No winners in Swedish elections

The success of Sweden Democrats in the 2019 elections was enough to ensure a major seat at the table in coalition talks. Rather than a sign of right-wing fervor, the growing support for the party shows that many Swedes are simply concerned about the country’s future.

A voter casting a ballot during Sweden’s general election on September 9, 2018
Support on election day for Sweden’s governing Social Democrats was at its lowest in a century, while the nationalist Sweden Democrats saw gains. © dpa

In a nutshell

  • The Sweden Democrats did not perform as well as they had hoped, but their success shows dissatisfaction with the direction of the country
  • The civil service has been politicized, while the quality of education, healthcare, and emergency services is declining
  • The government has been out of step with many voters on social issues, and seems unable to deal with the country’s fiscal and structural problems

Sweden’s national elections on September 9 lived up to the expectation of producing no clear winners. The established parties may rejoice that the Sweden Democrats (SD), branded as a right-wing populist party, failed to live up to predictions of becoming the largest or even the second-largest party. Yet, having won close to 18 percent of the vote, the SD may take grim satisfaction in the fact that no government except a very grand coalition may be formed without its consent.

The outcome is chaos and confusion, and the outlook is somber. With the economy expected to sour and the migration crisis set to deteriorate even further, the future belongs to the SD – with serious implications for political stability, the cohesion of Swedish society and the performance of the economy.

It is tempting to turn to the migration crisis for an explanation. Sweden has been extreme in welcoming migrants. During the peak year of 2015, it accepted three times more migrants per capita than Germany, with the government warning about a pending system collapse. But this story fails to explain how the Swedish migration crisis could have become so acute.

Rule of law

It is striking that many of those who voted for the SD claim that they did so because the other parties needed a bloody nose. Many of those voters were not angry, blue-collar men concerned about their station in life, but rather the upper reaches of society – people who are living comfortably but are deeply concerned about the future of the country. Many of those who have financed and coached the SD leadership likely also represent financial interests and big business.

The fundamental problem that has driven many of these people to support the SD can be defined as the increasingly negative impact of political activism on democratic governance, accountability and the foundations of the rule of law. A new generation of postmodern political activists, who believe their own personal morals stand above the law, is now proliferating. They have been allowed to burrow deep into the corridors of power, and they have brought their political agendas with them.

The erosion in the quality of governance has been driven by an increasingly aggressive policy of moral shaming.

The implication is that the traditional cadre of politically-neutral civil servants is being replaced by one recruited and judged based on political zeal rather than merit. This serves to undermine meritocracy and leads to a decline in the quality – and sometimes even the lawfulness – of governance. Examples range from individuals shielding illegal migrants to local authorities defying a prohibition on using public funds to support migrants whose asylum applications have been lawfully denied.

This erosion in the quality of democratic governance has been accompanied, and indeed driven by, an increasingly aggressive policy of moral shaming. Any form of critique against the agenda of welcoming refugees has been branded as racism. Public service media outlets have abandoned their commitment to impartial journalism, to instead select their reporting based on whether the news in question might be helpful to the SD. Taboos have been especially strong over the suggestion of links between ethnicity and crime. It would be no exaggeration to say that the freedom of speech is under siege.

These forms of intimidation have also served to hamper the orderly implementation of government policy, as agency officials have shied from doing their duties. Legal property owners have found it very difficult to get support from authorities in evicting migrant squatters, who are supported by aggressive activists. Police officers have been frustrated in undertaking identity checks to ferret out illegal migrants and have even been assaulted. Officials seeking to implement legal deportation orders have been blocked by activists, sharply raising the costs of deporting illegal migrants and making a sham out of the asylum-seeking process.

Activist overreach

The impact of the migration crisis is best understood as catalyzing the already-mounting anger and frustration over an activist agenda that is seriously out of step with broad sections of the population.

Priding itself on being the first feminist government, the administration of Prime Minister Stefan Lofven has pursued an agenda based on gender issues, ranging from LGBT rights to the introduction of a third legal gender for nonbinary persons. The government has also directed that preschools be gender neutral, proposed a ban on referring to children as “boys” and “girls,” and called for small children to be sensitized to the fact that gender is a social construction and that they have a right to sex reassignment.

Sweden Democrat party leader Jimmie Akesson speaks at an election rally with protestors gathered behind him
Jimmie Akesson, leader of the Sweden Democrats, has attracted fervent supporters and opponents alike. The party won nearly 18 percent of the vote in September 9 elections. © dpa

Meanwhile, the very same feminist government has underwritten a flow of resources to Islamist causes bent on suppressing women’s rights. For fear of being branded as Islamophobic, the government has turned a blind eye to polygamy, child marriages, honor killings and genital mutilation. It has shown little interest in preventing foreign financing for mosques in which imams practice hate speech against non-Muslims and promote parallel societies where followers are discouraged from having any interaction with Swedish society.

Items on this agenda of feminist Islamism have included accepting parental demands that little girls wear hijab in preschools and branding any critique against honor killings as Islamophobic. In one controversial court case, a Swedish judge acquitted a man who had been accused of beating his wife. The official verdict was that the woman, who had married the man under Sharia law, should have taken her complaints to the husband’s family instead of the police.

Numerous politicians from the Green, Center, and Social Democrat parties have been forced to resign over links to organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood and the Turkish Grey Wolves, raising the question of how many have not yet been caught. Days before the election, a Green representative was caught on hidden camera offering a deal to the local conservative party: in return for help with a permit to build a mosque, he could get the local imam to deliver 3,000 votes.

Voter concerns

The core problem may be seen as an increasing scope for activists to turn their agendas of “imposed modernity” into public policy. Much more than the migration crisis as such, this concerns the cohesion of Swedish society and the performance of the Swedish economy. While there is much media drama in speculating about the political landscape, the fundamental question must be whether the political system will be able to address and resolve the country’s real problems. Three, in particular, stand out: education, healthcare and law and order.

The Swedish school system has been on a downward trajectory for so long that the negative results are becoming noticeable even among university entrants. Having long been in denial, authorities were shocked when PISA results showed Swedish 15-year-olds slipping far below the average of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). In neighboring Finland and Estonia, students score at the very top. The implications for a high-tech, knowledge-based economy are serious indeed.

The healthcare crisis is equally worrisome. For a country that prides itself on being one of the richest in the world, it is embarrassing to find that the number of hospital beds per capita is tumbling to the lower end of the European Union and to hear that people suffering from treatable cancers are dying because the lines to receive treatment are too long.

The migration crisis has catalyzed the already-mounting anger and frustration over an activist agenda.

Law and order, finally, comes at the top of what citizens claim to be the most worried about. The number of police officers per capita has fallen to levels where, in large areas of what is a sparsely populated country, getting help in an emergency is a pipe dream. As expressed by the leader of the Christian Democrats, Ebba Busch Thor, in a recent political debate: “It is quicker to have a Capricciosa pizza delivered than to have the police come.”

There has been a surge in gangland killings, gang rapes and car burnings. Larger cities feature no-go zones where first responders will not enter without police protection. In mid-August, the election season was opened with a coordinated attack in which over 100 vehicles were set ablaze in several cities in western Sweden at around the same time. It was a defiant provocation.

The migration crisis has exacerbated all these trends by increasing the burden on schools and healthcare and by feeding large numbers of angry young migrant men into the gangland. But the root of the nation’s problems goes back to the role of political activism in setting the agendas of “imposed modernity.” It was this factor that made the migration crisis so extreme, and that will make ambitions to fix other issues so difficult.

Structural problems

During the election season, all political parties competed in issuing promises of lavish increases in funding to massively increase the number of teachers, nurses and police officers. Yet, the problem is not that there is a shortage of these professionals – it is that more and more of them are seeking alternative employment, and with good reason.

Swedish schools are seeing the results of decades of political activism that has undermined the importance of learning and degraded the role and authority of teachers. It has become impossible to ensure quiet and order at school, and the word “jungle” is increasingly used to describe classrooms in some of the worst areas.

The attraction of the teaching profession has dropped to the point where new students are being admitted to training colleges with such poor high school grades that it is questionable what they will be able to teach. And the prospects for improvement are dimmed by the fact that for decades, teachers at those colleges have been recruited through policies that favored those committed to the activist agenda.

The mounting challenge from populist parties may be viewed as a process of Schumpeterian “creative destruction”.

The Swedish police force has been similarly demoralized by politically correct activism that undermines its authority and indirectly supports the formation of parallel societies. As frustrated police officers are leaving the corps at a higher rate than replacements can be brought in, the total numbers are dropping. And as experienced officers are replaced by young entrants, the professionalism is falling even faster. Despite having lowered entrance requirements to below-average intelligence, the police academy already has trouble attracting applicants.

The mounting challenge from populist parties may be viewed as a process of Schumpeterian “creative destruction:” ossified political structures are exposed and destroyed to make room for healthier initiatives, ones that are responsive to citizen concerns and the long-term needs of the economy.

In the Swedish case, it is easy to see the destruction but hard to envision the creation. Tremendous damage is being done to social trust, to what Adam Smith once referred to as the “vast fabric of human society.” The outpouring of sheer hatred that accompanied the various dirty tricks during the election campaign has been deeply distressing to watch.

The next general election will be marked by the toxicity of public discourse. With even more polarization and an even greater surge of parties on the extremes, it is hard to envision the emergence of dispassionate political forces capable of addressing the very real fiscal and structural problems that will be clear once the current economic boom is over. Blaming “populism” for the current mess is little more than a convenient way of covering up the inability of the established parties to act.

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