How Sweden’s populists surged to power

Published : 22 Sep 2022 08:12 PM | Updated : 22 Sep 2022 08:12 PM

A centre-right coalition in Sweden narrowly secured victory, anchored by a national populist party called the Sweden Democrats. This has unnerved many in the West, but it shouldn’t. It’s simply yet another example of how the refusal of elites to deal with the legitimate concerns of voters is fuelling populist backlash.

National populism, a term coined by British political scientists Roger Eatwell and Matthew Goodwin, is today found in virtually every Western nation. Its adherents tend to come from similar social classes — disproportionally middle-aged workers without high levels of formal education.

They tilt male but include large numbers of demographically similar women. They swing to the left on economics, supporting strong welfare states, and to the right on culture. 

They are fearful of social and economic change that affects their standard of living and social status, and they organise to resist that change.

Immigration and crime are especially powerful issues with these voters, and sure enough that proved true in Sweden. 

The country took in more asylum seekers per capita than any other country in the European Union during the mid-2010s migrant crisis, and many of those came from Muslim-majority nations with very different cultures from Sweden’s.

Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt of the Moderate Party lost elections in 2014. Governments since, led by Sweden’s Social Democratic Party, have failed to control the ramifications of this surge of immigration, resulting in the toppling this week of Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson.

Crime has also become a real issue in Sweden. The nation has some of the highest homicide and gun violence rates in Europe. Perhaps the most shocking 

development has been the dramatic increase in gang-related bombings.

The four centre-left parties combined to gain vote share in Sweden’s four largest cities and their suburbs, compared with Sweden’s 2018 election.

Their collective gains ranged from 4.6 percentage points in the capital of Stockholm to about half a percentage point in Uppsala County, just north of Stockholm. Together, these areas cast a bit more than a third of the total votes.

But while urban, prosperous Sweden didn’t want to change, the rest of the country certainly did.

Rise of the rightwing

Norrbotten County is a perfect example. This far-northern province is a historic bastion of the left, dominated by working-class miners. Social Democrats and the former Communist Left Party typically took close to 70 per cent of the vote there in the mid-1990s.

 In 2018, these parties plus the centre-left Greens won 62 per cent. This year, however, the left parties won only 57.5 per cent of the county, and the Sweden Democrats soared to more than 20 per cent.

This shift among working-class voters occurred nationwide, overwhelming the left despite its gains in the cities and suburbs. Exit polls show that the Sweden Democrats received almost as many working-class votes as the Social Democrats, the traditional Swedish working-class party. Just as in Britain and the United States, economic stagnation and cultural issues are causing the working class to move to the populist right.

This fact cannot be ignored by any party that wants to govern Sweden — and by extension many other Western countries. Establi­shment centre-left and centre-right parties have tried excluding national populists from power for years. Nothing has dented their rise. National populism will stop growing only when the concerns of its supporters are seriously addressed.

Sweden’s election is just the latest of a decade-long series of wake-up calls for Western elites. Most keep hitting the snooze button hoping the national populist challenge goes away. Time to wake up and face the music or get swept away by an angry rising tide.