Updated Sep 9, 2018 - Politics & Policy

The high stakes of Sweden's election

Voters in Sweden are heading to the polls today to vote in an election that could lead to a hard right turn for one of the most progressive nations in the world.

Data: SVT poll of 1,847 adult Swedish citizens conducted Sept. 4–6, 2018; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios
Data: SVT poll of 1,847 adult Swedish citizens conducted Sept. 4–6, 2018; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

Why it matters: The election has featured many of the same themes that have defined political campaigns all over the world for the past two years: anti-establishment politics fueled by frustration with the status quo, a massive influx of immigrants and disinformation spread through social media. And a far-right party could be the big winner.

The major players

  • The far-right Sweden Democrats has painted a gloomy picture of Swedish society, linking a rise in crime to the country's liberal migration policies. With origins in neo-Nazi fringe movements of the 1980s, SD has outwardly rejected its racist past, but continues to traffic in nationalist rhetoric and has benefitted from a surge of online disinformation about immigration and Islam.
    • The party is on track for its best election performance ever, polling between 20% and 25%, but will need to form a coalition to win a legislative majority.
  • The center-left Social Democrats and center-right Moderates have been criticized for being too reactive to far-right politics at the expense of strengthening their own message, political scientist Ann-Catrin Kristianssen tells Axios. Both have promised to curb migration and crack down on crime, but are still expected to lose seats in parliament.

Key issues

  • Migration: In 2015, Sweden's center-left government welcomed 163,000 asylum seekers — most of whom came from Muslim-majority countries.
    • Praise for the country's generosity turned to criticism when it became clear the government did not have a coherent mechanism for integrating migrants into Swedish society. Urban pockets where immigrants are concentrated have been plagued by crime and unemployment.
  • Climate change: The summer of 2018 saw the worst wildfires in Swedish history, fueled by a scorching heatwave that broke temperature records across Europe.
  • NATO: Russia's territorial aggression and military exercises on its Western border have prompted calls for Sweden to boost its defense capabilities — possibly by becoming a member of NATO, an alliance it has cooperated with on international peacekeeping but never formally joined.

The big picture: 73% of Swedes believe the country is moving in the wrong direction, according to an Ipsos study. Kristianssen says this election is about whether Sweden wants to remain an open or closed society and whether social democracy — a movement struggling all over Europe — can survive the populist wave.

The bottom line: No matter what the results are today, the influence of the far right will depend on the willingness of establishment parties to tolerate their values in order to form a government.

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