In 2017, politicians all over Western Europe were afraid of a ghost: the ghost of right-wing populism. It was not a new phenomenon in the world of politics but ever since the early 2010s, it has gotten more and more real. Parties such as the Alternative for Germany (AfD) in Germany, the Front National (FN) in France, the Party for Freedom (PVV) in the Netherlands, or the Sweden Democrats (SD) in Sweden have gained more and more power and become serious competitors in national politics. Liberal voters and politicians struggled with this challenge and, as a consequence, right-wing populists performed well in recent elections in Europe. Fortunately, none of the right-wing populist parties mentioned managed to get elected into government, but some of them are haunting the executive and creating a strong opposition.
In Sweden, the right-wing populist Sverigedemokraterna (= Sweden Democrats) gained the third most seats in the parliamentary election in 2018 while the Social Democrats obtained their worst result since 1908. Due to their refusal to form a coalition with the populists, Prime Minister Stefan Löfven from the Social Democrats had no other choice but to form a minority government with the conservative party Moderata samlingspartiets.
Policy-changes in migration and welfare-expenditures
Almost two years later the effect of right-wing populists is already noticeable. Sweden used to be a country with liberal and human policies. In 2015, it welcomed more than 160’000 refugees, which was, compared to its small population, the highest number of immigrants in Western-Europe. However, after the horrific events in the Moria refugee camp in September 2020, Sweden refused to take on any of the many refugees, while Germany rescued at least 1’500. The official statement from the government was that migration waves from recent years have led to rising crime and that the integration of the many immigrants has largely failed. While this might be one reason for a more conservative migration policy, this drastic shift is already heavily influenced by the Sweden Democrats who are pressuring the powerless minority government out of a dominant opposition.
Another example of how right-wing populists can influence a country’s policies are the governments welfare expenditures in Sweden. Scandinavian countries usually spend more money on welfare than Anglo-Saxon nations like Great Britain or the United States. In Sweden, the welfare-expenditures steadily increased since 2014 at a high level. But in 2019, only one year after the election and the same year the new minority government was formed with the Sweden Democrats, the expenditures decreased by five percent. And during the Covid-19 pandemic, the country that was originally known as exemplary and reliable went into a questionable direction by not implementing early and strong measures to safeguard its population.
While the right-wing populists of the AfD in Germany never managed to deliver any policies at all, in Sweden they have succeeded in changing the country’s formerly liberal position into more isolated and conservative policies. The ghost of populism is haunting Swedish democracy and one question remains: Who’s gonna call the ghostbusters?