It wasn’t quite the night the far-right Sweden Democrats had hoped it would be.
The nationalist party with roots in Sweden's neo-Nazi scene – and more than a dozen prospective candidates kicked off ballots in the weeks preceding the election for spreading neo-Nazi or anti-Semitic propaganda – made undeniable gains in Sweden’s parliamentary elections on Sunday, jumping to 17.6 percent of the vote from 12.9 percent in the last election in 2014.
But it was hardly the stuff of their dreams. Some polls before the election had tipped the party to take up to 25 percent of the vote and pundits mused that the far-right could become the second-largest or even largest party in Sweden.
That wasn’t to be. While party leader Jimmie Akesson tried to strike a triumphant tone Sunday night, declaring that Sweden Democrats were “this election’s winners,” the mood wasn’t necessarily shared with his “clearly disappointed” supporters, some of whom didn’t bother to stick around long at the afterparty to celebrate their country’s apparent lurch to the (far) right.
Still, the pariah party didn’t quite lose either. Sunday’s results also deprived Sweden’s mainstream center-left and center-right blocs a majority in the country’s parliament – and handed the governing Social Democrats their worst result in a century – meaning the far-right Sweden Democrats might have a better chance to influence policy in government than ever before.
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But still, to paraphrase Donald Trump, “what happened in Sweden last night” may not have been quite the victory the far-right was hoping for.
“I think SD [Sweden Democrats] is disappointed because their gains were not as big as some polls predicted,” Cathrine Thorleifsson, a researcher of right-wing extremism at the University of Oslo, told Haaretz by email.
A fragmented Sweden
Though anti-Semitism, coded or otherwise, did not feature in their campaign, its spectre was felt in the background. Indeed, while Akesson has spent much of his time as leader purging and clearing the Sweden Democrats of its shadier past, the party still continues attract an unusual share of anti-Semitic, Nazi-sympathizing hate-mongers. Two local politicians were kicked out of the party just last month — one for posting a photo of Adolf Hitler on Facebook along with a status update praising him, as well as a photo calling Anne Frank “the coolest Jew in the shower room." Last month, Swedish newspaper Expressen found that several former members of the neo-Nazi National Socialist Front were running under the Sweden Democrats' banner — party members who were in the past "deeply rooted in the Nazi environment," according to the paper.
But the story of Sweden’s election is more than just a story about the rise of the far-right or the decline of the Social Democrats, says Thorleifsson. Fragmentation is the rule, she says, as supporters of larger, more established parties leave them to give less established parties a try.
And it’s not just the far-right that benefited. As Dr. Itay Lotem from University of Westminster pointed out days before the election, Sweden’s mainstream center-left and center-right parties (the governing Social Democrats and the Moderate Party, respectively) have seen their support crater in recent elections; the governing Social Democrats’ 28.4 percent was their lowest score in more than a century, though they still came out as the largest single party.
But the voters these parties have lost, Lotem points out, aren’t uniformly flocking to the far-right – they’re also flocking to parties that oppose Sweden Democrats and refuse to work with them - casting doubt over the party’s ability to further grow in popularity and strengthening opposition to them.
“Even though [Sweden Democrats] exploited the so-called refugee crisis to bolster support for anti-immigration and nativist policies, other smaller parties opposing their messaging gained grounds,” said Thorleifsson. Both Sweden’s Left Party, a former communist party, and the agrarian Centre Party saw their support climb more than two percent Sunday night, beneficiaries of an electorate growing ever wearier of the country’s dominant parties.
While attitudes to immigration and identity definitely play a huge role in Sweden Democrats’ rise, it doesn’t explain everything, experts say.
The party’s biggest rise came well before the migrant crisis of 2015, when Sweden took in 163,000 asylum seekers in 2015, the most in Europe per capita. According a Stockholm University study published before the election, much of their rise is actually rooted in economic frustrations stemming from a series of benefit cuts instituted by the previous center-right government in the late 2000s, followed by the crushing blow of the 2008 financial crisis.
"You often hear that the success of the Sweden Democrats comes from Sweden’s immigration policy,” Johanna Rickne, a professor of economics at Stockholm University and current visiting professor at Yale University, told a Swedish English-language news site. “Our analysis finds no empirical relationship between the SD’s vote share [in 2014] – either in municipalities or electoral districts – and a number of measurements for local-level immigration."
But Sweden Democrats have spent much of their time over the campaign linking “economic anxiety” like this to the presence of migrants and minorities in Sweden – almost a quarter of Swedes were either born abroad or born in Sweden to two parents themselves born abroad.
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They’ve also blamed migrants for every problem under the sun, from rape (even though the number of reported rapes declined by 12 pecent in 2015 at the height of the migrant crisis) to long queues for accessing health care.
It’s a model that’s worked for far-right figures across Europe, and thus it’s tempting to think that Sweden Democrats have no place to go but up. But researchers aren’t so sure.
“[Sweden Democrats’] message may appeal to 1 in 5 voters, but it does not appeal to the vast majority of Swedes,” Dr. Maureen Eger, a Senior Fellow at the Center for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR), wrote on Sunday.
Eger further noted that more than half of voters dislike Sweden Democrats more than any other party, making Sweden Democrats “unique” in the way that they are opposed by a broad swathe of the Swedish population – and without much if any room to grow in future elections.
It means this might be Sweden Democrats’ only shot at power.
Still, observers doubt there’s any possibility of Sweden Democrats being part of the government. Unlike in Austria and Bulgaria, for example – the current and most recent rotating presidents of the Council of the European Union – where members of far-right parties hold key ministerial positions, there’s little chance of any Sweden Democrats actually sitting around the cabinet table.
But with the already-delicate art of coalition building in Sweden under pressure from last night’s results, it could mean that the far-right party will have more influence on government than ever before.
If current Social Democrat Prime Minister Stefan Lovfen manages to cobble together another center-left coalition, he’s pledged to not cooperate with Sweden Democrats at all. But the far-right party could topple him on major votes, including this fall’s budget. If the center-right Alliance bloc manages to cobble together a coalition, it could go in the other direction and, breaking the informal cordon sanitaire, openly cooperate with Sweden Democrats.
"Such a government would be dependent on the Sweden Democrats' support and it wouldn't come without a cost," Lisa Pelling, chief analyst at progressive think-tank Arena Ide, told AFP.
It’s why, despite the disappointment some Sweden Democrat supporters might feel, their leader is still singing a confident-sounding tune.
“We have strengthened our kingmaker role,” Akesson said Sunday night. “We will have an immense influence over what happens in Sweden in the coming weeks, months, years.”
Whether Akesson will be proven right – or if Sunday’s results will prove to be the highwater mark of Sweden Democrat’s existence – remains to be seen.