Sweden headed for govt battle after far-right gains

Supporters at the Social Democrats' election party in Stockholm on Sunday. The ruling party secured just 28.4 per cent of votes and 101 seats.
Supporters at the Social Democrats' election party in Stockholm on Sunday. The ruling party secured just 28.4 per cent of votes and 101 seats.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Mainstream parties fail to secure majority; worst result in century for ruling Social Democrats

Sweden appears to be heading for a protracted government battle after neither of the mainstream political camps in this Scandinavian country, one of the most prosperous in Europe, managed to win a working majority in Sunday's general election.

In contrast, a far-right, anti-immigrant party has boosted its share of the vote significantly, and although it performed less well than initially feared, it is still on track to shatter Sweden's hitherto stable and predictable political landscape.

With all the votes from Sunday's election now counted, it is clear that Sweden's established political parties have gotten a severe drubbing.

The ruling, centre-left Social Democrats, who have run the country for decades and were often considered to be the only party of government, have crashed to their worst result in more than a century.

The party of Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven, which secured only 28.4 per cent of the vote, now has just 101 seats in the 349-seat Swedish Parliament.

The centre-right Moderate party, the Socialists' chief opponents, also fared badly, securing just 19.8 per cent of the vote, compared with over 23 per cent at the previous election.

Sunday's real winners are the Sweden Democrats, a nationalist movement which advocates closing the country's borders to immigrants and the deportation of those who fail to gain asylum status. It gained 17.6 per cent of votes and secured 62 parliamentary seats, a considerable improvement on the 42 MPs it had in the outgoing Parliament.

The country's politicians are taking heart from the fact that, despite their electoral achievement, the Sweden Democrats actually fared worse than initially predicted.

During an electoral campaign dominated by concerns about immigration and an allegedly sharp rise in violent crime, they were projected by opinion pollsters to gain over 20 per cent of the votes and predicted to become the nation's second-biggest political movement.

The failure to fulfil these expectations is being used by Swedish politicians to claim that their political system remains intact, and that normal parliamentary life can resume.

"We have two weeks left until Parliament opens," Mr Lofven told a political rally yesterday.

"I will work on calmly as prime minister, respecting voters and the Swedish electoral system," he said, hinting that he will seek coalition partners so that he will remain in power.

But this business-as-usual approach won't be easy to maintain.

To start with, the election confirms a Europe-wide phenomenon previously seen in national ballots in Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Spain: a mass flight of voters away from established parties and towards the political extremes.

Mr Lofven hopes to form a government with two like-minded, left-of-centre parties. But even if this can be stitched together, his proposed coalition will command only 40.6 per cent of the votes, against 40.3 per cent for a potential centre-right coalition, which, in turn, will have to include at least four parties, many very small. In short, Sweden's political establishment is doomed to survive by a thread.

And although the Sweden Democrats did worse than expected, they are still on a roll.

The party, formed only during the late 1980s by neo-fascist extremists, has grown from a 5.7 per cent share of the national vote in the 2010 election to 12.9 per cent in 2014 and 17.6 per cent now, a three-fold increase in popular support in less than a decade. And that, judged by Sweden's usually staid electoral tradition, is a revolution.

After polls closed, Mr Jimmie Akesson, its 39-year-old leader, tried to suggest that he is already the man to decide Sweden's future.

"We strengthened our kingmaker role," he told cheering supporters. "We see that we will have an immense influence over what happens in Sweden in the coming weeks, months, years. Nobody can take that away from us," he added.

In reality, Mr Akesson and his Sweden Democrats will be shunned by all political parties and, whatever happens, are unlikely to become the country's political kingmaker.

Still, for politicians elsewhere in Europe, the key message from the Swedish election is not that the continent's anti-immigrant backlash has been defeated; throughout Europe, established parties continue to bleed support to various populist movements.

Rather, the only message from the Swedish vote is that established politicians in Europe have simply gained some additional breathing space to answer their voters' fears and aspirations.

But if they don't do so, they are still liable to be engulfed by populist rabble-rousers.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 11, 2018, with the headline 'Sweden headed for govt battle after far-right gains'. Print Edition | Subscribe