As a result of the disruptive parliamentary tactics of an anti-immigrant, rightwing populist party, Sweden will go to the polls in March for its first snap general election since 1958. This should be a wake-up call for Europe. Slick and strident anti-establishment parties are no longer mere protest movements but are generating instability even in countries with a solid record of prosperity and corruption-free politics.
True, the collapse of the two-month-old, Social Democrat-led government of Stefan Löfven, prime minister, gives no grounds for fearing that the economy, public finances or successful Swedish model of welfare state capitalism are in crisis. The real problem is that the election may fail to produce a clear-cut result and permit the return of stable government.
Mr Löfven called the election after the populist Sweden Democrats party, breaking with parliamentary tradition, voted with the centre-right opposition to reject the government’s 2015 budget. The tumult recalls events in the Netherlands in 2012, when the anti-Islamic Freedom Party of Geert Wilders, which had provided parliamentary support for a minority government, triggered a snap election by refusing to back the ruling coalition’s budget.
For conventional parties that face rightwing populist challenges in France, the UK and elsewhere, the lesson should be clear. The populists are so focused on their pet grievances — hostility to immigrants, the euro, globalisation — that they will take every opportunity to discredit opponents they despise. They are unreliable partners because their outsider status is a core element of their appeal.
Voters will not necessarily reward them for bringing down a government. In the 2012 Dutch election, Mr Wilders’s mischievous tactics backfired. The Freedom Party lost 5 percentage points of support and dropped to 15 from 24 seats in parliament.
Unfortunately, it is by no means clear that the Sweden Democrats will suffer the same fate in March. According to opinion polls published after the government’s fall, support for the Sweden Democrats has edged up to 13.5 per cent from 12.9 per cent in the September general election. Mr Löfven’s Social Democrats and their allies are running neck and neck with the centre-right opposition, an indication that the rightwing populists may hold the balance of power in the next parliament just as they do in the outgoing legislature.
Were this to happen, the Social Democrats should consider uniting in a grand coalition, similar to that which rules Germany, with the centre-right Moderate party, which held power for eight consecutive years after 2006. Failing that, the two big parties should find ways to co-operate in parliament, such that one or the other can form a government with its smaller allies.
However, the priority now must be to expose the Sweden Democrats as a party with a reckless approach and an array of intolerant, socially divisive policies wholly out of keeping with Swedish political culture. The main parties need not be scared by the Sweden Democrats’ threat to make the election campaign “a referendum for or against increased immigration”.
The Sweden Democrats abandoned their neo-Nazi doctrines more than
10 years ago, making it inaccurate to label them a far-right party, but most Swedes correctly regard the party’s aggressive line on immigration as unpalatable. The more intensely the party dwells on immigration, the more remote its chances of making an electoral breakthrough. Come March, Swedish voters can show the world that the tide of rightwing European populism is anything but unstoppable.
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