Election Polarization also grows in Sweden. On the Swedish upcoming elections 2018

Both the Alliance, the Red-Greens and the Sweden Democrats seek to profile themselves as the defenders of the welfare state, against the allegedly anti-welfare policies of the others. This rhetorical scramble has not, however, resulted in any deeper debate on the reach of the welfare state and the scope of solidarity. In Sweden as well as elsewhere, polarization proves a fertile ground for the deployment of alternative facts, fake news and propagandistic hyperbole.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds Baltic Worlds 2-3:2018, p 124
Published on balticworlds.com on augusti 21, 2018

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After a long hot summer, unusual not only for its temperatures but also for its wildfires and an unprecedented Swedish request for emergency assistance from the European Union, Sweden is going to the elections a month from when I’m writhing this on August 9. Swedish parliamentary politics have long been characterized by the relative stability of the balancing between two competing political blocks: the Social Democratic Party and the Green Party, currently in government with support of the Left Party, at one side (referred to as the Red-Greens), and on the other side, the Alliance consisting of four centre-right political parties. While this basic left-right setup still structures political debate in Sweden, the coming elections are marked by ambiguity and uncertainty. A key factor for this is the rise of the nationalistic and social conservative Sweden Democrats, currently the third largest party in the Riksdag and not part of any of the two blocks. According to the latest opinion polls by Inizio in early August 2018, the Alliance receives 39,1 % of the sympathies, while the Red- Greens get 38,4 % and the Sweden Democrats 19 %. Sentio’s latest opinion poll, by contrast, registers only 33,0 % for the Alliance and 37,6 % for the Red-Greens but a record-breaking 25,5 % for the Sweden Democrats. The wide divergence in the polls reflect the present volatility, but also the apparent inability of the two blocks to hold back the advance of the Sweden Democrats, despite their parliamentary isolation. Importantly, both the Moderates and the Social Democrats have been losing voters to the Sweden Democrats, making these former power parties even more dependent upon their minor partners, thus adding to the uncertainty.

On a deeper level, this uncertainty also reflects a growing overall polarization in Swedish society. While it is quite natural for competing narratives to circulate in any complex democratic society, the divergence of these narratives appears to be widening at present, and dramatically so. Alternative media as well as social media channel an image of how Sweden has become a laboratory of “political correctness,” where features such as multiculturalism, feminism  and identity politics have allegedly trumped national welfare policy. According to this narrative, which is well-represented in Sweden Democratic circles but also spreading internationally, long-term migration in general and the Swedish response to the European migrant crisis 2015 more specifically, have brought national security and welfare institutions to the brink of “system failure” (systemkollaps), resulting in hard prioritizations, resource crunch and state rollback. This narrative calls for a national reawakening, centering upon “Swedish” interests, much in line with the rhetoric current in the Brexit campaign and the Trump win in 2016. Established political parties and mainstream media, by contrast, observe that Swedish GDP per capita, GDP growth as well as export rates are still high in European comparison, while public debt and unemployment rates are relatively low. Healthcare and education encounter certain challenges and shortcomings, but the overall quality remains comparatively high. Segregation, housing shortages and rising crime (if not as high as during the crisis years of the 1990s) are reported, but more as challenges for reforms than in terms of alarm.

Both the Alliance, the Red-Greens and the Sweden Democrats seek to profile themselves as the defenders of the welfare state, against the allegedly anti-welfare policies of the others. This rhetorical scramble has not, however, resulted in any deeper debate on the reach of the welfare state and the scope of solidarity. Instead, the crisis narratives of the established parties have tended to focus upon Swedish future vulnerabilities, such as weak emergency preparedness in view of expected climate change — as revealed by the wildfires and the power shortages during the heat wave – and worsening security climate around the Baltic Sea as well as globally as a result of Russia’s regional self-assertion, US President Donald Trump’s threats of global trade war and emerging right-wing populism across the Eurozone. Pundits have warned of the disproportionate influence the Sweden Democrats may gain if the election results match current polls, heralding a development similar to that of Hungary and Poland, where initially minor parties have eventually managed to circumvent block politics and usher in their radical right visions. In Sweden as well as elsewhere, polarization proves a fertile ground for the deployment of alternative facts, fake news and propagandistic hyperbole. This far, however, attempts at influencing the Swedish elections by foreign powers (påverkanskampanjer) have been less prevalent than expected and certainly less evident than in France, the USA and neighboring Baltic states, despite numerous warnings by the authorities and think tanks. But the very expectation of such attempts vouches for the sensitivity on the part of the Swedish public, possibly rendering such efforts unnecessary to achieve the desired effects of uncertainty and insecurity. ≈

  • by Carl Marklund

    PhD in political science and project researcher in “Transnational Art and Heritage Transfer and the Formation of Value: Objects, Agents, and Institutions” at CBEES, Södertörn University.

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