On Sunday, September 9, yet another European right-wing party increased its popular mandate, this time in Sweden. Seventeen percent of the electorate cast their vote for the Sweden Democrats. This nationalistic, anti-immigration party with origins in the 1990s neo-nazi movement has managed to rebrand itself as an anti-establishment champion, attracting votes from both sides of the political spectrum.
By now, this is familiar stuff to anyone with even a casual understanding of European politics. Brexit, Marie Le Pen, the gutting of judicial independence in Poland, anti-burqa laws in Denmark, the rise of fierce anti-immigrant parties in Austria, Hungary and Italy – these are all examples of a Europe where the political landscape is becoming increasingly fractured, polarized and xenophobic.
However, the reality of European elections is that the rise of right-wing populism always seems more imposing in the aggregate than it does in any single case; the Sweden Democrats made a strong showing, but in the end they captured no more than 17 percent of the vote. Currently, it is unlikely that any other political party, representing the other 83 percent of the electorate, will accept invitations from the Sweden Democrats to form a coalition government. Just like its brother parties in the Netherlands, France, Britain and Germany, the Sweden Democrats stopped well short of achieving a majority.
The final composition of the next Swedish government, including the question of who will lead it, will probably not be settled for a while. Meanwhile, for the Sweden Democrats, this means at least another four years of beating the anti-establishment drum.
What rarely gets enough attention in analyses of European elections is how the right-wing rise is aided by the political rent-seeking it generates in the political left and center. Rent-seeking means to manipulate the political or economic environment in order to make profit, but without creating any additional real wealth. This is more or less exactly what mainstream Swedish political parties have done. The two biggest parties, the Social Democrats and the Moderates, began to support stricter immigration policies in a bid to speak directly to the voters that they have lost to the Sweden Democrats. When political parties anxiously draft strategies that are designed to win voters back from the brink rather than providing bold political vision and leadership, they are only trying to leech off the political profit created by the European right-wing rise. They are not, however, creating new political “value” or organizing effective resistance against it.
To some extent, this strategy seems to have worked. The left and center-right coalitions received almost exactly 40 percent each of the vote, momentarily stalling the rise of the Sweden Democrats. But in terms of real political value, the Sweden Democrats are clearly the winners. They have moved national political sentiments to exactly the place where they want them, and mainstream political parties have been forced to awkwardly shuffle to the right or pay the price.
The prime example of this is the Green Party. It made up the minority part of the previous government coalition, which in turn ruled with minority support from the Riksdag parliament body. This meant it was forced to rely on compromises across party lines to gain enough mandate for its policies. The Green Party itself did not engage in the same rent-seeking behavior as other mainstream parties, but was still negatively affected by it. The party barely received the minimum four percent required to enter into parliament, even though scores of forest fires throughout the hottest Swedish summer on record drove the climate issue to the forefront of the election campaign. Polls in the weeks leading up to the election indicated that this would give the Green Party a boost and secure its position at around six percent of the vote. In the end, when the votes were counted, these gains failed to materialize. When a party whose core issue is the environment cannot rally support even if a natural disaster literally sets the land on fire, then it has clearly failed in promoting said core issue.
The reason for the party’s failure is that for the last four years it gave the impression of completely bandwagoning with its bigger government partner, the Social Democrats. When the Green Party gave reluctant support to the Social Democrats’ stricter immigration policies, it badly hurt its image as a socially progressive and inclusive party. When the government managed to push through progressive environmental policies, such as higher tax on airfare, the Green Party boastfully declared that Sweden was now a world-leading environmental nation. Disappointingly, the result – in the words of a former party spokesperson – was that “the Green Party declared themselves to be unnecessary.”
No, the Swedish Green Party did not engage in political rent-seeking, but it offered no convincing alternative to it either. If European mainstream parties want to counter the rise of the right they must not only cease to be strung along by it. They must also forcefully move in the opposite direction and argue for the need for liberal, socially progressive policies.
Take it from a Swede who voted Green, not because of, but in spite of the party’s failures. In Europe, progressivism deserves a second chance.
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