Sweden has not been overtaken by fascists as some claim, but the Sweden Democrats might still gain power

If the state fails to reassert control on issues like social disorder and gangland violence, SD is the likeliest political beneficiary

Sweden's general election explained

Despite the tone of some reports in foreign media in the run-up to Sunday's election, Sweden has not actually been taken over by fascist hordes.

Indeed, this was never a remotely realistic scenario. For a start, the supposed fascists are not fascists. For sure, they used to be. The Sweden Democrats (SD) were formed in 1988 by overtly racist and neo-Nazi groups. Since its current leader, Jimmie Åkesson, took over in 2005, however, he and his clique have pursued a consistent strategy of political normalisation. The party now claims zero tolerance towards racism within its ranks. On the issues immigration, ethnic integration and law-and-order, which are most closely associated with SD, the two biggest Swedish parties have moved their policies to within touching distance of SD's own. Its past still makes it scary for some Swedes, but SD is nothing like as extreme as it once was.

Just as importantly, the party did not score as well in the 2018 election as it had hoped – and others had feared. Its score of 17.6 per cent, up by nearly 5 per cent since 2014, is certainly impressive for a party that only won its first parliamentary seats in 2010. But it was some way below what some polls, at least, had predicted. Perhaps SD lost support late on in the campaign. More likely, pollsters over-compensated this time for their previous tendency to underestimate its vote.

Anyway, there was no chance that SD would get near government. The other seven parties in parliament have pledged not to negotiate directly with it about anything. It is possible that some sort of accommodation might be reached between SD and a centre-right government, the survival of which could rest on SD's acceptance. That would give the party some implicit influence. But SD simply does not have the numbers to attain anything more than that. And, anyway, with the left-of-centre parties set to win one or two seats more than the centre-right bloc, even that scenario is becoming less likely.

Yet might this only be the start for SD? Its prospects depend on several factors.

One is the shape of the next government. A full-blown, left-right, grand coalition along German lines remains only slightly less improbable in Sweden than it is in Britain. Still, the new government, whether led from the left or the right, will be dependent in some way on the acquiescence of at least some parties in the other bloc. The more mainstream parties that endorse that acquiescence, the more scope for SD to pose as the only real opposition party. There could be votes in that.

Second, much rests on developments in Swedish society. The country's radically permissive immigration policy, which is probably the most important explanation for SD's rise, was tightened in 2015, as Europe's migration crisis reached its peak. But Sweden faces plenty of other challenges. The police, especially, are struggling to contain worrying recent spikes in some categories of crime. Social disorder and gangland violence, in which automatic weapons and even grenades are frequently used, have reached levels that, for many Swedes, are profoundly shocking. The causes of such phenomena are debated; but their occurrence is certainly concentrated in immigrant-dominated suburbs. If the state fails to reassert control, SD is the likeliest political beneficiary.

Finally, there is SD itself. A political party is never entirely at the mercy of its circumstances. It can, to a degree, shape its own fate. The firm control of the Åkesson clique has probably been essential for SD's growth. If that control falters, the party could quickly decline. If it is maintained, however, it may be that, by the time of the next scheduled election in 2022, real influence is within SD's reach. By then, of course, it might not be such big news.

Nicholas Aylott is associate professor in political science at Södertörn University, Stockholm

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