Swedish Election Seen as Bellwether for Hard-Liners in Europe

 Paul D. Shinkman

SWEDEN'S COMPLEX PLACE in the region and the world play a central role in its upcoming general election on Sunday, just as the outcome of it could have perilous implications internationally.

A recent spate of migrants and asylum seekers – more than 160,000 in 2015 alone – as well as the specter of a threat from Russia are playing central roles in the lead-up to the Sept. 9 election that will elect members to Sweden's Parliament, the Riksdag, who in turn will vote in the next prime minister. Political parties on the right and far right are gathering steam and causing international concern over how Stockholm might shift its focus.

Establishment parties in the Riksdag face intense challenges from more extreme and populist parties, including the nationalist far-right Sweden Democrats – an intensely anti-immigration, anti-EU organization with prior ties that have been largely exorcised under the leadership of Jimmie Akesson. Some polls place the Sweden Democrats with as much as 25 percent of public support as of Wednesday, risking the current center-left coalition Social Democrats' and opposition center-right Moderate Party's ability to secure a clear majority rule.

"The result is likely to be a weak government, but could also be political paralysis, new elections, or even [a] government that is shunned by others at home or abroad," says Robert Dalsjo, deputy research director at the government-sponsored Swedish Defence Research Agency. "If so, Sweden's ability to take big and rapid decisions on major issues – which is already low – would be further diminished, and the lack of stability might make Sweden less dependable as a partner to NATO and as an EU member."

Joining NATO formally, beyond Sweden's existing status as a partner, had previously been out of the question for a country that has historically defined itself as neutral. However, that support has quietly surged in recent years amid reports of a rise in Russia's military presence in the region, as well as Moscow's disinformation campaigns that prompted first warnings and then formal alerts in Sweden. The rise of the Sweden Democrats comes with increased calls in some quarters for nationalist policies, including withdrawal from the European Union, akin to Britain's fateful 2016 "Brexit" referendum.

Dalsjo suggests for Sweden a "grand coalition of the left and right mainstream parties," similar to compromises in the German government that helped assuage the political tension, but that "goes against the grain of political culture and may, in the long run, increase support for the populists."

Experts attribute the rise of the far-right party and other fringe movements in part to the relatively high quality of life in Sweden: Overall crime continues to fall despite high-profile claims to the contrary, unemployment remains low, the country remains secure so far from overt foreign threats and its wealth per person exceeds the EU average.

In such an environment, extremist politicians are taking aim instead at recent migrants. Hard-liners have jumped on recent spates of violence in neighborhoods with large numbers of migrants and other refugees, including recent high-profile reports of widespread car fires and attacks using hand grenades. It's unclear the extent to which the perpetrators are linked to immigrant communities, if at all, but that hasn't hindered far-right groups from making migrants a central political concern.

"Immigration is the big issue for the election," says Magnus Nordenman, director of the Atlantic Council's Transatlantic Security Initiative. "There is concern that Sweden was overwhelmed and that the system and society were stressed by taking on so many new people in a relatively short period of time."

Pressure from the extreme left and right has prompted Sweden's government to crack down on migration, including placing new border controls and issuing temporary permits for those seeking asylum. The recent spike in migration occurred recently enough for it to remain unclear whether and how successfully the new residents are assimilating into Swedish culture, Nordenman says, though a perception of that process has already taken hold.

"There is a concern – rightly or wrongly – among a lot of Swedes that they are not integrating."

But also lurking in the background of the Nordic nation's politics is Russia, whose overt and surreptitious threats have crept into Sweden's national debates, pushing Sweden away from its prior neutrality.

Russia aims to strengthen nationalist and populist sentiments through support for the Sweden Democrats, Dalsjo adds. The party, in turn, is somewhat sympathetic to policies that align with Russian President Vladimir Putin's positions – namely an intense opposition to Sweden's prospectively joining NATO and an opportunity to show that the country's liberalism, championed by left-leaning politicians worldwide, is flawed.

"Sweden feels tension with Russia that we in the U.S. do not," says Mark Nance, a professor at North Carolina State University's School of Public and International Affairs who spent the last year in Sweden conducting research.

Nance cites a long-standing distrust of Russia among Swedes due to its proximity and common references made to potential invasions from the East. While he was living in Sweden, Nance says the government reissued its "If crisis or war comes" pamphlet – a personification of Stockholm's concerns about its eastward neighbor, and indicative of its intentions to remain clear on the side of the European Union.

"If they're paying attention to the colossal bumbling of Brexit, that would dissuade people."

As for their own "Swexit," Nordenman says the likelihood hinges on the success of far-right groups on Sunday.

"If the Swedish Democrats do well in this election, that certainly is an indication that there are Swedes who would like to see that development," Nordenman says. "It means the issues will be out there for discussion."

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