Sweden In Pieces

Sweden In Pieces

In Sweden’s national elections over the weekend, the anti-EU, anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats continued their political rise, while the main center-left and center-right blocs suffered. Full tallies are here, but here are three quick thoughts on what this election tells us about the shifting political winds in Europe:


Right wing populism can thrive even where the economy is strong.

Explanations for the rise of populist, anti-establishment politics often look at income inequality, slow economic growth, or weak social safety nets. Sweden has none of those problems. The economy is growing faster than the EU average, and its society is among the most equal in Europe. Unemployment is low, the government runs a budget surplus, and social services are expansive. So what’s going on? Well, the government’s generosity is, in fact, precisely the reason for the backlash against foreigners. When the government does so much for a society, the question of who gets to belong to that society can become controversial very easily.

In recent years, Sweden has accepted more migrants per capita than just about any other EU country (see graphic below). And because Swedish policies give huge benefits to migrants while also (because of strong unions) making it difficult for them to find jobs, the Sweden Democrats have ably made the case to many voters that refugees are scarfing down a disproportionate share of the country’s generous social benefits without integrating or paying their way.

Sweden’s experience points to an uncomfortable question that voices on the right are posing in some of Europe’s most prosperous democracies: can a generous welfare state continue to coexist with liberal immigration policies?

But Sweden's election is about something more than immigration.

The leading losers in this election were the top establishment parties. Yes, the governing center-left Social Democrats came in first, but they rang up their worst performance in more than 100 years, costing them 12 spots in the 349-seat legislature. The center-right Moderates who lead the opposition, meanwhile, lost 14 seats.

But while the anti-immigration Sweden Democrats picked up 13 seats, an increase of 16 seats went to the socialist-leaning Left Party (+7 seats) and the centrist Centre Party (+9), neither of which campaigned against immigrants. Both actually proposed better ways to integrate immigrants.

So while the rise of the anti-immigrant, euroskeptic far-right is one story, Sweden’s election falls into a broader narrative that we’ve seen in elections in France, Germany, and Italy—as well as further afield in Mexico and Pakistan—in the past 18 months: leading establishment parties and traditional party blocs are fading fast.

There are no good options to form a government.

As of this writing, the three party center-left bloc (led by the Social Democrats) has a razor-thin margin over the center-right bloc of four parties, led by the Moderates. Both blocs are far short of a majority, and overseas vote tallies could affect the final count. It will probably take weeks to form a government, as neither of the two main blocs wants to work with the Sweden Democrats, but they will also have a hard time burying decades-old disagreements. While it’s nearly impossible to imagine the center-left working with Sweden Democrats, a more interesting choice awaits the center-right Moderates. Party leader Ulf Kristersson says he won’t reach out to them. But will he change his mind if inviting that party to join his bloc is the only way he can form a government?

The bottom-line: These results are more a rejection of the establishment than a clear call for new immigration restrictions. Yes, the Sweden Democrats gained 13 seats, but three small parties with a very different attitude toward migrants gained a total of 23 seats. The fragmentation of Sweden’s politics is a bigger story than any lunge to the far-right.

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Ian Bremmer shares his insights on global politics this week with a look at the deteriorating human rights situation in Belarus, Delta variant woes, and Lebanon one year after the Beirut blast.

An Olympian refuses to return home to Belarus and an anti-Lukashenko activist has been found dead in Ukraine. What's going on?

Yeah. That anti-Lukashenko activist was found hanged in a park in Kiev. Once again, not exactly likely a suicide. These anti-Lukashenko activists have a way of turning up injured or dead. It's a horrible regime. Their friends are limited largely to the Russians. That's about it. The economic pressure is growing from Europe, from the United States, very coordinated. But the problem is a very hard to do much to Lukashenko when he has not only support of his military, but also the support of most of the workers in the country who aren't prepared to strike because they want to ensure they still have jobs. I expect this is going to continue, but human rights abuses are stacking up. It is nice to see that the Americans and the Europeans are coordinating policy as well as they have been.

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Since then, Lebanon's already-dire economic and financial crises have only intensified. The Lebanese pound, the national currency, has plummeted, losing 90 percent of its value since 2019, when the country's economic crisis erupted. And more than 50 percent of the population is now living below the poverty line.

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The flurry of activity comes after earlier concerns that President Joe Biden was neglecting Southeast Asia, the region where US-China rivalry is the most intense. To understand better what Austin's visit meant, and what comes next, Eurasia Group's lead Southeast Asia analyst Peter Mumford spoke to us from Singapore.

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Raisi won't have it easy: The newly "elected" president of Iran, Ibrahim Raisi, was officially endorsed by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei on Tuesday. In his inaugural address, the 60-year-old hardliner pledged to get US sanctions removed and to respond to rising socioeconomic grievances within Iran, but he warned that he wouldn't lash Iran's prosperity or survival to "the will of foreigners." In Iran, the president's role focuses mainly on domestic policy, but with the economy reeling one of Raisi's big early challenges will be to continue complicated talks with the Biden administration to renegotiate the 2015 nuclear deal, which would lead to the US lifting some of the harshest sanctions. Both sides say they want a new deal, and have gone through half a dozen rounds of negotiations already, but they remain at odds over who should make what concessions first. Raisi also pledged to restore Iranians' flagging trust in their government and to improve the economic situation, but in ways that are in line with "revolutionary principles." He'll have his hands full with that. And don't forget that the likely imminent (re)takeover of neighboring Afghanistan by the Taliban — whom Tehran don't like at all — will also occur on Raisi's watch. Good luck, Mr. President, you'll need it.

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158: To boost vaccination rates, New York City will soon require proof of COVID vaccination or a negative test to enter gyms and restaurants, as daily new infections in the Big Apple have jumped 158 percent over the past two weeks due to the more contagious delta variant. New York is the first major US city to take this step, following similar schemes already in place in France and Italy.

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