Tino Sanandaji, UnHerd, May 31, 2018
Sweden will head to the polls on September 9th. The pre-election polls predict that this will be a watershed election for Swedes, perhaps the first since 1917 where the Social Democratic Party does not finish first. The reason this might happen, though, is familiar to anyone following politics in the West. Blue-collar voters, who have traditionally voted for the centre-left, are leaving the party over its views on immigration.
Social Democratic dominance of Swedish politics has long rested on the working-class. The Social Democrats have averaged over 42% of the total vote since the introduction of universal suffrage in 1921, and often some two-thirds of the blue-collar vote. Their strength in industrial regions and among working-class voters has allowed the Social Democratic Workers’ Party to form the government in 80 of the 101 years since the introduction of democracy, often ruling alone. The party’s hegemony was so psychologically entrenched that former Social Democratic minister Marita Ulvskog remarked that the 1976 loss following 44 years on uninterrupted rule “felt like a coup d’état”.
This background is essential in understanding the political earthquake Sweden is currently experiencing. Even if the Social Democrats do finish first, polls predict they may “win” with only 23 to 26% of the vote, their worst result for over a century.
This is all the more striking given that the government has benefited from a favourable business cycle, with declining unemployment and a budget surplus. Sweden has experienced a credit boom with low interest rates, solid wage growth and declining unemployment, as well as benefiting from the global recovery with rising exports. This would normally guarantee re-election, but for the first time in Swedish electoral history, it is immigration and crime that top voter concerns. And Swedes are not happy with the Social Democratic record on those issues.
Only 27% of Swedes believe the country is heading in the right direction, while 50% think that it is going in the wrong direction.1 Other surveys confirm widespread discontent, which tends to be higher outside major cities.2
The crisis of the Swedish Left has not been driven by a rise in support for the traditional centre-right block. The pro-market Moderate party – Sweden’s equivalent of America’s Republicans or Britain’s Tories – has recovered in the polls but only after abandoning its previous pro-immigration stance and moving toward the right on migration issues. Despite this, polls show it likely to receive only 21 to 24% of the vote, about what it received in the last elections in 2014. Overall, however, the centre-right so-called “Alliance” is weak and disunited, with the Centre Party moving so far to the left on migration that many speculate that they may join the Social Democratic block.
The cause of this shake-up is a new third block, driven by the anti-immigration and socially conservative Sweden Democrats, with historic roots tainted by xenophobia. Defying the historic stability of the Swedish party system, the Sweden Democrats have roughly doubled their vote share in each election since 2002, when they scored little more than 1%. The average of recent polls puts them around 19 to 23%. In fact, this may be an underestimate, since polls have in the past significantly undercounted their vote share.
The rise of populist and anti-establishment sentiment has invited comparisons with Donald Trump’s success – he won despite performing poorly in coastal cities by winning rural voters and blue-collar voters in areas hit by economic deterioration.
At the core of it, shifting Swedish politics is simple, and has little to do with either deindustrialisation, racist deplorables or bitter clingers – however emotionally appealing it is for progressives to blame these factors. Sweden’s highly generous refugee policy never had majority support among voters, including Social Democratic voters. Blue-collar voters who dared to express even mild protest were bullied and branded as hateful or ignorant by their own party. The only outlet for that built-up resentment has been the Sweden Democrats, and while in the run up to the election the Social Democrats have moved sharply to the Right on migration and crime issues, the mistakes of the past years may prove difficult to repair for this once invincible party.