“It’s important to note that Sweden is still a safe place to live, but you also need to compare Sweden to Sweden and these problems are new to us,” Paulina Neuding, the editor-in-chief of the political magazine Kvartal, told me. “These divisions are tough for a consensus-oriented country like ours. They’re creating a rift in society that won’t be going away.”
Sunday’s vote kicked off a new era in Swedish politics, one of weak government and a fragmented legislature. Because of Sweden’s multi-party bloc system, government formation requires political compromises and coalition-building. But the Sweden Democrats’ strong showing injects considerable uncertainty into what has long been one of the world’s most stable democracies.
Because of the Sweden Democrats’ neo-Nazi and white-supremacist roots, mainstream parties have deliberately frozen them out of important negotiations and avoided seeking their support on key votes. But that won’t be so easy now. While both the outgoing government bloc led by the Social Democrats and the opposition bloc led by the Moderate party pledged not to work with the Sweden Democrats after the election, the populist party still holds considerable influence. A wide array of multi-party coalitions on the left and right appear possible, but in most scenarios, forming a government and passing a budget will be tough without some modicum of support from the Sweden Democrats.
All of this means that it may be impossible to continue ignoring the Sweden Democrats. With Åkesson vowing to use his party’s newfound weight to obstruct any government that fails to take into account his party’s views on immigration, it is “a dilemma for the mainstream parties,” Anders Sannerstedt, an expert on the Sweden Democrats at Lund University, told me. “There’s an expectation to be pragmatic once the election ends. But [the Sweden Democrats] are still hated by many Swedes and negotiating with them could backfire.”
While much of the coverage of the campaign focused, with good reason, on the rise of the populist right, the decline of the mainstream parties is an equally important storyline. The next prime minister will likely come from the Social Democrats or the Moderates, but both parties underperformed compared to 2014, losing supporters to the Sweden Democrats and smaller factions like the Center and Left parties. Sweden’s center-left government led by the Social Democrats followed its predecessor’s open-borders policy, and has accepted 300,000 refugees and migrants since 2015. This opened the door for the Sweden Democrats and helped the populists brand themselves as the country’s only legitimate anti-immigration voice. The government later instituted measures to limit the number of new arrivals, citing risks to public order and national security.
But it was too late: The Sweden Democrats had already capitalized on the refugee crisis, painting the mainstream as out of touch and too hesitant to confront the consequences of large-scale immigration. “In the discussions we were having three or four years ago, there was such a strong feeling from some politicians about saying that kind of stuff legitimizes [the Sweden Democrats],” Johan Forssell, a member of parliament from the center-right Moderate party, told me ahead of the election. “The outcome of that idea is that things boiled over and support for them rose.”