Sweden: Polling Shows Populist Surge As Election Approaches

With the Swedish general election taking place on 9 September opinion polls show the populist, anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats gaining ground. Polling undertaken in June put the Sweden Democrats leading the field ahead of both the centre-left Social Democrats and the centre-right Moderate Party. The Sweden Democrats rating in recent polls has ranged between 20-26%. The Sweden Democrats have previously polled particularly well amongst younger voters. The most recent polling from late June has the Sweden Democrats leading across a range of age groups. The only exception to this is the 65+ category where the Social Democrats are the most popular party.


The Sweden Democrats which was founded in 1988 has its roots in the in the Swedish ultra-nationalist and neo-Nazi tradition. Jimmie Akesson, who became the Sweden Democrat’s party leader in 2005, has sought to change the party’s image, remove some of the more obviously hard line elements, and to strengthen its election fighting capacity.


The Sweden Democrats, during the first decade of their existence contested a series of elections with gaining representation in parliament. An electoral breakthrough for the Swedish Democrats came in the 2010 elections when it gained 5.7% and 20 seats. In the 2014 elections the Sweden Democrats share of the vote more than doubled to 12.9% and 49 seats. Opposition to immigration and law and order were the key policy and campaigning positions on which these electoral advances by the Sweden Democrats were built. The migrant crisis in the summer/autumn of 2015 saw a rise in support for the Sweden Democrats. A poll in August 2015 put the Sweden Democrats as the highest rated party for the first time. Although the support for Sweden Democrats subsequently fell back it remained one of Sweden’s leading political parties. The latest advances by the Sweden Democrats. in the Spring/Summer 2018, demonstrates the party’s capacity to continue to gain votes even outside a period of immediate crisis.


The arrival of the Sweden Democrats in parliamentary politics posed a significant challenge to the established parties. Their initial response, after the 2010 election, was to seek to ignore the presence of the Swedish Democrats and to avoid any form of parliamentary co-operation. At an early stage though some MPs questioned whether such a policy could be sustained in the longer term. Fredrik Reinfeldt, the Prime Minister and leader of the centre=right Moderate Party, also continued to support a liberal policy on migration. During the 2014 parliamentary Reinfeldt urged voters to ‘open their hearts’ to migrants. At the start of the migrant crisis in the summer of 2015 leaders and activists from the established parties organised rallies in support of newly arrived migrants. The increased support for the Sweden Democrats in this period, however, demonstrated divergence between the political leadership of the mainstream parties, and a significant element of public opinion in Sweden.


In the aftermath of that year’s migration crisis the policy of isolating the Sweden Democrats began to come under strain. Fredrik Reinfeldt had following his defeat in the previous year’s elections been succeeded in January 2015 by Anna Kinberg Batra as leader of the Moderate Party. In January 2017 Kinberg Batra suggested that the Moderate Party could work with the Sweden Democrats against the Social Democrat led government. This prompted an uprising against her leadership amongst Moderate Party regional officials and activists. Public support for the Moderate Party fell to around 15%. On 25 August Anna Kinberg Batra resigned as Moderate Party leader.


Ulf Kristersson took over as Moderate leader in October 2017. Krstersson has sought to consolidate the Moderate Party vote by hardening its line on immigration. At the same time he has emphasised core Moderate Party issues such as the free-market and low taxation. Kristersson has stated that he would be to work with the Sweden Democrats as part of a broad cross-party move to develop a common policy on immigration. Kristersson has also, however, sharply attacked the Sweden Democrats following Jimmie Akesson’s recent suggestion that Sweden could hold a referendum on EU membership. Kristersson has stated that such a move would be likely to lead to political instability.

The polls show that Kristersson has had some success in restoring the Moderate Party’s position following its slump in support in 2017. Recent polling puts support for the Moderate Party at between 17 and 22%. This is still, however, below the 23.3% which they secured in the general elections in September 2014, which they lost.


The biggest loser amongst the mainstream parties according to recent polling is, however, the Social Democrats led by Stefan Lofven, the current Swedish Prime Minister. The Social Democrats have been the leading political party through most of Sweden’s recent political history. Current opinion polling puts the Social Democrats on between 22-24% of the vote. This compares to the 31% gained by the Social Democrats in the September 2014 elections. The Social Democrats would appear, as the incumbent government, to be losing votes on account of its failures, in the eyes of a section of the electorate over the issues of immigration and crime. These voters who are departing from the Social Democrats seem to be joining the Sweden Democrats in significant numbers, with some also going to the Left Party. A debate involving Swedish party leaders on 8 May showed Jimmie Akesson receiving the highest rating in discussion of these issues.


Governments in Sweden are traditionally formed by centre-left and centre-right coalitions. The advances made by the Swedish Democrats may, however, act to prevent the formation of such a coalition government. The current administration is a coalition between the Social Democrats and the Greens which is supported from outside the government by the Left party. This coalition was when it was formed considered to be weak in terms of the support it could rely on in parliament. Current polling, however, shows falling support for both the Social Democrats and their Green Party allies, although there has been some increase in support for the Left Party. This would make it unlikely that such a coalition could be replicated after the forthcoming election. Centre-Right governments in Sweden are formed by an alliance of parties consisting of the Moderate Party, the Centre Party, the Liberals, and the Christian Democrats. With the Moderates still in the process of regaining ground after its mid-term slump, and the Christian Democrats hovering around the 4% electoral threshold it may also be a challenge to form a centre-right coalition. If the mainstream parties maintain their policy of not doing deals with the Sweden Democrats than Sweden may face the prospect of a period of political dead lock. An alternative possible left-right coalition of established parties might in the long-run further enhance the Sweden Democrats outside party status and appeal.


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