Sweden's democracy stands strong - despite the shadow from the far right


Increasing cultural differences, gang crime and a social democracy that has abandoned classic labour issues are some of the reasons why the far right in Sweden has grown in recent elections. Parts of the agreement between the far-right party and the government are worrying, but overall liberal democracy still stands strong in the country. So says Bo Rothstein, one of Sweden's most renowned political scientists, in an analysis of the political development in the country.

For the first time since 1979, the Sweden Democrats (SD) became the second largest party when Sweden held parliamentary elections on 11 September last year. This represents a major shift in the country’s political landscape since the Social Democrats and the centre-right party the Moderates up till’ then have dominated the scene.

Portait of Bo Rothstein
Professor Bo Rothstein

In an article in the Journal of Democracy, Bo Rothstein finds that cultural differences and a political left that has abandoned core working class issues are among the reasons why.

Data from World Values Survey shows that Swedes subscribe to secular-rational and self-expressive values more than any other national public in the world. The huge number of immigrants, not least during the refugee surge in 2015, have created tensions in the society because many of them come from countries were traditional values such as religion, deference to authority and importance of family ties are the norm.

“The differences in social norms and cultural values helps to explain why support for multiculturalism has declined in public-opinion polls since 2015. Among SD voters, support for multiculturalism is near zero”, Bo Rothstein says.

Despite an overall drop in crime rate, law and order played a major role in the 2022 election. The reason for this, according to Professor Rothstein, is to be found in the qualitative shift in types of crime that has occurred.

“No European country aside from Latvia has a fire-arms homicide rate as bad as Sweden’s”, Bo Rothstein says. “Most of this is related to conflicts among criminal gangs that consists heavily of young men from immigrant backgrounds.”

Another explanation of the shift in Swedish politics stems from the fact that the labour party, the Social Democrats, after losing the elections in 2006 and 2010 changed its main objective from seeking to elevate the working class, to trying to help as many as possible to leave the working class. In Mr Rothstein’s analysis, this left the door open for the Sweden Democrats to appeal to blue-collar voters that might have felt put off by the Social Democrats new rhetoric.

In addition to blue-collar worker, a typical SD voter lives in a small town or in rural areas and is a man. Every fourth Swedish man voted for the SD, while the share of women who did so was only 16 percent. By large majority, Swedish women voted for the left and men for the nationalist right.

After the 2022 election, the government of the centre-right parties – the Moderates, the Liberals and the Christian Democrats – rests heavily on the support of the Sweden Democrats. Members of this far-right party have expressed sympathy for “illiberal democracy” and a view that democracy means unfettered majority will. This could in the long run mean an end to free cultural life, independent courts as well as independent public broadcasting and autonomous universities.

Then, does the shift towards the extreme right pose a threat to Swedish Democracy? Not necessarily, Bo Rothstein thinks. Democracy is still deeply rooted in Sweden.

“No political party doubts the validity of election results. The judiciary remains nonpartisan, the civil society is vital and independent mass media stands strong.”

  • Further reading: “The Shadow of the Swedish Right”, article in the Journal of Democracy, volume 34, number 1, January 2023.
  • Bo Rothstein is August Röhss Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Gothenburg.