Hazem Saghieh

The Swedish Elections: Three Alarms

The latest development in Sweden was not granted the significance it deserves: Together, the right-wing parties won the parliamentary elections, albeit by a narrow margin (176 to 173 seats). The Swedish Social Democratic Party, which had been the leading party in the ruling coalition, still won more parliamentary seats than any other party, but it lost its majority. Now former Prime Minister Magdalena Andersen resigned.

More importantly, the Swedish Democrats, which had been seen as a party of “neo-Nazi” roots, were the runner-ups. Winning more parliamentary seats than any of the other right-wing parties, they took the position that had been occupied by the traditionalist Moderates Party.

While they may not be in this new ruling coalition, they will watch over it, or become its “kingmakers,” per the term circulating in the media.

With that, Sweden is added to the countries witnessing the trend we had seen in France, Germany, Finland, Denmark, Austria, Estonia, Hungary and others, where the extreme right party has become mainstream. Italy is particularly likely to shift further and further in this direction if the elections held later this month allow “post-fascist” Giorgia Meloni to become prime minister.
The threat in Sweden is triangular:

First are the immediate political and strategic implications. True, the leadership of the Swedish Democrats distinguished itself from all of Europe’s other far-right parties, supporting Ukraine in the ongoing war and changing its position on Sweden joining NATO, which it had opposed until the Russian - Ukrainian war broke out. However, it is also true that the party’s base is not shy about its fondness for the Russian leader, and some observers did not fail to realize the correspondence between the Russian disinformation campaign about “the threat of foreigners and refugees” in Sweden and the centrality of this matter in the language and policies of the Swedish Democrats.

If we take the worst-case scenario, the results of the Swedish elections compensate for the recent painful defeats Ukraine has inflicted on Vladimir Putin’s army, which some observers saw as having pushed him to seek the aid of China’s Xi Jinping, whom he met two days ago in Tashkent.

Moreover, if this is the case, Sweden would go from an asset that had recently been added to NATO into a Russian Trojan horse in Europe and the Western alliance. As for the rising cost of fuel and food, it could stir populist demands that Sweden “stop sacrificing for Ukraine.”

Second, there is the model. Its democratic socialism turned this country with a population of no more than eleven million into an immense model. Sweden has combined the best of capitalism, and freedom, with the best of socialism, and equality, and it has provided itself and the world with one of the finest human and political societies that have been produced so far.

Historically, the economy of the Scandinavian social democracy has been built on three pillars: aiming at full employment, a generous and inclusive welfare system, and a regulated labor market. However, and under the pressure of demographic change, the welfare system has been finding it increasingly difficult to fulfill its promises since the eighties: the number of senior citizens increased because of the advances in science and medicine, and the number of years youths spend becoming specialized is increasing, delaying their entry into the labor market, and all of this comes amid a decline in birthrates.

These shortages in the labor force that had been carrying society inaugurated a crisis that soon found its political equivalent: in the mid-1980s, the Swedish Social Democrats began to roll back the role of the state in regulating the economy, and some began arguing that state-funded social programs were luxuries the economy could not afford as public services were slowly privatized. In the early 1990s, the Social Democrats lost the elections and handed power over to the Conservatives.

In all likelihood, the recent victory of the right-wing parties will constitute a new, major shift in this same direction.

Thirdly, there is the issue of racism and the cohesion of the social fabric. In 2015 alone, Sweden accepted 163,000 refugees, most of them from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan; at the time, Social Democratic Prime Minister Steve Lofven boasted about it. Arab Swedes now make up more than 5 percent of the total population, and between 2014 and 2018, more people from Syria than anywhere else in the world became refugees and immigrants in Sweden.

But facing this policy, which combined a noble moral stance and the need to make up for the labor shortages, was the opposition of Swedish Democrats, who grounded their policies and ideas in their anti-immigrant stance. They said that the increase in violence and petty crime is caused by immigrants and refugees, and there must thus be “zero tolerance” for their violence, and the number of immigrants and asylum seekers should be reduced close to zero.

Sweden is likely to change and take a worrying course. But which country is doing the opposite today?