On September 9, Sweden went to the polls in an election widely regarded as a barometer of the political mood in Europe. In a country renowned for its liberal economic and social policies, the far-right Sweden Democrats party captured 18% of the seats in the Riksdag. While they won a smaller share of the vote than anticipated, with most experts forecasting that they would win 20-25% of the vote, the Sweden Democrats’ performance was nonetheless a substantial improvement over their previous 14%. Despite their underperformance, the gains the Sweden Democrats made in the election are important because of what they reveal about the state of politics both in Sweden and the rest of Europe.

First, the election demonstrates that rightwing populism still has the momentum in Europe. The 2017 victories of Emmanuel Macron over Marine Le Pen in France and Mark Rutte over Geert Wilders in the Netherlands after the dual shocks of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump in the United States were seen as signs that perhaps rightwing populism’s moment in Europe passed. However, the string of successes far-right parties have enjoyed in Austria, Germany, Italy, and now Sweden suggest that the threat these populist parties pose to the existing political order has not faded. The fact that the far-right found success in a country as liberal and open as Sweden proves that no country in Europe is immune from the tide of far-right populism that has afflicted countries across the continent.

Furthermore, these results highlight the continued decline of traditionally dominant political parties in Europe. For generations, the Social Democrats and the (center-right) Moderates dominated Swedish politics, but in this past election the Social Democrats suffered their worst performance since 1911. Across Europe support for traditional political parties has dramatically declined as voters grow increasingly unhappy with the status quo and spurn these parties in favor of new or radical parties. We saw this in France, where voters rejected the Republicans and the Socialists in favor of Macron’s new En Marche! and Le Pen’s National Front, and Germany when in 2017 the Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU) and Social Democratic Party (SDP) had their worst result at the polls since 1949.    

So what happens next? In the short term, it will likely take a while for a government to form in Sweden. Since neither the Alliance or the Social Democrats won an outright majority (they each won roughly 40%) one of these parties will have to cobble together a coalition, or try ruling through a minority government. Prior to the election both parties ruled out forming a “grand coalition” of the sorts that Germany currently has between the CDU/CSU and SPD and forming a coalition with the Sweden Democrats, making this task easier said than done. In the medium to long term, we should expect populist parties to continue to perform well at the ballot box and for traditional, more centrist parties to see their share of the electorate decline. This shift and the general fragmentation of European politics will in turn lead to greater political turmoil and less policy consistency between successive governments, creating a far more unpredictable policy environment.

Gregory Kist
Gregory Kist

Gregory Kist is a project consultant in APCO Worldwide’s Washington-based public affairs practice and assists clients with a range of international and domestic policy challenges. Read More