In my column last week, I wrote about Sweden’s general elections on 9 September 2018, suggesting that many countries cold learn from the level-headed Swedes. The Social Democratic PM for the last four years has said that there is a need for political dialogue and cooperation across old blocks and boundaries between parties. True, there is need for that, and it is also true that one of the world’s most democratic countries has something to teach others, based on their 100 years of universal suffrage and development of a culture where every man and woman in the land is (almost) equal. “It must be fair for all”, the Swedes often say. Yet, there are also political challenges.

The international media has been over-interested in the rise of the country’s right-wing party, the Sweden Democrats (SD), which was established in 1988. That party, which not only pushes anti-immigrant policies and propaganda, but also has a new-Nazi and racist history, received 17.5 percent of the vote in the general elections. That is a sizeable proportion, yet, more than eighty percent of the Swedes voted for regular parties, not the more extreme SD. It is important to keep this fact in mind, be sober and refrain from scaremongering. None of the mainstream parties want to work with or talk to SD.

The two old blocks: the socialist block and the bourgeoisie block, each consisting of several parties, gained well over forty percent each, with the social democrats, socialists and environmentalists in a slight majority with one more member in parliament. But in order to establish a government with a comfortable majority, there is a need for dialogue and cooperation across the blocks, and indeed so if a minority government were to rule. That requires new ways of thinking about ideologies and party politics; it requires openness to political opponents, yet, without selling out one’s political identity entirely.

I believe that the Swedes would be able to discuss across the old blocks and thus renew their political system, which other countries, especially in Europe can learn from – and it is essential that this happens so that we don’t end up in a stalemate, seeing populist parties and extremist parties taking over, or even having a direct say in politics. In Sweden, the other parties have isolated the Sweden Democrats from taking part in dialogue and cooperation – so there is a limit to how far talks should go. However, this is so since SD has that tragic origin of new-Nazism and racism, not only that it is xenophobic. Party leader Jimmie Åkesson seems not to have Nazi-sympathies, but is anti-immigration, perhaps without being entirely xenophobic. HE says that the old reactionary and Nazi history is an embarrassment, and that it hinders SD from political influence and becoming a housetrained part, acceptable to the good political society.

Although all political parties want more limited immigration, and better integration of those who have come, they feel the Sweden immigrants go too far and use rhetoric that are unacceptable. However, one should note that of Sweden’s 10 million people, close to 20 percent were born outside the country. Immigrants are essential to the country’s economic growth, but some also require assistance, and integration is not as good as required. However, integration doesn’t have to mean that the newcomers become ‘totally Swedish’ in the first generation, and indeed later, as the Sweden democrats advocate, which leads to anti-immigrant attitudes and conflicts.

As for political party development, what Sweden (and other European countries) needs is probably a very conservative, regular political party. In Sweden that means more to the right than ‘Moderaterna’, so that such a party can attract voters that otherwise might vote for the extreme Sweden Democrats. ‘Kristdemokraterna’ (KD) could become such a party; they received 6.3 percent of the votes in the recent elections. KD has a competent young leader, Ebba Busch Thor, who could do well in the job of developing such a party, a bulwark towards SD. Maybe even the more moderate, but still very conservative section of SD could agree to join KD and thus eye a chance of getting real influence after the next elections. If this happened, SD would be left a small, extremist party without any real chance of power, except for having listeners at rallies, and also having some elected members, especially in local councils. A small protest party of that kind may have some role to play but must be kept away from real power. In the name of democracy, it is a right to hold far-right (or far-right) opinions; most people would disagree, but that shouldn’t hinder such parties from organizing.

Then to the left or socialist block in Swedish (and European) politics, what can they do to stay relevant and have a chance of ruling in future? First, we should remember that the social democratic and labour parties in Sweden and the rest of Europe played a major role in establishing the modern industrialised states, with government regulations and social welfare. However, in recent decades, these parties began losing out in elections to the (more centrist) conservative parties, and in recent years, all established parties have faced some challenges since the populist and ultra-conservatives have gained ground.

I would like to underline that, as the Swedish PM Stefan Löfven stressed, the old political parties must reconsider the way they talk with opponents, and be open to dialogue and cooperation across the blocks. In Sweden therefore, the current post-election debate, can be a model for the rest of Europe, yes, along with Germany, where Angela Merkel, has managed to rule in a grand coalition, led by her parties from the bourgeoisie side.

It should be noted that over time, if the Sweden Democrats are stopped and voters from that party goes to the ‘Kristdemokraterna’ and ‘Moderaterna’, then the bourgeoisie block would be likely to gain majority in general elections, and the socialist block would end up in the doldrums. That is if the Social Democratic Party, together with the socialist Left Party, cannot to be seen as a modern and future-looking political force, indeed taking up the political fight with the conservative wind in Swedish politics. The left today has a communication and image problem to overcome. Yet, in Sweden, it should not be too difficult to gain more support since the left fights for equality and fairness, the basics of the ‘Swedish model’ or ‘Scandinavian model’. The Social Democratic Party has over the last four years led a government which has shown economic development and growth. However, the Social Democratic Party has moved closer to the centre and the second largest party, ‘Moderaterna’; hence, the party may indeed have to move to the left and take on several of the policies that the socialist Left Party and also the Green Party advocate.

I believe that that is the way to go. Yes, a more left-oriented block, with a moderately conservative centre block, and a conservative block. The latter may even have housetrained right-wing and populist groups. I have suggested they should be under ‘Kristdemokraterna’ in order to stop SD’s growth. But I am not saying that a small SD should be blocked from political dialogue since that would be undemocratic and in the long run perhaps even encourage the far right to use non-parliamentarian means to gain influence. Currently, the extreme parties and groups in Europe are right-wing. In the past, there were some groups and small parties on the far left, and such may resurface, unlikely as it may seem today. Open debate and reasoning are required.

I believe it is essential that the social democrats in Europe reorganise their parties and re-think how they work, not to become conservative or centrist, but stay focused on more socialist policies of equality, fairness, inclusiveness, internationalism, sustainable environment, and indeed social welfare for all. The private sector should create wealth; the politicians should create opportunities for a decent private sector, and indeed regulate and help create good living conditions for all. That is what politics is about. I hope the level headed Swedes can help show us how to discuss issues.

On the other hand, after last week’s article, a retired Norwegian politician and sociology professor Ingrid Eide, said in an email to me that Sweden’s model function may be limited. Sweden and the Nordic countries are small countries. “Just now, I believe that Pakistan is important, and what it can show its people and the world is what we should give attention to”, she said.

Dear reader, may I wish you a happy Islamic New Year, and note that now on the 10th day of Muharram, when Ashura is marked, Shiites and all Muslims, pay special attention to prayers and actions for peace, and to dialogue within and across one’s religion. At all times, peace and mercy, love for God and fellow human beings, must be what we pray for – and what we in everyday life and in politics work for.


The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist with experience in research, diplomacy and development aid.