Sweden’s Centrists Can Celebrate, But Not Too Hard

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Deciding what to make of European election results these days is a glass half empty – glass half full exercise. Sunday’s election in Sweden is yet another case in point, with some striking similarities to the vote that took place last year in another bastion of European progressivism, the Netherlands.

A pessimist will grumble that the Social Democrats, whose leader Stefan Lofven has served as prime minister for the last four years, have performed worse than ever in their history; the last time they did anything like as badly as their current 28.4 percent result was in 1911, when they garnered 28.5 percent of the vote. The Sweden Democrats, a nationalist party with neo-Nazi roots that once had a platform calling for the forced deportation of all immigrants, including those already granted citizenship, by contrast, achieved its greatest electoral success; having started out with 0.4 percent of the vote in 1998, it won 17.6 percent on Sunday.

The dynamics, the pessimist would argue, are sinister. It’s easy for an anti-establishment party to keep the spotlight on immigration because the Social Democrat-led government deliberately doesn’t publish statistics on immigrant crime; blowing up a few episodes on social media can create the impression that Sweden is turning into a playground for gangs of foreign-born scofflaws. That, of course, increases the chances that the Sweden Democrats’ uninterrupted rise will eventually lead them to the top spot among Sweden’s parties – and then it’ll be harder to keep them out of government.

An optimist could counter that while the Social Democrats did suffer a setback, the other leading centrist party, the Moderates, did reasonably well. Its 19.8 percent result isn’t stellar for recent times, but it’s close to the party’s historical median showing of 21.3 percent. That shows the center is still strong in Swedish politics. If one adds in smaller parties, then almost three-quarters of Swedes vote for centrists of all stripes.

The dynamics, the optimist would maintain, are actually rather calming. Sweden, population 10 million, has received 600,000 immigrants in the last five years, many of them in the unruly wave of 2015 and 2016. If this is all the Sweden Democrats can do with this momentous, highly visible influx, which has recently shown signs of subsiding, then Sweden is xenophobia-resistant enough to make far right dominance dreams unrealistic. The Sweden Democrats have no obvious right to government portfolios, and it’s possible that they’ve blown the biggest chance history was ever going to give them.

Both the pessimist and the optimist would be half-right. 

An open, progressive, highly tolerant society is, of course, resilient even when faced with challenges. Many voters, particularly in urban centers, feel their neighborhoods are changing for the worse because of an influx of immigrants who have trouble integrating, finding work and avoiding the temptations of petty crime in an affluent society; still, these voters view nationalist populist parties with caution because they know simple solutions won’t work and open hostility is not the answer to integration problems. They’ll threaten to vote nationalist in the run-up to elections, but they often won’t back them at the last moment.

That’s how it was in the Netherlands last year and in Sweden in 2018. In the run-up to the Dutch election, PVV, the anti-immigrant party of Geert Wilders, was solidly in first place in the polls until a month before the election. It ended up a distant second to the center-right VVD of Prime Minister Mark Rutte, the wide gap a nasty surprise for Wilders. Wilders’ PVV has consistently polled lower than its election result ever since. In Sweden, the Sweden Democrats, who were in first place in some polls, performed worse than their poll average, too, while the Moderates did perceptibly better. The protest non-vote is a phenomenon for academics to study, but it’s intuitively understandable as a warning to the responsible mainstream parties to tackle immigration-related issues.

The establishment parties, especially the ones on the right flank, are smart enough not to ignore the signal. In the Netherlands, Rutte gave the worried voters a reason to back him by being tough on immigration without being hysterical. In Sweden, the Moderates’ leader Ulf Kristersson has advocated cutting benefits to create incentives for immigrants to enter the labor market and integrate, and he’s been talking about the need to tackle gang violence. The Moderates have called for resuming the publication of immigrant crime statistics.

Like in the Netherlands last year, the Swedish election has produced a hung parliament. It took the Dutch 208 days to agree on a coalition government, but Rutte managed it and his party still polls first. Kristersson has a somewhat easier path to prime ministership if he accepts the support of the Sweden Democrats in parliament in exchange for policy compromises. 

If Kristersson’s Moderate-led center-right bloc gets to govern with the Sweden Democrats’ backing, it will seek to tighten immigration rules, crack down on crime (the example of neighboring Denmark, which has singled out “ghetto crime” for harsher punishment, is there to study and perhaps follow) and demand that immigrants work harder to integrate, if not assimilate, as the Sweden Democrats demand. If such policies produce visible results, the Sweden Democrats will likely recede into the background, having played their role as a mobilizing threat.

If, on the other hand, a possible center-right government fails to calm voters’ immigration-related fears or if the post-election deadlock somehow ends with Lofven still on top, there’s a good chance the far-right party can keep building on its success and do even better in the next election.

European centrists, including Swedish ones, need credible immigration and integration policies, a proven record of success and the creativity to communicate it so that populists don’t have a clear edge on social media. They’ve heard the warning bells and they have all the necessary tools. Now, it’s a matter of applying them.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European politics and business. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.

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