Sweden’s Sunday awakening for established political parties

Sweden’s Sunday awakening for established political parties

by Tom Gallagher
article from Saturday 8, September, 2018

A RECORD TURNOUT of over 80 per cent is expected on Sunday’s election and around 50 per cent have already voted by post or have done so in their polling stations which, in Sweden, are open for weeks before election day.

In one sense the result doesn’t matter. Whether the red-green alliance hangs on or an unnatural coalition of the Social Democratic Party and the Moderates is cobbled together, the tide has gone out for the established parties. They have spent the election saying very little about their policies but instead have vied with each other to condemn the newcomer, the Sweden Democrats as a dangerous, extremist force. The media has joined in with alacrity. After the leader’s debate on the main television channel on Friday evening, the state broadcaster quickly threw aside balance and condemned the upstart force in outspoken terms. 

Led by 39-year-old Jimmie Akesson, the Sweden Democrats oppose the mass migration which has occurred under both left and centre-right governments, culminating in the 2015 decision to take in 160,000 asylum seekers. They champion the elderly who get by on meagre pensions and reach out to youngsters entering a fast depleting labour market. Their social programme merits comparison with those of Franklin Roosevelt or Clement Attlee. Their language against unassimilated newcomers is far less raucous than that of Matteo Savini in Italy – or the German far-Right who have backed a smaller party, the Alternative for Sweden, which wishes to send back many of the refugees and asylum seekers from war-torn countries who have arrived over the last dozen years. (In the European parliament, the Sweden Democrats is formally allied to the British Conservatives.) 

Akesson’s time probably won’t come at this election. But his vote will surge from 12.9 to 20 per cent or over. The SDP got 45 per cent as late as 1995 but is very likely to obtain only half that today. Its traditional foe on the centre-right the Moderates are also likely to fall back substantially. These two parties got over 53 per cent in the last election but will struggle to get above the mid-30s this time. 

The SDP overdosed on its Swedish universalistic model in previous decades. It gradually lost touch with its working-class base as it promoted niche identities around race and gender which only strongly resonated with parts of its middle-class base. The left is not going to disappear though. The Left party, a hard-left force increasingly courting ethnic minorities will improve on its 8 per cent showing. The Greens, the most explicit backers of open borders and controls on everyday lifestyles will also hold their own (aided by a summer drought which the media claims is proof positive that global warning is out of control). 

Whoever governs after Sunday will be in an unenviable position. They will have to grapple with worsening economic conditions and confront bouts of social unrest across the country. Gun crime, grenade attacks and open drug-dealing have followed hard on the heels of taking in several hundreds of thousands of people from global conflict zones who have few prospects of holding down regular employment. 

The very south of Sweden, where I have spent the last few days observing the campaign, has received much of this influx and places like Kristianstad are reeling under the pressure. This elegant town with handsome squares and boulevards has got two No-Go areas on either side of it and rival gangs battle it out for the drug trade. Fearful locals are unlikely to rely on the police since, on orders from Stockholm, the police across the southern province of Scania are deployed to Malmo, the main city, to keep the lid on a far, far more dangerous situation. 

Before pausing in Kristianstad I spent Friday morning in the small town of Hörby which has been governed by a red-green coalition since 2014. I was shown around by the local SD leader, Stefan Borg, a philosopher who runs his own publishing company specialising in re-issuing works by Kierkegaard and Christian Russian thinkers. Now in his sixties, he had abandoned a career in the airforce after refusing to obey the order, as a young pilot in 1980, to escort the plane of the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausecu through Swedish airspace as he embarked upon a state visit.

On our stroll he showed me the town square adjacent to one of the most venerable Lutheran churches (pictured) in the area. The square had been pulled up with the chief aim of reducing vehicle access to the town. The concerns of shopkeepers and disabled drivers were overlooked. The Greens were determined to change the cityscape in order to reduce Sweden’s carbon emissions to a vestigial extent even at huge local inconvenience. They were also the masterminds behind an attempt to close village schools supposedly on the grounds of efficiency and transport children into one large regional school. Five thousand out of the district’s fifteen thousand inhabitants signed a petition opposing the move, which is on hold until after local elections which are simultaneously being held on 9 September. 

Borg is quietly confident that the SD local vote, already at 20 per cent will grow substantially. If the Moderates agreed to a coalition, he believes they could end the misgovernment of his region. Perhaps his biggest challenge will be the criminality which overshadows the town. Hörby was singled out as a reception centre for refugees. The Migrant Authority in Stockholm , dating from 2015, is able to send migrants to all communes. ‘It is a violation of self-rule and is simply not in the Swedish political tradition’, Borg observed. 

Many of these people are placed in Homes for Care and Living, of which there are no less than 22 in Hörby, 10 in the centre; unaccompanied minors, plenty with emotional problems have stretched the community. Several attempted murders, in a places where violent crime was previously unheard of, have occurred with little or no police presence because of the semi-emergency in Malmo. 

The writing is on the wall for the established parties, Borg believes. They can no longer reach out to young people, often lacking secure prospects and let down by a poor-quality education system. Perhaps surprisingly, one of the biggest new sources of support for the Sweden Democrats now comes from people lacking origins from Sweden. They perhaps come from Iran, Egypt or the former Yugoslavia, relishing the opportunity to lead a fulfilling life in Sweden and fearing the extremism and violence from which they fled, will now pursue them to their new and once tranquil homeland.

I saw at first hand the potential of the SD to appeal to new Swedes in its second city Gothenburg where I had begun my trip. I saw Lennart, a retired lecturer in navigation at a technical school, which had been founded by a Scot William Chalmers, patiently explain to youngsters of mixed backgrounds (doing an election project for their schools) that his party was not obsessed with identity politics. Instead, it wished to make Sweden a society responsive to citizens needs and not an adventure playground for political dreamers and fanatics. 

At the SD election hut (which had been burned down weeks earlier) Pernilla, a former master chef and now a trainee nutritionist, was even more adept at disarming a larger group of students, many from Middle East origins, who debated with her in a good humoured way after it was clear she was not patronising or hostile to them. 

The resistance to overbearing rule from Stockholm is coming from the very south of Sweden. Borg believes the traditions of independence may relate in part to having been ruled from Denmark in the first part of the 17th century when several of its major towns and cities were either founded or witnessed major progress. 

I warmed to the Swedes on this visit. They usually show moderation and civility even as they worry about what the future holds for their once harmonious and calm country. Even as much of the media has tried to demonise the SD, a genuine conversation has been happening at street level. The social media is reaching out to unprecedented numbers of people at all levels of society and the ways the establishment smothered protest are running out of steam. 

It is likely the upset that appears unavoidable this weekend will, in its turn, produce major changes in the government of the country although perhaps not overnight. It is too easy to depict Sweden as another hotspot for extremism when in fact a much-needed push back against foolish and irresponsible government, may instead be what is happening.

Tom Gallagher is a retired political scientist who has published a study of Scottish Nationalism after its major breakthrough called "Scotland Now: A Warning to the World" is available in Kindle and in paperback. His twitter account is @cultfree54

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