Sweden is commonly touted as one of the strongest democracies in the world; in Freedom House’s democratic assessment, they boast a 100 out of 100 score in a holistic assessment of democracy through the lens of political rights and civil liberties. The recent rise of a neo-Nazi party in Sweden’s Riksdag (or parliament), however, should certainly have people skeptical of their ability to maintain this perfect score. As political scientist and author Daniel Ziblatt noted in a virtual roundtable on the 2020 United States Election, “Radicalized conservatives are a ticking time bomb for democracy – totally destructive”. He makes this claim based on evidence that far-right parties have higher tendencies to endorse violence and reject the legitimacy of the opposition and media, which are all causes of democratic erosion.This nationalist, far-right party is known as the Sweden Democrats, which is a group that rose out of the Bevara Sverige Svenskt (“Keep Sweden Swedish”) movement of the 1980s. The Sweden Democrats party is rife with racism and crime; in 2018, one-fifth of the politicians had criminal records, and they have had to remove multiple politicians from the party for racist comments..
In Sweden’s 2018 election, the Sweden Democrats won 62 seats out of the parliament’s 349. Their success complicated the function of the usual coalitions – a left and right coalition, both of which are comprised of four parties. In this election, the center-left coalition managed 40.6% of the vote, while the center-right received 40.2%, leaving both coalitions without the coveted majority. To maintain his position, the incumbent progressive Prime Minister, Stefan Lofven, needs a majority not to vote against him. Therefore, the politics of majority control are incredibly important in the parliament. Despite the fact that the combination of right parties would have received a majority of votes in the most recent election, two center-right parties worked together with the center-left coalition to exclude the Sweden Democrats from having power in the nomination and election process. Throughout the 133 days spent working to negotiate the new coalition, Lofven refused to step down and encouraged his party, a center-left party known as the Social Democrats, to find a way to maintain leadership through compromise with center-right parties. The compromise did not come easily. In order to achieve the cooperation of the two center-right parties, the center-left coalition agreed to sacrifice influence from the farthest left member of their coalition and sign onto a 73-point agreement outlining conservative policy agenda points that they would pursue. For the time being, the robustness of their multi-party system allowed them to prevent infringement on the democratic order that Sweden has long prided itself on. That they had to manipulate the coalitions to do so, however, should be a worrying sign that the Sweden Democrats.
Notably, this election was the first since the 2015 refugee crisis in Europe, in which Sweden allowed more per capita migrants across their boarders than any other country. Additionally, Sweden offers permanent residency to all Syrians seeking refuge from the war. Given such a high number of refugees, the success of the Sweden Democrats party should come as no surprise. The Sweden Democrats are the only party that opposes the country’s liberal immigration policies. The phenomenon of rising popularity of a far-right party in a post-refugee crisis era is quite common. In political scientists Robert Ford and Will Jennings’ paper “The Changing Cleavage Politics of Western Europe”, they argue that “The radical right has capitalized on the threat [uneducated white Swedes] perceive from the rise of immigration and ethnic diversity, and the alienation produced by their demographic decline and political marginalization, to mobilize them into the basis of a new, identity- and values-driven alignment”. They go on to claim that immigration has been one of the primary political cleavages among Western European parties. As portrayed with the phrase “Keep Sweden Swedish,” success of the Sweden Democrats is clearly, at least in part, a result of this cleavage on the topic of immigration. Ultimately, however, their platform has radicalized on more fronts than immigration, many of which comport with the signs of democratic erosion that Ziblatt warns of.
For the time being, Swedish democratic institutions have proven themselves to be strong in working against a far-right party posing the threat of democratic erosion. The functioning of these institutions, however, should not inspire complacency. The Sweden Democrats were not able to enter parliament until 2010, and only eight years later have managed to become the country’s third largest party. In comparison, the Social Democrats have held power over government since 1920. The trend in Swedish government is not dissimilar from other European governments. For example, in political scientist Hannah Alarian’s analysis of anti-immigrant sentiment and support for far-right parties in Germany, she found that the election of far-right politicians to parliament legitimized citizens’ anti-immigration ideals, creating a positive-feedback loop of support for these parties. She found that this occurred even despite formal exclusion from government, just as the Sweden Democrats were excluded. Given her research, we certainly have reason to fear that the Sweden Democrats are not just an unfortunate anomaly, but a glaring warning of a far-right movement that will continue to sweep the nation. As their support continues to rise, how long will it take before the traditional coalitions decide they need the support of the Sweden Democrats? It appears that the dam could be fragile. In reporter Uri Friedman’s interview with Ziblatt, Ziblatt notes that, across the map, the health of the center-right parties and their ability to resist the pull of the far-right works as the “hinge of history.” If far-right parties act as the inception of democratic erosion that Ziblatt claims they do, Swedes most certainly have reason to fear for the health and endurance of their democratic institutions. Perhaps the moment has come to reconsider the narrative of Sweden as the democratic powerhouse that the rest of the world holds it up to be.
 Ziblatt, Daniel remarks during “Virtual Roundtable on the 2020 US Election” Watson Institute Brown University. November 13, 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZAWL6jxA834.
 Henley, Jon. “Sweden election: far right makes gains as main blocs deadlocked,” The Guardian, September 10, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/sep/09/swedish-election-far-right-on-course-for-sizeable-gains-in-vote.
 Anderson, Christina, “Sweden Forms a Government After 133 Days, but It’s a Shaky One,” The New York Times, January 18, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/18/world/europe/sweden-government.html.
 Bevanger, Lars, “Sweden election: Social Democrats rule out far-right pact,” BBC News, September 15, 2014, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-29195683.
 Ford, Robert and Will Jennings, “The Changing Cleavage Politics of Western Europe,” Annual Review of Political Science, Vol. 23: 295-314 (2020), https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-polisci-052217-104957.
 Bevanger, “Sweden election: Social Democrats rule out far-right pact”.
 Alarian, Hannah M., “Cause or Consequence?: The Alternative for Germany and Attitudes toward Migration Policy,” German Politics and Society, Vol. 38, Issue 2: 59-89 (2017), https://doi.org/10.3167/gps.2020.380203