Sweden is still standing. It is standing even without a clear outcome in last night’s election and despite predictions in the foreign press of the country’s imminent demise—is it the End of Sweden? -- UK and US media insisted on asking (and incorrectly answering themselves). High voter turnout, nearly 85 percent, is hardly a sign of a collapsing society. Nor is a strong economy humming along with widespread consensus across party lines on core tenets of the welfare state.
In Sweden, the final results will not be posted until Wednesday but it is clear that neither the center-left governing coalition nor the center-right Alliance has a majority to form a government. While the UK and US media have focused on the rise of the far-right party, the Sweden Democrats, which gained a historic 17.6 per cent of the vote, the anti-immigrant party did not meet the hyped expectations of twenty percent or higher. Jimmie Åkesson will not be Prime Minister. The far-right has not “conquered” Sweden even though the party’s strong showing does signal important shifts in the social and political landscape. The real power broker for government may actually be Annie Lööf, the leader of the Center Party, and the Liberal Party, two smaller blocs in the center-right Alliance. These parties have explicitly and repeatedly stated that they will not participate in a conservative Alliance government if it includes the Sweden Democrats. Without the Center and Liberal parties, the conservative bloc is not large enough to topple a weakened left-leaning bloc. That said, negotiations are underway with an uncertain outcome.
What was this election about? What was decisive or distinctive? What does it say about Sweden? What does it say about Sweden’s enduring role as a cultural scrim, a screen for others to project onto their fears and fantasies? Why and how did crime and immigration play such a central role? What are some of the broader sociological implications? A full accounting is not possible within these constraints so I highlight a few key points.
Crime and immigration were indeed major concerns in this election, but these serious issues were portrayed in public debate and especially in the foreign press in dubious terms. For example, while some party leaders debated economic or cultural (and essentialist) causes of crime in immigrant neighborhoods, residents’ perspectives were in short supply and politicians and commentators tended to truck in visions of Swedish Dystopia, unsubstantiated claims about parallel societies, and offers to throw money or the military at the problem, even as criminologists tried to counter misinformation with facts and figures on declining crime rate (also see discussion in The Atlantic Magazine). Criminologists will be familiar with this narrative of the immigrant other, racialized and excluded, becoming the stranger, the “suitable enemy” in Nils Christie’s terms, to cast blame on for all of society’s ills and anxieties. The Moderates and Sweden Democrats ran on law and order party platforms and capitalized on this cheap discourse on crime.
Immigration took on heightened significance in the wake of the solidarity crisis in 2015 when Sweden accepted over 160,000 asylum seekers, fleeing the war in Syria, and soon after closed the border with Denmark, a development I analyze in my book Nordic Nationalism and Penal Order: Walling the Welfare State. What I want to highlight here is the centrality of nationalism to the border closing, the apparent reversal of Sweden’s open-door policy to refugees, and the current political landscape.
Nationalistic sentiment and welfare chauvinism (the idea that welfare is only for citizens) is much more mainstream than a focus on the far right party allows-- and leads to a misdiagnosis of social relations and social order in Sweden. The Left Party, which was not part of the current government, was the only political party that campaigned for a more open immigration policy. All others support some degree of restrictions. How was it possible for so many Moderate party voters and Social Democrats to switch parties and vote for the Sweden Democrats as they told voter exit polls last night? It is possible, if we understand that perceived grievances are shared across a larger part of the population than are strictly within the domain of the far right. There is backlash against globalism and migration, which is coupled with nostalgia for a past, hazy but most likely white.
National identity is deeply interwoven in the success of the welfare state and raises questions about belonging and membership—who belong here? Who is deemed worthy? The newly arrived are perceived to be different and drains on the state, taking resources from citizens. As I have written elsewhere, Sweden is living in a bubble, and will do what it takes to preserve that bubble for those on the inside. The election is in a dead heat, not because Sweden is polarized, but because there is so much agreement.
How to cite this blog post (Harvard style)
Barker, V. (2018) Last Night in Sweden. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2018/09/last-night-sweden (Accessed [date]).