigrant stance.
Two developments are likely explanations for the recent rise of the Sweden Democrats. The first is the dramatic increase in crime, shootings, and gang activity in immigrant neighborhoods due to failed integration policies, especially following the 2015 migrant crisis, which the previous governments have been unable to solve. These issues were prominent in Swedish news media during the electoral campaign, with gang crime being the most discussed issue. Surprisingly, while Sweden Democrat voters have more anti-immigrant attitudes than voters for other parties, large-scale Swedish opinion surveys do not show an increase in negative attitudes towards immigrants as such.
The second is the ongoing dealignment between the Swedish working class and the Social Democratic Party. Historically, Swedes have voted along class lines on a conflict pattern organised around the economic left and right. The working class has also benefited from the strong welfare state supported by the Social Democrats. However, as in many Western European countries, the platforms of left and right parties have become more similar in economic terms. This is largely due to shrinking budgets that have forced governments to curb welfare entitlements. The Social Democratic party has also moved toward more libertarian positions on both social and economic issues in order to gain or keep middle class votes. This has alienated working-class voters, especially rural voters who tend to be more socially conservative.
These developments have provided an opening for populist/nationalist parties whose platforms combine pragmatic centre-left economic policies with more conservative social policies. The working class has also come to see the present economic conflict as being between the native-born and immigrant labour, rather than between labour and capital. Recently, traditional parties have announced their support for tighter immigration policies, but voters generally perceive the Sweden Democrats as having more credibility on immigration issues.
The 2022 election has also resulted in increased geographical realignment of the Swedish parties. The left bloc won the most votes in large cities and in several university towns with unprecedented margins, whereas the right bloc overturned dozens of municipalities historically dominated by the Social Democrats. These developments can be expected to increase the political polarisation in Swedish politics.
Whatever its composition, the government will have plenty on its plate: rising crime and gang activity, inflation and skyrocketing energy prices, the NATO accession process, and Sweden’s upcoming European Union Council presidency. Although there is wide agreement on issues like national security and the NATO accession, it is not clear how the incoming government will deal with the increasingly difficult domestic issues relating to inflation, crime, energy transition, and integration. Historically, minority governments have overcome gridlock by negotiating among political parties and the main interest groups such as the national confederations of labor unions and industry associations within the framework of the many consensus-building institutions in the Swedish political system. However, the traditional policymaking institutions which have been the basis of consensus politics are no longer as strong as the once were. It is likely that, in the absence of external events which will provide a basis for unification, we will see more unstable coalition governments and growing polarisation.
Finally, another change to the Sweden’s already fragmented party landscape in the 2022 election is the emergence of a pro-immigrant, Islamist Nuance Party (Swedish: Partiet Nyans), which campaigned on several social issues related to Muslim minority interests. The Nuance Party was founded by in August 2019 by Turkish-born Mikail Yüksel who had been expelled from the Centre Party for alleged links to Turkish ultranationalist groups. The Nuance Party is now the largest among the minor parties which do not have seats in the Riksdag. It received 0.44 percent of the vote in the election, and a significant vote share in the three largest cities: 2.10 percent in Malmö, 1.14 percent in Gothenburg, and 0.76 percent in Stockholm. It is unclear whether the party can attract more Muslim voters in the future, as several members have been explicitly anti-Shia, and there is considerable intra-party turmoil.
To sum, the Swedish party system is undergoing historic changes during a critical period in Swedish politics. However, there is much uncertainty whether the Sweden Democrats (or the Nuance Party) can keep their gains in the future, especially if the Sweden Democrats are invited in the governing coalition.
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