Sweden's mainstream parties may have won, but they should be very afraid of the far right's success
They have failed to convince enough voters that economic efficiency and social justice can still be balanced. In the cliched phrase, too many communities have been left behind and are looking for scapegoats
It is a measure of how dangerously inured to the rise of the far right we have become that the fact that a gang of neo-Nazi populists can command around a fifth of the vote in a national election in Sweden – Sweden! – is regarded as some sort of salvation for democracy. It is no such thing. Yes, the rightist Sweden Democrats might have done even better, and for that every (true) democrat in the world should be thankful, but they are not going to go away.
Moreover, even a few years ago such a state of affairs would have been an unfathomable nightmare. (At best it would have been the stuff of a Stieg Larsson novel about a dysfunctional near-future.) So would actual far-right governments in action today in Italy, Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic; a sizeable and disruptive far-right vote in Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands and Austria, pushing mainstream governments around; and the French Front National winning more than a third of the vote in the final round of the election last year. Only the charismatic appeal of Emmanuel Macron saved the Fifth Republic from the shame and disaster of President Marine Le Pen.
Like Abba, Ikea and Volvo cars, social democracy is virtually synonymous with Sweden, a way of life as much as a political philosophy. The Social Democrats have ruled the country for most of the last century, delivering prosperity and a welfare state – but are now at their lowest ebb since they jettisoned their Marxist roots in 1917.
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Today, like social democrat sister parties in Germany, Italy, France and elsewhere, Sweden’s are failing to keep up with anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, anti-trade, anti-globalisation and anti-EU insurgencies. The mainstream parties in Sweden, and throughout Europe, should be very afraid of the success of the Swedish Democrats.
Only in Britain, where Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party has grafted onto itself a facile populist appeal of its own, has the rout been reversed. Leftist populists have also done comparatively well in Spain and Greece, but with no greater sense that they have workable policies. Somehow European politics has been infantilised.
Most immediately, the rise of the Swedish far right simply makes governing Sweden more difficult. The broad coalitions of parties on the left and right enjoy about 40 per cent of the vote each. That means that either grouping can govern as a minority administration, but by the same token will find it harder to get things done. Radical action in the national interest will be that much harder to push through – substantiating the claims of the extremists that democratic politicians are “weak”.
The other option for Sweden, as has been resorted to again in Germany, is for some kind of “grand coalition” between the established parties of centre left and centre right. This has the obvious advantage of isolating the extremists; but it distorts politics badly. It creates unstable, unhappy governments with not much in common, and can elevate far-right gangsters into the main, official opposition, de facto or de jure. Sooner or later their support may grow to a degree that a claim on power cannot be denied forever. Democracy is weakened: shadows of Weimar haunt Europe’s parliamentary chambers and their systems of proportional representation.
In the circumstances, it is perfectly conceivable that Sweden’s Social Democrat prime minister, Stefan Lofven, could continue in office, or be replaced by his rival from the conservative side of the divide. Either way, each leader would be in office but not so much in power in Stockholm, constantly challenged by the populists.
The mainstream Swedish parties, as with their sister and brother parties throughout the continent, must decide what to do about this insurgency – the real crisis in European democracy. Do they, as some have already, change their policies and language to appease the far right? Do they, as in Sweden, abandon a previously liberal and generous attitude towards refugees and other migrants? Does that not mean that the far right have got their way and won?
It does. It is appeasement of the worst kind – because it doesn’t stop the rise of the right in any case, and may legitimise it. It would be much better, as President Macron suggests, for Europe to be able to control its own borders more convincingly, even with a generous and humanitarian approach to refugees from civil war in Syria and elsewhere. The European Union has failed to convince its own peoples that it can make its external borders secure, a basic problem exacerbated by sensationalist media campaigns.
The EU, as its best friends should acknowledge, has also failed nations such as Greece, Italy and Malta, who have found themselves dealing with the immediate impact of the crisis. Instead it merely throws austerity at them. Even Mr Macron seems unwilling to honour his pledges to take a fair share of migrants from Italy. The voters look upon this and form their own conclusions. They rarely hear the argument that immigration can support public services, repair disastrous demographic trends, boost economic growth, fix labour shortages and revitalise an economy.
Defusing, therefore, the refugee crisis with practical measures and greater European solidarity would do something to blunt the appeal of the far right. But populism is about more than immigration.
Decades of globalisation have produced its discontents, and the casualties of the financial crisis of a decade ago are still limping around. The mainstream parties have failed to convince enough voters that economic efficiency and social justice can still be balanced. In the cliched phrase, too many communities have been left behind and are looking for scapegoats, for someone or something to blame – imports, immigrants, “corrupt career politicians”. To them, the language of social democracy sounds too often complacent and that of the “establishment”. Their disillusionment is morphing into a disaffection with democracy itself.
The genius of social democracy, historically, is that it has been the political movement, more than any other, that stood for that essential balance between industrial efficiency and social equity. That is how it made communism and fascism irrelevant: because it worked. If European social democracy is not to endure a long painful demise, it will need to rediscover that old talent for protecting the people. If they feel they have been abandoned, we know only too well what can flow from that sense of alienation. Sweden, and Europe, has been warned, and not for the first time.
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