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Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party. He runs TRD Policy

The populist surge wasn’t. The Sweden Democrats, the group with neo-nazi origins that the party of Winston Churchill chooses to sit with in the European Parliament, ended up third, far below expectations.

Sweden, which, if the pulp fiction of alt-right YouTubers is to be believed has turned into an anarchic dystopia in which immigrant rapists battle an all-powerful powerful female supremacist state, has resisted the purported populist wave. Swedish voters in fact delivered what Clara Sandelind, a political scientist specialising in populism (and a Swede, to boot!) classifies as a “status quo” election. There was a lot of churn – voters switching parties – but the net result was limited.

Full of sound and fury. Not amounting to a hill of beans.

The big, traditional centre-left and centre-right parties are losing ground, but to their left as well as their right.

The centre-right “Moderate” party lost 14 per cent of its votes to the anti-immigrant SD, but saw 16 per cent of its votes go to the Centre and Liberal Parties (both members of a centre-right bloc). In total the Moderates lost 23 per cent of their votes to parties to their right, and the same amount to those to their left.

The Social Democrats lost 11 per cent to the far-right Sweden Democrats, and seven per cent to the extreme-left “Left” party. In all, they lost 26 per cent to parties on their right (but five per cent of that to liberal, pro-immigration parties), and nine per cent to other left-wing parties.

The result is two equally sized parliamentary blocs, one of which will end up leading a minority government (minority governments are normal in Sweden). This, argues James Savage, editor of the English language Swedish news site The Local is because though the debate outside Sweden was obsessed with the Sweden Democrats, inside it focused on bread and butter issues and which bloc would form a government.

Within each bloc, the small parties now have more weight. Swedish politics are fragmenting, like Dutch politics, and the bloc leaders, the Moderates and Social Democrats, will find it harder to hold the ring.

There are social conservatives and anti-immigrants in Sweden – around a quarter when the Christian Democrats, who play Iain Duncan Smith to the SD’s Farage, are included. But they’re a minority.

They have one (or, as appears to be the case in Sweden for every part of the spectrum) two parties to represent them. But they’ve provoked a reaction, with Swedes voting for the Centre and Left parties who’ve taken a strongly pro-refugee stance in reaction.

The old parties are being nibbled from both directions, as people increasingly see voting as a matter of consumer choice. Just like we choose particular styles of clothing or other aspects of our lifestyle because they reflect the kind of person we want to be seen as, so, we choose our political identities. (This is true even of bohemians who elevate conspicuous non-consumption to a mark of identity, and will be observable to anyone going to the forthcoming Tory and Labour conferences).

But there’s a vital difference. Consumer choices are individual. I buy a suit, you prefer football tickets. Each to our own. Politics is not so much collectively provided, as collectively consumed.

The dimensions of our social identity are getting more diverse, and with them, political choices. A politics based around clear alternating majorities, in which a fairly small and well-defined group of floating voters switch sides, is breaking down. The eight parties in Sweden’s parliament (the smallest of which still has 15 out of 349 seats) represent most combinations of opinion along traditional left-right, liberal-authoritarian and open-closed axes. But a solid majority on a whole programme for government will be difficult to find.

Expect instead more of a permanent negotiation between factions to agree majorities on issues or groups of issues. This is far from the modern Westminster ideal, focused on “throwing the bums out”, but in line with an earlier conception of parliamentary institutions – which were supposed to deliberate, apply reason and give and take to matters of public interest, and be judged on their performance at periodic elections.

Sweden is in some way returning to its ancient democratic roots. This deliberation, not parliamentary parties held in a balance between fear of the whips, greed for office and shame at crossing the floor, is perhaps something we could do with more of here.

51 comments for: Garvan Walshe: Fragmentation, not the far right, is the story of Sweden’s election

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