Since democracy came to Sweden, Löfven’s Social Democrats have dominated the country’s politics. With roots in the labor movement and an international reputation as the architects of Sweden’s celebrated social-welfare system, they have won the most votes in every election for the past century. That prolonged dominance and resonance beyond Sweden had party leaders on edge as they contemplated the possibility of losing their status as the biggest political force in Sweden: Where did we go wrong? What else could we have done to stanch the bleeding? they wondered.
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The results here come amid a string of electoral losses for social-democratic parties across Europe. Aided by the rise of far-right populists, the traditional center-left has, in just the past year, been decimated at the polls in a number of countries, including Germany, Austria, and Italy. Out of 28 European Union countries, just six—Sweden, Malta, Romania, Slovakia, Spain, and Portugal—are still led by the center-left (though others, including Germany, have center-left parties as junior governing partners). There’s a sense that social democracy, once a movement with clearly defined aims, has lost its way in the post-2008 world.
Of course: The Social Democrats still remain by far the largest party after Sunday’s elections. The 28.4 percent they won would have been a dream for, say, Germany’s Social Democrats (who won 20.5 percent last September and have since fallen even further) or Italy’s Democratic Party (which fell out of government after dropping to 23 percent in March’s elections). But given the Swedish party’s history—in some elections, its taken more than 50 percent of the vote—it also has comparatively further to fall.
Here in social democracy’s heartland, the leaders of the Social Democrats seem well aware that they set the tone for similar parties across Europe. They’re thinking about how to change the direction of the movement, and considering the kind of vision the party should present going forward. Changes below the surface have also threatened to upend the center-left’s traditional bases of support: union members, once a key demographic for the Social Democrats, have in recent election cycles begun defecting to the far right. Sweden Democrats politicians say this is because the Social Democrats have lost credibility on the issues most important to voters. “The voters don’t trust these parties, and I understand … They’re un-trustable,” Markus Wiechel, a Sweden Democrats MP and the party’s foreign-policy spokesman, told me in the Swedish Parliament a few days before the vote. “They could say one thing one day and then something completely different the next day.”
In Sweden, populist nationalists won on policy, but lost on politics
Wiechel’s Sweden Democrats benefitted from the big shifts underway within the Swedish electorate: Exit polling Sunday night found a remarkable 41 percent of Swedish voters opted for a different party than they’d chosen in 2014. In other words, the trend lines have been worrying for the Social Democrats for a while—and, despite a generally strong economy, voters don’t seem to feel secure about their own fortunes and futures.