Drawing on public opinion data from 2016–2017, Dr James F. Downes and graduate Jeremy Lok examine the ‘rise’ in support for the Sweden Democrats, in the context of the refugee crisis and find that three key explanatory factors for their success. These include; (a) negative attitudes towards immigrants in Sweden, (b) dissatisfaction of voters towards the left-wing government (Löfven I Cabinet), and (c) ‘hard’ Euroscepticism that makes voters more likely to support the Sweden Democrats.
The anti-immigrant findings for the Sweden Democrats can be viewed through the theory of ‘welfare chauvinism’, whereby support for the Sweden Democrats is aimed at views and attitudes pertaining to immigrants that suggests that they should not having the right to welfare and an overall reduction in their social welfare provision versa the native in-group.
The Swedish Political Landscape
Throughout the post-World War II period to 2006, the Swedish political landscape has tended to have been led by the Swedish Social Democratic Party (S/SAP) in government, with a succession of minority and coalition governments. After over a decade of being in government, from 1994 to 2006, the centre left S/SAP went into opposition from 2006 to 2014. Though the S/SAP has formed the last two governments, both in 2014 (featuring a Minority coalition with the Green Party, alongside receiving support from the Left Party) and in 2018 (featuring a Minority coalition with the Green Party, alongside support from the Centre Party and the Liberals), the centre left party has seen a considerable reduction in their votes and seat shares within the Swedish Parliament.
The ‘Rise’ of the Sweden Democrats
In 2002, scholars (including Professor Jens Rydgren, a big name in the study of far-right parties) and the international community at large considered Sweden as a ‘negative’ case for the far right, where virtually no support for the party existed. However, since 2010, the far-right Sweden Democrats Party has seen an electoral resurgence, with the party now becoming the third biggest party in the Swedish Parliament (Riksdag) after the 2018 Swedish General Election.
Scholars (such as Professor Rydgren and Professor Sara van der Meiden) have argued that a wide range of factors can explain the electoral ‘rise’ of the Sweden Democrats since 2010. Firstly, declining class-based politics have significantly transformed Swedish politics over the past few decades, with fewer working class voters voting for the centre left S/SAP Party. Secondly, the ‘rise’ of socio-cultural issues such as immigration (previously secondary to socio-economic issues) in Swedish politics has also greatly benefited the far-right Sweden Democrats, despite its roots in Sweden’s neo-Nazi subculture.
Thirdly and from an ideological perspective, the “growing consensus” between mainstream parties (particularly the centre left S/SAP and the centre right Moderate Party/M) has led to not only higher levels of partisan dealignment, but has also enabled the far-right Sweden Democrats to raise the salience of immigration as a key electoral issue. This has also allowed the party to differentiate themselves from the ‘mainstream’ political parties and portray themselves as being an anti-political establishment party that represents the “Swedish People” against the “corrupt elite.”
Furthermore, the Sweden Democrats have also undertaken an ideological rebranding strategy with its extremist past, under party leader Jimmie Åkesson since 2005. This ideological moderation and rebranding strategy is similar to other far-right parties in Western Europe, such as National Rally in France and the League in Italy. This strategy has arguably enabled the Sweden Democrats to cultivate a more ideologically ‘moderate’ image in the minds of voters. From 2010 to 2018, the Swedish Democrats have increased their seat and vote shares in each subsequent national parliamentary election (see Table 1 below), with the far-right party becoming a significant political force in Swedish politics.
Table 1: ‘The ‘Rise’ of the Swedish Democrats (2010–2018)
The Refugee Crisis Context
It is important to examine the refugee crisis context and its impact on the Swedish political landscape for a number of reasons. Firstly, Sweden was ranked second in the European Union (EU) for overall asylum seeker applications per 100,000 population. This number is six times the average of other EU countries that had received and accounted for 12% of the whole of the EU. Sweden is also often considered as an attractive destination for refugees due to the country’s generous social welfare policies.
The first wave of asylum began in May 2015 and peaked in October 2015. The impact of the refugee crisis arguably caused the Löfven I Cabinet to make significant revisions in their overall refugee and immigration policies, with greater restrictions placed on new arrivals. Table 2 below provides a summary of the key policy differences between the incumbent S/SAP and the far-right Sweden Democrats on social welfare provisions.
Table 2: Summary of Sweden Democrats vs. Incumbents Positions on Welfare Provisions (2014–2016)
In order to investigate the ‘types’ of voters that tend to vote for the far-right Sweden Democrats, in the context of the refugee crisis period, we drew on data at the individual level of analysis from the National SOM Surveys, conducted by the SOM Institute at the University of Gothenburg.
The SOM Surveys cover a wide range of attitudinal questions, relating to key socio-economic and socio-cultural issues. The SOM Survey was first launched in 1986 and has been conducted in the last quarter of every year. We drew on the nationally representative cross-sectional dataset from 2016–2017, in order to capture the wider context of the refugee crisis in the context of Sweden and they allow us to examine support for the Sweden Democrats.
The main Dependent Variable in our study examines support for the far-right Sweden Democrats. Since there was no question in the survey asking for which party did the respondents vote for directly in the last election (2014) or will vote for in the coming election (2018), we have used the following question instead: “Which party do you like best today?”. Respondents are allowed to choose one of the thirteen party choices, alongside an “other party” response option.
The data for this question has then been recoded into a binary variable in our dataset. This allows us to examine support for the Sweden Democrats (1= Support, 0= Did not Support). As our Dependent Variable is binary, we drew on a binary logistic regression model, to further examine the types of ‘voters’ that vote for the far-right Sweden Democrats, alongside their main (a) attitudinal and (b) socio-demographic characteristics during the refugee crisis context. We also ran additional binary logistic regression models for the two other main parties in Swedish Politics (the centre left Social Democrats and the centre right Moderate Party), in order to compare the findings empirically.
Sweden Democrats Voters: Attitudinal Characteristics
Table 3 below highlights the main findings from the binary logistic regression model. The findings demonstrate the importance of four main attitudinal variables that drive support for the far-right Sweden Democrats during their period of electoral ascension in 2016–2017. Voters who support the far-right Sweden Democrats tend to (a) hold higher levels of anti-immigrant sentiment, are (b) ‘hard’ Eurosceptic, (c) dissatisfied with the current incumbent government (Löfven I Cabinet) and (d) hold positive attitudes to the Sweden Democrat’s party leadership. These findings are consistent with both the cross-national and comparative academic literature on the far-right.
These variables are all statistically significant at the p<0.001 level and further demonstrate the key attitudinal drivers that cause voters to support the Sweden Democrats. Socio-demographic factors do not play a statistically significant role (aside from Household Income) in the overall propensity to support the Sweden Democrats.
We also ran additional binary logistic regression models for the centre left Social Democratic Party, alongside the centre right Moderate Party. The findings demonstrated that the supporters of both parties also tended to hold anti-immigrant attitudes. Though preliminary, these findings have important implications, in further underlining (a) the hardening of anti-immigrant sentiment in Sweden amongst Swedish voters and (b) at the same time, they highlight a significant pool of anti-immigrant voters that may potentially vote for the far-right Sweden Democrats.
Table 3: Binary Logistic Regression Model of Sweden Democrats Support (2016–2017)
Implications for Swedish Politics
The implications of this research are important in outlining how support for the Sweden Democrats appears to be driven by negative attitudes towards (a) immigrants, (b) higher levels of dissatisfaction towards incumbents (i.e. a protest vote) and (c) ‘hard’ Euroscepticism. We argue that support for the far-right Sweden Democrats is multifaceted and is likely to be rooted in their voters holding ‘welfare chauvinistic’ attitudes towards immigration, particularly in voters of the Sweden Democrats tending not to be against immigrants’ right to social welfare provisions from the Swedish state.
Important findings were also found for the two ‘mainstream’ political parties in Sweden (Social Democratic Party and the Moderate Party) whose supporters also tended to hold anti-immigrant attitudes. These findings point to a sizeable pool of anti-immigrant voters in contemporary Swedish politics in 2016–2017 that coincide with the refugee crisis period.
Due to data constraints, one limitation of our current study is that we are unable to fully examine the context of COVID-19 and its impact on the Swedish political landscape. Future research should also seek to further investigate the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and (a) whether voters hold more negative attitudes on social welfare provisions towards immigrants and refugees in this context, alongside (b) examining reasons for the decline in the polls that the Sweden Democrats are currently experiencing, arguably as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Dr. James F. Downes is a Senior Fellow & Head of the Populism Research Unit at the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right. He is also a Lecturer in Comparative Politics at the Department of Government & Public Administration at The Chinese University of Hong Kong and an Associate Research Fellow at the Center for Research & Social Progress (Italy).
Jeremy Lok recently graduated from a Bachelor of Social Sciences Degree in Government & Public Administration at The Chinese University of Hong Kong.
© James F. Downes and Jeremy Lok. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).
The authors would like to especially thank Professor Ingemar Johansson Sevä (Umeå University, Sweden) and Swedish National Data Service (SND) for kindly providing access to the results of the Swedish Welfare State Surveys and SOM Database.