In Sweden, Populist Nationalists Won on Policy, but Lost on Politics

The far-right Sweden Democrats have long pushed to reduce immigration. Now they’re getting what they wanted—and it’s costing them voters.

The Sweden Democrats party leader, Jimmie Åkesson
The Sweden Democrats party leader, Jimmie Åkesson (TT News Agency / Reuters)

Never mind the headlines: Sunday’s election in Sweden was a major setback for the far right. The populist-nationalist Sweden Democrats may have seen their percentage of the vote increase from 13 percent in 2014 to just shy of 18 percent this year, but they and many experts anticipated a much higher share; some even predicted that they would become the largest party in the country. Such an outcome would have been in keeping with their history of rapid growth, of more than doubling their previous tally in every election since 1998. Instead, they posted unexpectedly meager gains, which will do little to strengthen their influence in a deadlocked parliament where all other parties, center-right as well as left, refuse to negotiate with them.

And yet, this conclusion is the result of what some may consider a troubling bargain. In past contests, the Sweden Democrats’ keystone political cause of reducing immigration had been used to stigmatize the party. This year, multiple parties —including the center-left Social Democrats and center-right Moderates—included calls for reduction in their platform.

The anti-immigration position was normalized even as it was neutralized.

At the center of this drama is an unusually complicated political party. When compared to other nationalist forces in Europe, the Sweden Democrats appear relatively moderate. They expel members who make explicitly racist or anti-Semitic statements, claim to reject ethno-nationalism, endorse a pathway toward full civic and cultural membership for Sweden’s minorities, have shown little love for global strongmen such as Russian President Vladimir Putin or President Donald Trump, and are headed by Jimmie Åkesson—a blushing mother-in-law’s dream with gentle mannerisms. But if style and policy place the Sweden Democrats on the softer side of global anti-immigrant movements, their history does not: They were born in 1988 from the merger of a tax-populist party and a white-nationalist organization.

Despite the Sweden Democrats’ internal reform campaigns aimed at repelling radicalism, most Swedes were horrified when the party first entered parliament in 2010 with 5.7 percent of the vote. In their eyes, homegrown neo-Nazis had marched into government, thrashing a global reputation of exceptional tolerance and progressivism in the process. For existing parties, dialogue with the newcomers was out of the question: It was acquiescence to extremism. Moral consensus and political logic seemed to dictate the repudiation of the Sweden Democrats and all they stood for, first and foremost their agenda to restrict immigration. Commitment to Sweden’s generous refugee policy became dogma.

It was a righteous stand, perhaps, but also a short-sighted one. Sizable minorities of Swedes since the late 1990s have wanted reductions in the number of immigrants admitted to the country as well as more emphasis on assimilation rather than multiculturalism. Those sentiments had no outlet in establishment politics, creating an opportunity for the Sweden Democrats. Scandal after scandal—including those revealing that its lower ranks included racist ideologues and anti-Semites—could not stop the party’s growth so long as it held the monopoly on immigration skepticism. Whether motivated by economics, cultural concerns, or racism, voters seeking cuts in immigration had only one option. That remained true even after the Sweden Democrats climbed to a 12.9 percent share of the vote in 2014.

But an unprecedented shift in Swedish politics came the following year. War, poverty, and political strife across North Africa and the Middle East sparked a massive wave of immigration to Europe, and Sweden was one of the prime destinations. By the end of 2015, Sweden had received upwards of 160,000 asylum seekers, more per capita than any other country in Europe.

Prime Minister Stefan Löfven initially said there was theoretically no limit to the number of immigrants Sweden could embrace. But it soon became clear that a limit had in fact been reached. Sweden’s schools, hospitals, and law enforcement could not handle such numbers. In late November 2015, the center-left government, headed by the Social Democrats and the Green Party, initiated restrictions on refugee immigration. And the center-right Moderate Party, whose leader just a year before had called on Swedes to “open their hearts” and allow large-scale immigration to continue, called for closed borders.

It was a U-turn on Swedish politics’ definitive issue. (American readers looking for a comparison might imagine the Democratic Party ending Social Security, or Republicans annulling the Second Amendment.) And its implicit message was bitter for the political establishment. The Sweden Democrats had been right: Refugee migration was destabilizing the country.

Forced by circumstance, with great reluctance and occasional pain—the Green Party leader sobbed as she announced cuts to refugee migration during a press conference—Sweden’s politicians moved toward a new political consensus. The country’s largest parties, the Social Democrats and the Moderates, as well as the center-right Christian Democrats, adopted platforms calling for reduced immigration, and they carried those positions into elections this year.

The parties differed on how much of a reduction they sought and how to achieve it. There was enough cross-party agreement, however, to make immigration a somewhat boring topic of debate in this year’s election. Immigration was just one subject among many, sharing space with youth unemployment, health care, and gender equality.

In a sense, then, the Sweden Democrats succeeded beyond their wildest dreams: Parties espousing restrictions to immigration received a combined three-quarters of the vote, and ideas once confined to the far right spread into the establishment. Yet if the Sweden Democrats won on policy, they lost their political cudgel. The far-right party will not have the opportunity to implement its long-desired reductions in immigration, or any other policy for that matter. Future border restrictions will be pursued by centrists, and in the eyes of many Swedes, this will mean more thoughtful and compassionate policy.