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.