Sweden's Social Dems Face Populist Threat

Sweden's Social Dems Face Populist Threat

Stefan Loefven, Prime Minister of Sweden, is pictured during a press conference on March 16, 2018 in Berlin, Germany.

SourceFlorian Gaertner/Getty

Why you should care

Sweden, a bastion of social democracy for a century, now appears set to tilt more toward the populism Europe has seen elsewhere. 

The last time Sweden’s Social Democrats failed to come on top in national elections, World War I was just two months old. No political force has dominated a European country quite like the center-left party — but the era is coming to an end. In Sweden’s next election on Sept. 9, the Social Democrats are almost certain to record their lowest share of the vote in more than a century and their record of heading the polls is under threat.

A visit to Trollhättan, an industrial town in western Sweden, shows why. Once home to the Saab car company, Trollhättan used to vote in droves for the Social Democrats. Now, Saab is bankrupt, taking with it many of the blue-collar jobs that were the bedrock of the party’s support, and the town of 49,000 has a different car problem to worry about: This month a gang of youths set fire to vehicles in Kronogarden, a suburb with a big immigrant population — part of a wave of such crimes across Sweden.

Stefan Löfven, Sweden’s Social Democrat prime minister, lashed out at the youths, saying, “What the hell are you doing?” But Trollhättan’s discontent with the government is palpable.

Julius Lundqvist, a Trollhättan resident who parks his car in a garage in the city center, says, “The Social Democrats have not lived up to what they have promised. They put more money into immigration than elderly care. They care more about people who have come to Sweden in the last two or three years than the people who built the system.”

We fill the void that the Social Democrats left behind.

Jonas Jonas Sjöstedt, leader of the Left Party

His friend Stefan Clare, who is thinking of voting for a center-right party, added, “The Social Democrats are not doing a good job. I’m working five days a week and some are just staying at home doing nothing. The Social Democrats are supporting a lazy lifestyle, and a lot of people are fed up with that.”

The Social Democrats in Sweden, like elsewhere in Europe, have been hurt by changes in society. Rising prosperity means that fewer voters are interested in issues such as labor rights, while the center-left has struggled to come up with answers to voters’ worries over globalization and immigration.

“Social democracy rose when industrial society was rising. Today, it’s a new society where so many of the old parties are doing badly with a rise of right-wing populists,” says Ulf Bjereld, a professor at Gothenburg University and an active Social Democrat.

The Social Democrats’ support stands at about 25 percent in the opinion polls, still the largest party, but well below the 31 percent they received in 2014. As recently as in 1994, they received 45 percent.

The current Social Democrat–led government is widely viewed as one of the weakest in decades, unable to push through its policies. But the party still has a chance to cling to power because the main center-right Moderate Party is also set to record a worse score than in 2014.

Instead, the main election winners look set to be the parties at the extremes of the political spectrum: the anti-immigration Sweden Democrats, and the ex-Communists of the Left Party.

The election would be “about how badly [the Social Democrats] will do,” says Jonas Sjöstedt, leader of the Left Party. Sjöstedt argues that the Social Democrats have lost their way on issues from equality and justice to immigration. “We fill the void that the Social Democrats left behind,” he says.

Rhetoric from Löfven on immigration has become harsher since he imposed border controls in late 2015 after a surge in the number of asylum seekers. The government has tightened immigration rules, and after a high-water mark of 163,000 asylum seekers in 2015, just 23,000 are expected this year.

Sjöstedt believes the Social Democrats toughened up in large part to try to stop voters defecting to the populist Sweden Democrats, who have become the second-largest party among blue-collar workers.

At the Social Democrat offices in Trollhättan, the mood is far from upbeat. Jonas Nilsson, a 30-year-old candidate for the party, says he disagrees with the decision to close the border. He argues that the Sweden Democrats offer “easy answers: If you throw out all the immigrants, all the problems will be solved. If you keep saying it, some people will start believing it.”

Bucking traditional election wisdom, the party is set to do poorly despite strong economic growth. Sweden’s economy came out of the financial crisis quickly and unemployment is low — but the government gets little credit for that as it struggles to move the agenda to its own priorities.

Malin Stal, a 20-year-old Social Democrat candidate, says of the recent car fires: “If they had not happened, we would have had an easier time winning. Fighting crime, immigration — those are not our strong suits. Labor rights, equality — that is where we are better.”

Bjereld, the Gothenburg University professor, says this is where the Social Democrats have failed. “You must not adapt to the agenda of the Sweden Democrats, but instead you need to change the political agenda. The Social Democrats have been afraid to change the agenda.”

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By Richard Milne

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