Snap elections in Sweden will battle over immigration

Snap elections in Sweden will battle over immigration

Last week the Swedish minority government dissolved the parliament and called the first snap election in over 50 years after their budget proposal was defeated. The crisis is not only the result of a fragmented parliament, but may also signal the beginning of deeper political changes in the Scandinavian social democracy.

It came as a bombshell when Stefan Löfven, Sweden’s Prime Minister since October, announced that his centre-left government is calling new national elections. Löfven blamed the opposition for lacking the will to cooperate, allowing the far-right Sweden Democrats (SD) party to dictate the political agenda. The SD had refused to vote for any proposal not containing major cuts to immigration quotas, and the minority government, to the surprise of everyone, failed to reach an agreement with the opposition conservative block.

The political chaos has sent shockwaves throughout the country and created a frenzy of analysts speculating on the outcome of the elections next March, although it will be impossible to predict how voters will react to these unprecedented developments in national politics.

Far right comes of age

Paralleling the increase in immigration in the traditionally homogenous Nordic countries, anti-immigration policies has for years been a political issue of varying importance, fueling populist parties on the right. In Denmark and Norway, these political forces have become part of the establishment, serving in the Norwegian government and previously constituting a necessary support party for the Danish. In Sweden, the established parties has spent years ignoring the far right, and – according to their supporters – the perceived negative social and economic consequences of large-scale immigration.

They were heavily punished for their alleged ignorance after the national election in September. Campaigning almost exclusively on anti-immigration sentiments, the SD became the country’s third largest party with 13 % of the votes.Their victory was strengthened by a string of crises and scandals among the ruling parties, but the development nevertheless shocked the political establishment and destroyed the traditional balance-of-power between left and right in the Swedish parliament, Riksdagen.

A shift in political foundations?

Swedish commentators have had very different conclusions on who is to gain from the snap elections. Some believe that the SD will win 20% or more; others predicts that voters will punish them for their perceived role in creating chaos, and instead turn to the Social Democrats and Moderaterna (conservatives).

It seems clear that in some way or another, anti-immigration has arrived in national politics to stay. Sweden has been different from its neighbors in this aspect, for two reasons. Up until the rise of the SD, voters skeptical or hostile to immigration had nowhere to go among the national parties. There has also been a conspicuous absence of a public discussion on immigrants and their economic and social consequences, a debate that has been a yearly occurrence in Denmark and Norway.

The surge in support for SD may have come as a shock, but it was not completely unpredictable. Sweden has already taken in more refugees, relative to its population, than any other European country. The authorities predicts that up to 100 000 refugees might arrive in 2015, large numbers of them from Syria. The government has earlier announced that Syrian refugees are likely to gain residency upon arrival, making their policies among the most welcoming in Europe.

At the same time, the Swedish welfare state has already been strained by a struggling economy. The labor market has finally started to show signs of recovering, but the youth unemployment has remained abysmal for years, barely shrinking to 23% in 2014.

No threat to stability

If the Scandinavian experience is anything to go by, recent events will not seriously impact stability or long-term prospects for Sweden. Anti-immigration forces also made headlines in Norway and Denmark when they made their way onto the national arena, but they slowly became accepted while simultaneously losing their most xenophobic parts. Seen from the outside, they today belong securely in the Scandinavian social-democratic tradition, albeit a conservative one.

The background of the Swedish Democrats is far more radical than those of the Norwegian Progress Party or the Danish People’s Party, who were preoccupied with conservative libertarianism, but the SD leadership has worked hard to cleanse the organization of their earlier focus on white supremacy.

The Swedish immigration debate is guaranteed to turn harder and less welcoming in the years to come. The established national parties will ultimately have the choice of negotiating with the SD – giving the face of anti-immigration an explicit role in national politics – or tuning less soft on immigrants themselves, in the hope of winning back voters. Either way it will be bad news for Syrian refugees.

Categories: Europe, Politics

About Author

Havard Bergo

Håvard is a foreign policy analyst who works in Kampala for LPC Consult International, a consulting company that specializes on developing projects in East Africa and Mozambique. He has previously worked with the United Nations in Bangkok and as a project manager for a research project in Montreal. Håvard graduated with an MSc in International Relations from the London School of Economics (LSE).