Until it was over and almost all the results counted, the Swedish election was being painted in morbidly bleak tones. Its most emotive talking points – immigration, integration, identity, religion – were said to continue a familiar European theme that showed the continent as increasingly lost. Lost to Enlightenment values and globally focused humanitarianism, to all good sense and to the politics of principle.
Going by that storyline, post-election Sweden would no longer be about Scandi cool so much as Nordic noir. Consider Sweden and the image could no longer be a perfect blend of understated style and functionality (think Ikea and H&M). Instead, it would be an infinitely less desirable morass of insularity and reactionary ideas.
But we should bear in mind that the Swedish election is not a catastrophic example of the unstoppable rise of European populism. The Sweden Democrats, a relatively young far-right party, did gain a significant vote share on Sunday, but not quite as much as was feared and forecast.
It is worth considering that the Sweden Democrats’ political agenda is not that different from the nation’s other, more established parties. What sets them apart is that they shout at a more extreme volume about sensitive issues than centrist politicians.
In 2015, 163,000 migrants entered Sweden, the majority from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. Since then, all the major Swedish political parties have stated plans to tighten immigration controls. However, only the Sweden Democrats argue for a temporary freeze on immigration.
Neither the Sweden Democrats nor any other party seek to cease their country’s active promotion of human rights and generous gifts of foreign aid. The Sweden Democrats, however, wish to offer assistance with one important and revealing caveat.
In the words of the party’s foreign affairs spokesman Markus Wiechel, it advocates for more targeted aid for refugees “close to their own home”. Mr Wiechel also admits that his party wants to end all asylum-seeking in Sweden “as long as we don’t have a conflict zone close to our country”.
Sweden’s governing Social Democrats still won the largest share of the vote, as they did four years ago, albeit with a slightly reduced margin.
What is clear, then, is that Sweden has not become unrecognisable. It is not abandoning the distinctive virtues that led veteran diplomat Pierre Schori back in the 1980s to define Sweden as “the moral superpower”, a model of righteousness compared to the United States and Soviet Union.
That said, the Swedish election does continue a distinctly European narrative, as told via the ballot box over the past two years. Starting with the Brexit referendum in June 2016, electorates in France, the Netherlands, Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovenia, Poland, Germany, Austria and Italy have expressed their anxiety about immigration, cultural cohesion and domestic security.
Voters have, accordingly, offered an attentive ear – and varying levels of support – to politicians who give the appearance of understanding their concerns. As the Sweden Democrats’ parliamentary group leader Mattias Karlsson put it, parties like his act as channels for people’s feelings.
It would be easy to dismiss those feelings as outright bigotry but the voters’ message might be a bit more nuanced.
Call it whatever you like, but a clear message is being sent and it needs to be discussed calmly and rationally. According to the UN world happiness report, the happiest countries are also the most “international” in terms of foreign-born residents as a share of the population.
However, in countries such
as Sweden, fissures in society are beginning to show. This result mirrors several others in Europe recently and the important thing is to understand why voters are so susceptible to the strategies
of the far right.