On Wednesday night, a political storm broke out as the results of the Swedish elections came in. They confirmed the fears of many Swedish and European political commentators: with 20,1%, the far-right Sweden Democrats became the second biggest political force of the kingdom, just a step away from entering its first government.
The polls could scarcely have been closer, narrowly won by a right-wing coalition composed of the Moderates, the Liberals, the Christian Democrats and, for the first time, the nationalist Sweden Democrats.
Thanks to this much-decried alliance announced by Moderate leader Ulf Kristersson in 2021, the right-wing block won 176 seats against 173 for the centre-left bloc led by the Social Democrats. But for the first time since 1979, the Moderates are not the leading right-wing parties anymore.
Heir to a neo-Nazi group founded in 1988, the far-right Sweden Democrats party has gradually become commonplace in Sweden’s political landscape, entering parliament in 2010 with 5.7% and gaining at every election thereafter, against a backdrop of high immigration and Sweden’s criminal gang problems.
But the day that the proudly progressive and democratic Sweden is ruled by a xenophobic, climate change-denying far-right party is not with us just yet. Here is why.
In Sweden, it is the practice that the leader of the biggest party from the leading bloc is charged with forming a government. The task should, theoretically, fall upon SD leader Jimmie Åkesson.
But it is a scenario that is not going to happen. SD members know that the Liberals, Christian Democrats and even the Moderates that extended them a hand during the campaign have all agreed on forming an SD-free government.
Therefore, Moderates leader Ulf Kristersson will most likely be Sweden’s next prime minister. It could not really be otherwise.
Firstly, for reasons of credibility.
The Moderates paid a heavy price for their association with the far-right and especially for their leader’s inconsistencies over the years. As an example, Kristersson, once a liberal Moderate who declared immigration to be “fundamentally a positive thing”, said in July last year that it was now a “burden”.
Such mixed and inconsistent signals weakened the Moderate leader, whose party lost the support of its most progressive voters to the Center party, the Liberals, and even across the aisle, to the Social Democrats. In Stockholm, the party registered its worst results in 52 years, to the benefit of the governing Social Democrats.
Changing course now and offering ministerial positions to SD members would be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. The Moderates would look completely unreliable, sealing their fate at the next elections before the dust settles on the current polls.
Secondly, the Liberals would not allow such a move.
With 4,6%, the Liberals are the smallest party in the Swedish Riksdag and one of the main challenges for their leader Johan Pehrson was not to fall under the 4% threshold necessary to remain in Parliament.
It has been difficult for the Liberals to agree to an uneasy and unnatural alliance with the far-right, and the party also suffered at the ballot box. The party lost almost a quarter of its seats in Parliament as many of its voters switched to the liberal Center party, conveniently riding along with the left.
Were the Moderates to break their promises and let the SD into their government, the Liberals could very well support a left-wing administration led by the Social Democrats that could make good use of their 16 seats to secure a more comfortable majority.
Therefore, the far-right Sweden Democrats are to remain a supporting party voting along the lines of the political accords that will now be decided in the ongoing coalition talks. They will be crucial to the government’s survival while remaining officially outside it.
However, whatever far-right-free government the Moderates are able to put together when the newly elected MPs will meet for the first time on 27 September, ruling the country will be a complex balancing act between a far-right solidly grounded in its newly-found legitimacy and key Liberal MPs, whose moral compass could sway the country in one direction or another.
It will be a test for Sweden, where such a configuration has never been experienced yet.
Will the Sweden Democrats succeed in their endeavour to rule and gobble up the Moderate vote? Or will they fall prey to their lack of ruling experience, relegating the party to a life behind an impenetrable cordon sanitaire?
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- Informal meeting of agriculture and fisheries ministers.
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Views are the author’s.
[Edited by Benjamin Fox/Zoran Radosavljevic]