"The winner,” ABBA advised in 1980, “takes it all. The loser has to fall.” But not in Swedish politics, where proportional representation has created a smorgasbord of parties and has now contributed to a crisis of democracy.
Why should Americans care about Sweden, one of the many faraway countries of which we know little? Because where the Swedes go, Europe follows. Lightly burdened by war guilt, Sweden was the first European state to declare itself the moral monitor of the world. Sweden’s folkhem, or “people’s home,” was the gold standard of welfare states; it was also the first to run out of money. In the ’70s, Sweden pioneered the anti-Zionism that has become the only coherent element in the EU’s foreign policy. Today Malmö, Sweden’s third-largest city, is becoming the first city in postwar Europe to expel its Jewish minority through mob violence. And last week, Swedish democracy broke down. The causes of the breakdown can be seen in every European state. As ever, Sweden leads the way.
After last September’s election, Sweden ended up with a minority government, a “red-green” coalition of socialists and environmentalists. On December 2, its leader, Stefan Löfven, presented his budget for 2015. The Riksdag, the Swedish parliament, voted it down. The failure of the budget was a drama. The crisis came when the Alliance group of right-wing parties proposed its own budget. The Alliance does not have enough seats to form a government. But its budget passed with the support of the Sweden Democrats, a new party that is outside the Alliance. Humiliated, Löfven has called a snap election, Sweden’s first since 1958.
Until last week, the Alliance, like the left-wing parties, had reviled the Sweden Democrats as racists and a threat to democracy. It is true that, like all of Europe’s “New Right” parties, the Sweden Democrats have an unsavory prehistory of racism and neofascism. It is also true that, like the other “New Right” parties, the Sweden Democrats have purged their platform and leadership of these associations. Still, they remain a party of ethnic grievance. Like France’s National Front or the U.K. Independence party (UKIP), they’ve made immigration their biggest issue. Their sudden surge into parliament shows how their grievances have become mainstream in Europe. In 2014, by winning 12.9 percent of the vote and 14 percent of the seats, the Sweden Democrats became the Riksdag’s third-largest party. Neither of the coalitions wanted anything to do with them. They still don’t—but after last week, they may have to deal with them.
Sweden has led the way in Euro-pean immigration, and Muslim immigration in particular. Some 20 percent of Sweden’s 9.5 million people are immigrants or the children of immigrants: the highest figure in Europe. Most European states were until recently monocultural. They have trouble assimilating immigrants, especially rural Muslims who wish to keep their cultural and religious identity. Sweden has applied the noblest of ideals—shelter to the oppressed—with the narrowness of mind that can happen when you live in a small society on the quiet side of the Baltic. The state has failed to assimilate its immigrants. Ordinary Swedes, both indigenous and immigrant, have paid the social cost. In a May 2014 poll, 44 percent of respond-ents wanted the new government to reduce immigration.
Nigel Farage of UKIP likes to be photographed holding a frothing pint of bitter and a cigarette. Jimmie Åkesson of the Sweden Democrats looks like a ’50s rocker. He longs for the days when the welfare state was strong and society coherent. It turns out that plenty of Swedes feel the same. Last week, the comments sections of Swedish press websites abounded in conversions from both left and right. All said the same thing: Mass immigration has dissolved Sweden’s social cohesion and overburdened the welfare system. The established parties are too cowardly or corrupt to stop the rot. The Sweden Democrats are not; and so, holding his or her nose, the voter backed them.
Before this week’s budget vote, the Sweden Democrats had conditioned their participation in the Alliance on a 90 percent reduction in immigration. Löfven’s coalition, by contrast, recently announced its intent to accept 100,000 Iraqi refugees. The forthcoming election will be a referendum on immigration, and the related question of the EU. Like Britain, Sweden is an EU member that has retained its currency. It has not, though, retained control over its borders.