Sweden Democrats supporters gather to hear party leader Jimmie Åkesson, 2014. Image: Frankie Fouganthin (CC BY-SA 3.0) This Sunday’s national election could mark a dramatic shift in the landscape of Swedish politics. If the polls are accurate, it is unlikely that the traditional blocs on either the left or the right will win a majority. The balance of power might well be in hands of the Sweden Democrats (SD), a neo-nationalist party with an explicitly anti-immigrant platform. Support for the SD has essentially doubled in every election since 2002. In that year, the party earned only 1.4% of the national vote. Recent polls have consistently put the Sweden Democrats over 20%. Thus, on the eve of the 2018 election, it appears likely that the SD is poised to significantly increase its share of the electorate yet again.
While it is true that the SD will make significant gains this year, it is likely that the party is nearing its electoral ceiling. We admit that it may seem premature, even strange, to make predictions about future Swedish elections before all the votes have been cast and counted for the current one. Yet data indicates that there are limits to the SD’s future growth. Of course, a lot can change in four years and, unfortunately, our data sources do not include a crystal ball. Nevertheless, we can look to recent survey data for an idea of what is possible.
In the spring of 2016, we administered an anonymous survey to a random sample of Swedish residents. One of the questions we asked was about the political party that respondents like least. The choices included all eight parties currently in parliament, a feminist party not in parliament, as well as other options. Parties were listed alphabetically (in Swedish) with other options at the bottom. Table 1 reports how the 1107 participants responded.
More than half – approximately 51% – said that they like the Sweden Democrats least. We cannot interpret this to mean that half the sample would never vote for the SD, but we can confidently say that this percentage would prefer to vote for any other party before they would consider voting for the SD. We did not ask respondents to rank the parties, so we do not know what percentage would choose the SD second or third to last.
In table 2, we break this down by the party these respondents report voting for in the 2014 national election. The majority of supporters of most parties like the SD least. All the Feminist Initiative (F!) voters in our sample like the SD least, followed by 89% of Green Party (MP) voters, 75% of Center Party (C) voters, 69% of Left Party (V) voters, 68% of Social Democratic (S) voters, and 58% of Liberal (L) voters.
Sweden is not uniquely immune to racism and nationalism
Do the Sweden Democrats have a ceiling? Of course. Every party has a ceiling, but it is difficult to predict its height. These survey data only allow us to consider voter attitudes, what is often referred to as the demand-side of politics. Any calculation must also include the supply-side, or party characteristics such as messaging and rhetoric.
Parties do change over time, and the Sweden Democrats have been very successful in changing how they frame opposition to immigration. Founded in 1988, the SD was largely understood as the political successor of earlier Swedish fascist and racist movements. In recent decades, however, the party has worked to change its image by ousting members who enjoy Nazi memorabilia and removing overtly racist language from its election manifestos and political rhetoric. Today, the SD describes immigrants as a cultural threat to Sweden and a threat to liberal democracy more generally. The SD also describes immigrants as a threat to economic sustainability of the Swedish welfare state. This messaging resonates with a larger proportion of the Swedish population whereas the racist arguments did not.
SD’s message may appeal to 1 in 5 voters, but it does not appeal to the vast majority of Swedes.
Nevertheless, our data shows that even with the SD’s evolution there remains a large resistance to the Sweden Democrats, and this has implications for their future growth. Even if they become the second largest party in Sweden, their unpopularity with the majority has consequences for how much political power the SD will gain after the 2018 election. Our data suggests that, given voter attitudes, only a couple parties could realistically form a coalition with the SD. The two parties most likely to consider partnering with the Sweden Democrats are the Moderates (M) and the Christian Democrats (KD). Our data show that the majority of these parties’ supporters do not identify the SD as the party they like least. However, it is also worth noting that a plurality of M and KD voters like the SD least.
To form a government, such a coalition would need support from more than 50% of the electorate, which is unlikely according to current polling. A second option is that the so-called center-right “Alliance” (M, C, KD, and L) will gain the plurality of the votes and form a minority government with parliamentary support from the SD. While not impossible to imagine, it could be a political mistake for the SD to accept being sidelined in the role of supporting party if it garners more votes than these four parties.
Like all democracies in the 21st century, Sweden faces challenges associated with globalization, international migration, and growing inequality. And, despite its reputation as a moral superpower, Sweden is not uniquely immune to racism and nationalism. Yet the picture is perhaps not as dark as portrayed in international media accounts. The SD’s message may appeal to 1 in 5 voters, but it does not appeal to the vast majority of Swedes. Further, as shown here, more than 50% dislike the Sweden Democrats the most. The SD is unique in this regard. On average, other parties only receive 4% of the “least liked” vote.