After the Swedish Election: Time for a new narrative?

While Sweden is trying to figure out how to form a new government following an attention grabbing parliamentary election, Josefin Graef takes a look at the broader narratives shaping the reception of the results.

The official results of the Swedish parliamentary election have finally been released, and they are complex, to say the least.

The results show a near tie between the two traditional blocs: the left-wing Red-Green bloc, made up of the Social Democrats, Green, and Left parties, holds 144 of the 349 seats, the right-wing ‘Alliance’ 143 seats, and the Sweden Democrats occupy the remaining 62. The ruling Social Democrats dropped to a historical low, but did better than expected and remain the biggest party. The radical right Sweden Democrats were less successful than expected, but they did gain the most votes relative to the other parties and to their own performance in the 2014 election. Since all parties have ruled out a coalition with the Sweden Democrats, there are only two other options: another minority government, or a cross-bloc coalition. Given that neither of these are likely to lead to a stable government, many found that on Monday morning the country had “woken up to a new political reality”.

Prominent Narratives

While the party leaders are busy negotiating a deal, it is worth looking at how journalistic and academic commentators in Sweden and abroad have responded to the results. The reception inside and outside the country reflects the broader narratives that currently shape the debate about European politics. One can identify four prominent, often overlapping narratives: the ‘rise of populism’; the ‘nationalist surge’; the ‘shift to the right’; and the ‘decline of social democracy’.

The ‘rise of populism’ dominates much talk about European politics these days, not least because it has emerged as an established field of research in its own right. Mirroring the academy’s ongoing struggle to define what modern ‘populism’ actually is, foreign commentators were quick to take the Swedish election as another example of “populism sweeping through Europe”. The Sweden Democrats had convinced many voters that, in contrast to the other parties, they would listen to their concerns and deliver on their promises. Commentators insisted that the party nevertheless received fewer votes than expected because immigration—where it is seen as most competent overall—was not the only important topic shaping voters’ decisions. Healthcare, education, and climate policy also ranked high, areas in which the Social Democrats, Liberals, and Greens are trusted most.

The ‘nationalist surge’ in Europe, connected to the desire to create a new sense of ‘home’ in response to dynamic global change, has also served as a means to explain the increased vote share for the Sweden Democrats for the third year running. Indeed, party leader Jimmie Åkesson has flaunted an explicit nationalism. His speech at Almedalen, Sweden’s annual ‘Politician’s Week’, in July is a case in point: “It was nationalism that built our country. The nation is the basis for how our society has developed. […] Nationalism means belongingness, a sense of community, folkhemmet”, a political concept associated with the Social Democrats that is best understood as a ‘familial community of fate’ shaped by the obligation to be loyal towards and take responsibility for each other.

In this context, many commentators have emphasised that the Sweden Democrats, founded in 1988, were able to establish themselves as the “main anti-immigration force” by moving away from “openly racist ideas”. In fact, like other parties in Europe, they have simply (but largely successfully) divorced understandings of immigrants’ ‘difference’ as a reason for exclusion from the ‘folkhemmet’ from explicitly racist ideas of immigrants being of ‘lesser value’.

In light of this assimilationist stance, their conservative family policies, and anti-EU position, the narrative of Europe’s ‘shift to the right’ has also been prominent in the analysis of the Swedish election, especially in the foreign press, despite the fact that the Sweden Democrats gained fewer votes than expected. Apart from its role as potential kingmaker in the coalition negotiations, the party’s growing presence in parliament is mostly seen as symbolic, given Sweden’s global image as a liberal and pluralistic country, even a ‘moral superpower’.

The ‘decline of social democracy’ narrative, finally, revolves around questions about the traditionally strong role of the Swedish state and its decreasing ability to provide for its citizens in urban and rural areas, in the north and the south, for the young and the old. The Sweden Democrats, as many commentators have emphasised, have managed to present themselves as the new guarantor of the Swedish welfare state, not least through the restriction of immigration into the ‘folkhemmet’. A considerable share of former social democratic voters switched to the Sweden Democrats in this unusually volatile election. Similar to what has been happening with the German Social Democrats and the Alternative for Germany (AfD), the Sweden Democrats have catalysed the Swedish Social Democrats’ downward trend in a post-industrialist, seemingly post-national era.

A New Narrative?

Regardless of whether one judges the SD’s result to be a success for the party or not, viewing the Swedish election primarily through these narratives means to pay disproportionate attention to this one party—a dynamic observable in several other European countries.

Accordingly, recommendations for how to respond to the results in Sweden have ranged from recapturing the political agenda to show that “there is ideological politics out there other than the Sweden Democrats”, to finding “creative solutions to finance public services” to challenge the Sweden Democrats’ link between welfare and immigration, and the breaking of taboos in order “to speak openly about the country’s problems” and thereby win voters’ trust back.

But as several commentators have pointed out, Sweden in particular demonstrates that recent election results in Europe are better captured through meta-analysis of political dynamics, rather than a myopic focus on specific ideologies. This means paying more attention to increasing fragmentation, polarisation, and voter volatility as common denominators between the different countries, rather than the contested notions of ‘populism’ and ‘nationalism’.

Upcoming elections in 2019, including general elections in several EU countries and the European Parliament election, will provide further opportunities to rethink the stories told so far—and the proposed solutions shaped by them.

Josefin Graef is a Dahrendorf Forum Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Hertie School of Governance.

Photo by Per Pettersson via creative commons.

The opinions expressed in this blog contribution are entirely those of the author and do not represent the positions of the Dahrendorf Forum or its hosts Hertie School of Governance and London School of Economics and Political Science or its funder Stiftung Mercator.