STOCKHOLM—It wasn’t quite the populist surge that the experts predicted. But in Sweden’s election on Sunday, the anti-immigration Sweden Democrats still managed to expand their influence, setting the stage for an uncertain government-formation process among the country’s eight political parties. After a tense and unusually divisive campaign focusing on immigration and crime, Sweden will now contend with a fractured landscape in which the center-right and center-left coalitions that have defined its politics for decades are deadlocked, and the populist party holds the balance of power in parliament.
While the center-left Social Democrats and the center-right Moderate Party, Sweden’s two dominant political entities, came in first and second with 28.4 percent and 19.8 percent, respectively, both parties saw a decline in their share of the vote on Sunday. Meanwhile, the Sweden Democrats’ third-place result with 17.6 percent, up from 12.9 percent in the previous elections, will allow it to play kingmaker in the next parliament.
A third-place finish is likely a disappointment for the Sweden Democrats: Preelection polls suggested they would become the country’s second-largest party. But the populists’ steady growth has exposed cracks in Swedish society. Aided by the fallout of Europe’s refugee crisis and a wave of violent crime, the Sweden Democrats have amplified their nationalistic message. While issues such as education, health care, climate change, and taxes played a central role in the election, the Sweden Democrats kept immigration in the spotlight, arguing that the high influx of migrants endangered the future of the country’s welfare state. Jimmie Åkesson, the party’s well-coiffed leader, called for halting virtually all immigration, restricting family reunification, speeding up deportations, and cracking down on the recent crime wave, which has been partly linked to immigrant gangs. Such rhetoric broke political taboos in Sweden.