The final results of Sweden’s election made history on Wednesday: The Swedish Democrats, a far-right anti-immigrant party with a recent history of openly Nazi ideology, achieved its best result ever. With 20.6 percent of the vote, it ranks second in Sweden’s multi-party system, beating all more mainstream right-wing parties.
There are two ways to think about this. The first is like something new and unusual: focusing on the party’s unprecedented success and what it signals about a changing Sweden.
But the other way of looking at it is as the latest example of a pattern that has become typical across Europe: far-right parties are winning significant chunks of the vote, if not actual power. (That is probably still the case in Sweden, where, although the bloc of right-wing parties won a majority of parliament seats together, the more mainstream of them is expected to form a government without the Swedish Democrats.)
Sweden’s Democrats won three percent more of the vote than their previous record of 17.5 percent in the 2018 election, continuing a trajectory of steady growth since it first entered parliament in 2010.
This would attract attention in any country, but especially in Sweden, a country known for its egalitarian social democracy.
“Relative to other countries in Europe, when looking at international surveys, Sweden always shows the highest or one of the highest tolerance rates for diversity — from, for example, support for immigration, support for offering asylum,” said Jennifer Fitzgerald, a political scientist at the University of Colorado, Boulder, who studies the far right in Sweden. “For years, when other countries saw the growth of the far right, Sweden didn’t. And so I think maybe there was an expectation that there would be an exception there.”
It is now clear that there is none.
No single factor explains the rise of the far right in Sweden, said Sirus Hafstrom Dehdari, a political scientist at Stockholm University who studies the radical right and political identity.
The 2008 financial crisis gave the party an early boost: research by Dehdari found that every job loss caused by the crisis translated into half a vote for the Swedish Democrats. Demographic change may be another factor: 20 years ago, about 10 percent of Sweden’s population was born abroad. Now that number is more than 20 percent. More recently, heavy media coverage of an increase in gang-related murders, many of which occurred within immigrant communities, has linked immigration to crime in the public consciousness.
But while there are many paths to the far right, once there, voters turn out to be remarkably loyal, Dehdari said. People may have started voting for the Swedish Democrats in the wake of the financial crisis, but they “didn’t go back to mainstream parties when they got a new job,” he said. A similar pattern may also hold for more recent events, such as the spike in crime, but it’s too early to say for sure.
Sweden is just the newest European democracy with the far right that can regularly command electoral support, joining a list that has already included France, Germany, Finland, Denmark, Austria, Estonia and others.
“In many European countries, it seems like they get to 20 percent and then they hit the ceiling,” Dehdari said. “There has to be a pretty big change in society to grow much more than 20 or 22 percent.”
Twenty is a lot less than 50: such a party cannot expect to gain an outright majority in the short term. But 20 percent is enough to be a key partner in a coalition, making the votes of the far right increasingly tempting for other parties looking to form a government.
So the main political question for Sweden is not how many votes the far right can get, but how the rest of the political system will react to its growing popularity.
So far, the Swedish mainstream parties have maintained a so-called ‘cordon sanitaire’, agreeing among themselves that they will exclude the far right from governing coalitions and government posts. It is a strategy that has been used in other European countries, such as France, Germany and Greece, to keep the far right out of power.
But such pacts can be difficult to sustain, especially for mainstream right-wing parties, who often have to choose between entering into agenda-thinning coalitions with center-left parties, or staying in opposition because they refuse to join the far-right. Sometimes ambition trumps determination: In Germany, in 2020, two mainstream parties broke the cordon sanitaire to form a short-lived coalition with the far right in Thuringia, sparking political backlash and a crisis in the local government.
And even if mainstream parties maintain the red line against far-right parties, that doesn’t necessarily mean a blockade against the far-right policy. In many countries, right-wing parties have taken tough stances on immigrants and refugees in an effort to win back votes from insurgent far-right parties.
However, that strategy has backfired in Sweden, Dehdari said, as validating the policies of far-right parties tends to reduce the stigma of voting for them. “Why don’t the voters go back?” he said. “Well, it’s because why vote for the copy when you can vote for the original?”
In some other countries, including Italy, Austria and neighboring Sweden, Finland, far-right parties have been admitted to governing coalitions. “In countries where that line has been crossed and where far-right parties have joined government coalitions, it seems to confer a certain level of legitimacy on those parties,” Fitzgerald said.
Counterintuitively, far-right parties themselves can sometimes pay a high price for that kind of access to government, Dehdari said. In Finland, the then far-right True Finns party experienced a bitter internal rift after a conflict with its coalition partners over the election of a new, more extremist party leadership.
In Sweden, as the final election results trickle in, the cordon sanitaire appears to be holding up. But as right-wing parties try to forge a coalition by wafer-thin margins, they will face decisions about whether or not to allow Swedish Democrats to join the government’s voting coalition — even if the party is not formally a coalition member. becomes with cabinet posts – or to keep them out altogether.
But the bigger picture, Fitzgerald said, isn’t just about the mainstream parties’ treatment of the far right, but the health of the political system as a whole. She noted that early reports suggest that turnout in this election was unusually low, a sign of wider voter dissatisfaction. (Something similar happened last April in France’s presidential election, with low turnout and record abstentions and blank ballots.)
“I was just thinking, ‘Amanda is going to call and I’m going to tell her something really boring about the turnout,'” she joked during our conversation. “But for me, that should definitely be part of the story here.”
Research, including her own, is clear on that point, she said: “Far-right parties do better when turnout is low.” Which means the real question may not be what the Swedish mainstream parties can do about the far right, but whether they can convince their own voters to show up to stop them.