The new Swedish lesson: populism can be kept at bay by listening to voters

10 September 2018 7:57 AM

Ebba Busch Thor, 31, leader of the Christian Democrats who, with the Centre Party, gained more votes than the Sweden Democrats

The world’s press was all geared up to write “Rabble-rousing Sweden Democrat breakthrough” but Sweden’s voters have not obliged. The populists were aiming for first place, but remain in third place, behind the conservatives. The Christian Democrats (led by Ebba Busch Thor, pictured, above) and the Centre Party gained more seats between them (16) than the Sweden Democrats did (13 seats, to a total of 62). The governing Social Democrats had their worst result for decades, but have still ended up the largest party by far. Swedes woke up to find parliament looking like this:-

V: LeftParty (ie, former Communists). S: Social Democrats. MP: Greens. SD: Sweden Democrats (in the middle because no one will enter an alliance with them). L: Liberals. C: Centre Party. KD: Christian Democrats and M: Moderaterna (ie, the conservatives, who led government 2008-14). Graphic from SVT.

This will be a disappointment for Akesson. Given that YouGov polls put him in first place, it was plausible that he might make it. Given the ability of populism to do better than expected across Europe, many were braced for an Akesson breakthrough. The social democrat Prime Minister, Stefan Loftven, was talking about a left-right coalition with the conservatives to keep the populists out. This won’t be needed. The odds are that Loftven will stay: his red-green bloc is now about the same size as the right-wing bloc, but his party easily won the most votes. The populists have stolen the world’s attention, but last night they did not steal the show.

“Sweden: we are leading, and are winning!” says Akesson in his party’s summer festival in Sölveborg a few weeks ago. He even claimed last night that he has won. Up to a point, Lord Copper. He has deprived any bloc of its majority, so they haggle. As they did in 2014. But not much has changed since then, in spite of everything: the waves of unaccompanied children, the grenade attacks, the burning cars, the gangmasters, the Islamist free schools etc.

Something big has changed since 2014. The other parties had belatedly started to address voters’ concerns on immigration, with u-turns that looked utterly humiliating. One minute, Loftven was declaring that free movement was central to his notion of liberty and the next he put passport controls on the bridge from Denmark. Such decisions are always difficult in politics: you’ll look daft, you’ll be pilloried for a u-turn, denounced as insincere.

But if you are turning towards the public, accepting that you got it wrong, will it be better in the long run? By the end of the campaign, every party leader had stern words to say about the immigration problem and related crime (more details here). The big question: was it enough to make a difference?

A months ago, I thought that it was too late. Now, I’m not so sure. Sweden’s election results were as expected (how often can that be said about European elections nowadays?) with no nasty populist surprise. Listening to the last Swedish leaders debate (which I wrote about yesterday) I was struck by how every single leader wished to say to voters: we hear you. The immigration, and the related crime, has got out of hand. Let us count the ways in which this has gone too far.

The Liberal leader spoke about Islamist free schools. The Conservative leader spoke about immigrant gangland crime and their murders. The Christian Democrat leader spoke about “honour repression” of girls in families. The collective effect, I suspect, was have been to persuade a good many Swedes that they don’t need to vote for Akesson to have their concerns taken seriously. Sweden’s famously narrow “opinion corridor” had widened quite a lot by the end of the campaign.

Akesson has increased his number of MPs compared to 2014 so there will be “populist surge” story for those who want to write it. But I see Sweden’s democratic system working, its mainstream parties getting the message and responding to pressure – and populists being kept firmly at bay.