Sweden heads to the polls on Sunday for one of the most important elections in living memory. If polls are correct, a country long known for a strong welfare state and social democracy could see the far-right Sweden Democrats, who neo-Nazi roots and anti-immigrant stancebecame the second largest party in parliament and a major player in a right-wing ruling coalition.
It is dramatic change for a country where traditionally left-wing parties, led by the incumbent Social Democratic Party, and center-right parties, led by the conservative Moderate Party, are fighting for power.
Here’s what you need to know about voting:
Runners and riders
Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson of the Social Democrats was platform campaign to reduce gang violence among minorities in underserved communities, protect welfare and increase employment. The Swedish parliament ousted her predecessor Stefan Löven last year in confidence vote after the Left Party withdrew its support for a government plan to loosen rent controls. But he was later restored because the opposition parties did not have enough support. Anderson then came to power in November after Leuven resigned; he has led the country and the party since 2014. “Everything comes to an end and I want to give my successor the best conditions,” Löwen said, adding that stepping down was “not easy but right.”
Ulf Kristerson of the Moderate Party and opposition leader similarly proposed getting tougher on crime to reduce gang violence. “He is a typical opposition leader; he wants to blame the government for policy failures, especially in relation to gang violence,” said Jan Theorel, professor of political science at Stockholm University.
Current voting puts the Social Democrats in first place with around 30%, followed by the Sweden Democrats with around 20%, and the moderates close behind with 17%. The Sweden Democrats received only 0.4% of the vote in the 1998 election, but became the third largest party during the last election in 2018.
Swedish political parties rarely get a majority in parliament, meaning they usually have to build alliances to form a government. Polls show that the center-left bloc led by the Sweden Democrats is tied with a bloc that forms parties on the right. Christerson of the Moderates said his priority is forming a strong governmenta sign that he sees the far-right party as a potential partner this year, despite vowing in 2018 never to cooperate with the Sweden Democrats.
Why gang violence has become a key issue
The frontrunners’ focus on gang violence is in response to a spike in shootings this year. From 1 Jan. Sweden has at least 48 people killed by firearms. “It’s getting kind of out of control… People feel like this is not our country; how could that happen here?” says Theorel. “People feel like it’s coming closer to their everyday lives.”
The Social Democratic government recently introduced harsher prison sentences and increased police resources in response to a rise in fatal shootings, but opposition parties say it is not enough. Andersson partly blamed “too much immigration and too little integration” for the problem, a sign that center-left parties are drifting to the right on some issues in response to a surge in poll numbers for the Sweden Democrats in recent years.
“So many of these gang members who commit crimes are quite young. Many of them are recruited when they are, say, 9 or 10 years old,” says Anders Sannerstedt, professor of political science at Lund University.
Rising gang violence has forced political parties to prioritize the issue in the campaign. While the Sweden Democrats took a harder line against immigration, the Social Democrats also insisted on understanding the social roots of the problem. “They’ve tried to emphasize that … we need to fix the welfare state … So they’re focusing on the social side of why you become a gang member to begin with,” Theorell says.
Energy prices are also top of mind for voters
Premier Anderson promised last week yes provided $23 billion in liquidity guarantees to power companies amid a growing cost-of-living crisis that has led to spending on food staples rise nearly 25% as well as rising interest rates and stagnant economic growth. “A lot of people are concerned about their electricity bills given Putin’s war on energy,” she said.
Kristerson suggested using more nuclear power in response to rising electricity bills. “The argument is that if we hadn’t closed these power plants, we would have been self-sufficient in terms of energy production, so we wouldn’t have had to import electricity from abroad, and then prices wouldn’t have jumped as much after the war,” Theorel says.
The Sweden Democrats also criticized the country’s decision to shut down nuclear plants, calling it one of the “the biggest political mistakes of our time.” The current minority government, led by the Social Democrats, is committed to hydropower, solar and wind power.
Why many are concerned about the Sweden Democrats
A far-right party has never before been part of a governing government in Sweden.
Sweden Democrats leader Jimmy Akesson insisted the party had moved away from its racist roots. “Those who founded our party are no longer involved,” he told the AP. “Most of them disappeared after a year or two. So the Sweden Democrats today are something different from what was created some 30 years ago. But critics still accuse the party of continuing racist rhetoric and policies.
Earlier this month, the party’s spokesman for criminal justice, Tobias Andersson, tweeted a post from the Sweden Democrats’ subway campaign ad. He wrote: “Welcome to the repatriation train. You have a one-way ticket. Next stop, Kabul.”
The tweet drew criticism from the Social Democrats and others. Andersson says he worries about ‘Sweden Democrats’deep roots in Swedish neo-Nazis and other racist organizations.” She highlighted a party official sending out an email inviting people to celebrate the Nazi invasion of Poland. “This kind of invitation would never happen in other parties in Sweden. Having said that, many of the voters of the Sweden Democratic Party, they are decent people who are disappointed by the development,” she said.
Some worry that the Sweden Democrats’ surging results in opinion polls have led Andersson to right-wing in certain areas, particularly around identity and immigration.
Last month Anderson was accused of racist rhetoric from her own party. Swedish Somali politician Saida Hussein Moge quit the Social Democrats after the prime minister made a comment that Sweden had no ethnic clusters in major cities. “We don’t want to have Chinatowns in Sweden, do we we don’t want to have Somali cities or little Italys.”
Akesson, for his part, welcomed the tougher stance. “It’s generally a good thing. We want to change society. We want to make things better. So we welcome when other parties adopt our policies,” he said.
Some say it is an example of the growing influence of the far-right party regardless of the outcome of Sunday’s vote.
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