GOTHENBURG, Sweden — A loose coalition of right-wing parties has narrowly defeated Sweden’s center-left government in a general election, a victory that promises to upend Swedish politics and the country’s reputation as a haven for progressive, pluralistic ideals.
Victory for the right came after strong support for the Sweden Democrats, a once-fringe anti-immigrant party that will now be the second-largest party in the legislature and the strongest voice from the right.
The SD, led by 43-year-old lawmaker Jimmie Akesson, and the Moderate, Christian Democrat and Liberal parties won 176 seats, according to the latest tally, giving them a three-seat lead over the Social Democrats of Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson and their Left, Center and Environment allies. Andersson conceded Wednesday evening ahead of the final results. It could still take weeks to form a government.
The closely watched election has already reshaped Sweden’s political discourse, pushing anti-immigrant and tough-on-crime rhetoric into the political mainstream and deepening fears here about the polarization — or “Americanization” — of Swedish politics.
The European far right has welcomed the SD’s strong showing. “Everywhere in Europe, people aspire to take their destiny back into their own hands!” tweeted Marine Le Pen, France’s far-right firebrand, earlier this week.
The result could also shape Sweden’s standing on the world stage as the country works with partners to respond to the war in Ukraine, seeks NATO membership and takes up the rotating presidency of the European Union in 2023.
“When you are holding on to power with one seat, it’s a cause of instability,” said Eric Adamson, a Stockholm-based project manager at the Atlantic Council’s Northern Europe office. “This may make it harder for Sweden to take on a leadership role in northern Europe, in the E.U. or in NATO.”
The SD gained support by taking a tougher stance against crime, particularly against the rising rates of gun violence in Sweden, and publishing a 30-point plan aimed at making Sweden’s immigration rules among the most restrictive in the E.U. They want to be able to reject asylum seekers based on religion, for instance, or based on gender or sexual identity.
A decade ago, Sweden’s liberal immigration policies were not a major political issue. The influx of migrants to Europe in 2015 started to change this. At that time, Sweden took more than 150,000 asylum seekers, including many newcomers from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. In the years since, concerns about immigration and their integration have come to the fore.
The Social Democrats maintain that they have reduced asylum claims by making it harder for migrants to get into the country and apply, stepped up the deportation of asylum seekers whose applications had been rejected and insisted that Sweden should receive no more asylum seekers than other E.U. countries. Party leaders also pledged to dilute the numbers of “non-Nordic” immigrants in areas where large numbers of immigrants live, promising an end to “Somalitowns,” “Chinatowns” and “Little Italies.”
Even a few years ago, the Sweden Democrats’ ascent would have seemed far-fetched.
Formed in 1988 by right-wing extremists and neo-Nazis, the Sweden Democrats did not manage enough votes to win seats in parliament until 2010. After that breakthrough, leaders began to exclude the most extreme members from the party.
Other parties and the media have kept their distance from the SD, refusing to talk to it or give it a platform. But support for the party grew rapidly over the past dozen years, culminating in its election showing Sunday.
Boycotted for so long by the mainstream media, the party has developed its own online news sites and is extremely effective on social media such as Facebook and YouTube.
The Moderates, the largest of the center-right parties, once shunned the SD. But it eventually opted to establish ties, with the aim of upending the political status quo and unseating the Social Democrats.
“If you want a government that is not based on the Social Democrats you need to cooperate with the SD,” said Anders Borg, a former finance minister for the Moderates. “I cannot see any other viable election strategy other that finding a way of cooperating with them.”
“In Sweden,” he said, “we isolated the SD and yet they grew to 20 percent as a lot of ordinary voters drifted towards them. At the same time, the SD has moved away from a fringe position towards being a more ordinary political party.”
Whether the SD is now an “ordinary party” is up for debate. Though the party has distanced itself from its neo-Nazi roots and has stepped away from some of its previous positions, its platform remains exclusionary.
Members want to end immigration from outside Europe and return Muslims to their countries of origin. A month before the election, an SD spokesman tweeted a photo of a subway train in the party’s blue and yellow colors with the words: “Welcome aboard the repatriation express. Here’s a one-way ticket. Next stop, Kabul!”
“They don’t include Islam in Swedishness,” said Andrej Kokkonen, a professor of politics at Gothenburg University who studies anti-immigrant parties. “You don’t get to be a Swede and a Muslim at the same time.”
Sweden Democrat voters tend to live in small towns and rural areas, and most are men, according to Ann-Cathrine Jungar, a professor at Sodertorn University who studies populist radical right parties.
They are less educated than the average voter, Jungar said, but many are small-scale entrepreneurs. The party has also attracted votes from the traditional working class and is increasing its support among the young.
“These voters have lower trust in the media — they believe there is biased information on their core issue of immigration,” Jungar said. “The SD use the populist rhetoric that there is a ‘left-liberal establishment,’ an elite that doesn’t understand the people.”
The party has cultivated links with Trump supporters and the alt-right in the United States, she said: “Previously it was the Moderates who had contacts with the Republicans, but now it is the SD who has taken over and the Moderates are connected with the Democrats.”
“There is concern here that we are becoming more like America with polarization and intense rhetoric,” said Adamson, of the Atlantic Council. “Where every battle becomes an existential one.”
Rauhala reported from Brussels