Sweden: Far-right election gains met with spontaneous mass protests

On September 20, 2010 -- the day after the Swedish general election -- 10,000 people in Stockholm protested against the far-right Swedish Democrats party.

By Johann Sommansson

September 23, 2010 -- The counting of votes in the September 19 Swedish parliamentary elections sent out shock waves. The far right made its parliamentary debut, and for the first time in modern Swedish political history an incumbent non-Social Democrats government has been able to win a national election. As such, the process of dismantling the Swedish welfare state is set to continue unabated.

The governing right-wing Alliance emerged as the largest bloc, but failed to retain its majority. With 173 seats, it is two seats short of controlling the assembly on its own. Just 16 votes could have made the difference. Had the Liberal Party obtained another nine votes in one constituency and seven votes in another, it would have won the two remaining seats necessary for the formation of a majority government. The impact of the global financial crisis on Swedish politics has not led to a turn to the left, rather it strengthened the incumbent right wing (perceived as presenting a stronger and more stable leadership).

The Social Democrats, for the first time since the introduction of universal suffrage, contested the polls as part of a pre-electoral coalition. The coalition-building effort wasn't indicative of any profound change in political line, rather it represented a sober understanding that the days when the Social Democrats could win majorities of are long gone. Under the label "Red-Greens", the Social Democrats, the Left Party and the Greens contested the election with the pledge to form a joint coalition gobernment. The Social Democrats obtained 30.7% of the national vote, its lowest figure since 1920. During the campaign, Social Democrats' chairperson Mona Sahlin was frequently attacked by mainstream media. Her leadership will be further criticised in the wake of the debacle. The Green Party reached its highest score ever, 7.3%, but short of some pre-election poll figures that had it passing 10%.

Protest in Malmö, September 20, 2010.

The Left Party received virtually the identical result as in 2006, with an advance of a few thousand votes. But since the total number of voters and voter participation increased, its percentage dropped from 5.8% to 5.6% compared to 2006. The result is consistent with the levels of support the party had throughout the 1980s. The highest figures were recorded in the two northern-most counties, Västerbotten (9.9%) and Norrbotten (9.3%), followed by the two major cities Göteborg (8.6%) and Stockholm (7.4%). In four of the most southern constituencies, the party failed to reach 4%. All in all, the party won 19 parliamentary seats. In the municipal elections (held simultaneously), the Left Party gained a majority of seats in two municipalities, Fagersta and Degerfors (two small towns in the Swedish industrial belt).

But the greatest shock from the elections, which caught the momentary attention of the international press, was the success recorded by the far-right Sweden Democrats party (SD). With some 340,000 votes (5.7%) the SD managed to grab 20 parliamentary seats. The organised far right has never been able to win parliamentary representation before (although a xenophobic, short-lived, populist party won seats in 1991).

Some commentators claim that through these elections Sweden is now a "normal" European country, with a parliamentary far-right populist party. Others point to the fact that the SD's advance had been facilitated by postures from mainstream politicians flirting with the same vote bank. Most notably, the Liberal Party resorted to pre-election statements on immigrants and immigration that, albeit not openly racist, did contain an insinuatory tone towards minorities in Sweden. In the discourse of the Sweden Democrats, Islamophobic arguments became a dominant feature. It has been an ongoing trend (accentuated after 9/11), not just in Sweden but across Western Europe, for far-right parties choose to focus specifically on attacking Muslims rather than immigrants in general. By doing so, they place themselves in a broader framework alongside relatively respected personalities in the public sphere.

Immediately after the election result had been declared, staunch reactions flooded social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook. Appeals for protests began to circulate spontaneously on Facebook. Seventeen-year-old Felicia Margineau launched an Facebook event for a protest in Stockholm. A few hours later 10,000 demonstrators filled the central Sergels Torg, with the chants like "Crush racism, now!" and "No racists on our streets!" echoing across the centre of the capital. Similar protests were held in Göteborg and Malmö the day after the election, with thousands of participants.

The mood within the Left Party is cautiously optimistic regarding the wave of protests against racism, and in the wake of the elections its membership increased by 10% in just one day (800 new members filled in application forms online).

[Johan Sommansson is a freelance writer in Sweden.]