09 Sep

Not for the faint of heart

Today is election day in Sweden. Commentators in Sweden and abroad talk about only one thing: the Sverigedemokraterna (Sweden Democrats), a radical right populist party that is doing very well in the polls. Yet, most of the conversation seems to miss rising economic inequality as a major structural cause underlying support for the radical right, and consequently fails to take seriously the concerns Sverigedemokraterna electorate may have.

Will the Sverigedemokraterna become the largest party in Sweden? The best prediction we have: probably not. Although polls are not perfect, several recent polls independently estimate that the Sverigedemokraterna will win about 18% of the votes, with an error margin of about 2%. They may gain a so-called curtain bonus (people are hesitant to say they will vote for the Sverigedemokraterna to pollsters, but will do so behind the curtain of the voting booth), but are pretty far behind the largest party in the polls (the Social Democratic Party, at around 25%). Yet, of course, we all remember the polls predicting Hillary Clinton to win the presidential election …

At the very least, it does seem safe to say that the radical right will become an (even more) influential faction in Swedish politics. Having played only a marginal role in the years after their foundation in 1988, the Sverigedemokraterna won 3% of the votes in the national parliamentary elections in 2006, about 7% in 2010, and 13% in 2014. Polls suggest their support has been growing since, with a particularly marked rise during the 2015 refugee crisis. Tonight or tomorrow we will know how much they will have grown in 2018.

There is resistance, as is to be expected. In its most basic form, most people plan to vote for different parties, and most parties pledged they will not form a coalition with Sverigedemokraterna. Other forms of resistance, based on what I have seen and heard in Stockholm, include besmirching posters of the Sverigedemokraterna with swastikas and (what looks like) excrement, linking them to their roots of self-identification with the Nazi’s, calls for a ban on demonstrations for related (and far-right) groups, and semi-serious advertisements to remind voters to go and vote Sverigedemokraterna on Monday – the day after election day. I know these things happen in all elections, but I think it is an affront to the intelligence of all voters, including those voting for the Sverigedemokraterna. Stigmatizing people who vote for Sverigedemokraterna does not take seriously their political concerns and challenges in life.

A major driving force behind the growing support for the Sverigedemokraterna is rising economic inequality. That’s right: inequality, not immigration. Even though concerns about immigration are often cited by people voting for Sverigedemokraterna, this cannot explain why support for this party has been rising specifically during the last decade. Sweden has a tradition of welcoming refugees and other immigrants that goes back a long time, and previously that did not lead to support for the radical right. A recent study (not yet peer-reviewed) indeed showed that a rise of inequality in Swedish municipalities, and not the number of immigrants, explained rising support for Sverigedemokraterna.

Inequality is rising profoundly in Sweden. In fact, of all the rich countries in the OECD, economic inequality was rising fastest in Sweden. And people are saying they struggle. They have difficulties finding affordable public housing. The social safety net is gone. For many, their pension is too low. No wonder that populists can convince voters that immigrants occupy ‘our’ houses, plunder ‘our’ safety net, and that ‘we’ have to choose between immigrants or pensions. No wonder, but in fact these concern have to do with politics – little with immigration. Public housing agencies made huge profits by selling substantial parts of their housing stock in the private market. The center-right government of 2006 substantially reduced levels of unemployment benefits, made it so that fewer people qualify for unemployment benefits, and gave tax benefits to the working. Intentionally, this government increased the income differences between working ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’ without a (secure) job. Poverty among pensioners is rising indeed, which is a direct result of pension privatization led (in important parts) by the social democrats in 1998. However, as pension rights accumulate over decades, the consequences of this pension reform are only now becoming apparent. These are just examples in the areas of housing, unemployment benefits, and pensions, but all took place long before the 2015 immigrant crisis that lent support to the Sverigedemokraterna.

Democracy is not for the faint of heart. Many voters, as well as the established parties vehemently disagree with the Sverigedemokraterna. And that is legitimate. Yet, no matter how strongly one disagrees with the solutions proposed by the Sverigedemokraterna, the problems faced by their electorate are real and should be taken seriously. Many face an insecure future and have difficulties to make ends meet, which in part is the direct result of political decisions made by the establishment. If the establishment does not listen, they stand to lose far more than today’s elections.

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