A strong showing by the anti-immigration Sweden Democrats in the Swedish elections on September 9 drained away so many votes from the establishment parties that the two main parliamentary blocs were left virtually tied and far short of a governing majority.
The Sweden Democrats won 17.5% of the vote and emerged as the third-largest party in the country, according to the official election results released on September 16. The result, a 4.6% improvement on the 12.9% it won in 2014, placed the Sweden Democrats into a situation of holding the balance of power in the next parliament.
Incumbent Prime Minister Stefan Löfven's center-left Social Democrats came in first, with 28.3% of the vote — the party's worst result in more than 100 years. The center-right Moderate party came in second, with 19.8% of the vote, a 3.5% drop from 2014.
With eight political parties in the Swedish Parliament, the establishment parties traditionally have organized themselves into two rival parliamentary blocs: On the left, the Social Democrats and their allies garnered 40.7% of the vote. On the right, the Moderates and their allies won 40.3% of the vote.
Although the Sweden Democrats are now in a position to play kingmaker in Parliament, the mainstream blocs have vowed not to cooperate with them because of their "nationalist" positions on immigration and the European Union.
Sweden, with a largely homogenous population of around 10 million people, received nearly 500,000 asylum seekers from Africa, Asia and the Middle East since 2010. The arrival of so many overwhelmingly male migrants from different cultural and religious backgrounds has created massive social upheaval, including a surge in sexual assaults and gang violence in cities and towns across Sweden.
The Sweden Democrats campaigned on a promise to curb immigration, restrict family reunifications, speed up deportations and crack down on migrant crime. Party leader Jimmie Åkesson also warned that mass migration poses an existential threat to Sweden's social welfare system. With tens of thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands, of migrants receiving welfare payments without having made any contributions, the current welfare system seems destined to collapse, he said.
Pre-election polls showed that the anti-immigration message was resonating with Swedish voters. A YouGov poll published on September 5 — just four days before the election — showed that support for the Sweden Democrats was at 24.8%, compared to 23.8% for the Social Democrats and 16.5% for the Moderates. In other words, the poll suggested that the Sweden Democrats had become the largest party in Sweden.
Observers have proffered several theories to explain the disconnect between the polls and the final election results. Some commentators have pointed to efforts by the mainstream parties to portray the Sweden Democrats as "far right," "racist," and "neo-Nazi" due to the party's supposedly "nationalist" and "populist" stance on immigration. The stigma of voting for the Sweden Democrats may have given some voters pause.
During a televised debate in October 2016, for example, Prime Minister Löfven called the Sweden Democrats "a Nazi party, a racist party." He also claimed that "swastikas are still in use at their meetings." The Sweden Democrats accused Löfven of slander and threatened to report him to the Parliament's Constitutional Committee. Jonas Millard, the party's representative on that committee, said:
"When Sweden's prime minister claims that the Sweden Democrats are a Nazi party, it is not just a lie, but also completely lacking in understanding of history and lacking in respect for all those millions of people who have been exposed to real Nazism."
Löfven later relented and said that his words had been taken out of context. Since then, however, Löfven has repeatedly accused the Sweden Democrats of having links to Nazism, even though Åkesson, who became party leader in 2005, has applied a zero-tolerance policy toward racism and has expelled members suspected of extremism.
A day before the September 9, 2018 election, Löfven again branded the Sweden Democrats as racist:
"We are not going to retreat one millimeter in the face of hatred and extremism wherever it shows itself.
"Again, and again, and again, they show their Nazi and racist roots, and they are trying to destroy the European Union at a time when we need that co-operation the most."
Meanwhile, the Social Democrats invested eight million Swedish krona ($850,000; €770,000) of taxpayer money to encourage voter participation among migrants. That strategy appears to have paid off: in Stockholm's Rinkeby district, where nine out of ten residents are immigrants, the Social Democrats received 77% of the vote while the Sweden Democrats won only 3%.
A similar pattern took place in Sweden's five dozen other no-go zones (Swedish police euphemistically refer to them as "vulnerable areas"), although a detailed analysis of the election results by the Swedish-Czech author Katerina Janouch and her colleague Peter Lindmark show that the Sweden Democrats are making gains among migrants, especially among women who are concerned about rampant crime and the imposition of Islamic sharia law.
Others believe that election fraud may have benefited the mainstream parties at the expense of the Sweden Democrats. It remains unclear how widespread voter irregularities were, and what if any impact they may have had on the final election results. The Swedish police, however, received more than 2,300 reports of potential crimes linked to this year's election. The complaints include voter intimidation, including threats of violence against property or persons.
Separately, the Swedish Election Authority (Valmyndigheten), the central authority responsible for conducting elections, received more than 400 complaints of alleged voter fraud, and prosecutors are now investigating possible crimes in connection with the election, according to the newspaper Aftonbladet.
An international team of 25 election observers, "Democracy Volunteers," deployed throughout polling stations in Stockholm, Malmö, Gothenburg, Uppsala and Västerås — in total, the team observed over 250 polling stations across these locations — found irregularities in 46% of the stations visited.
The team expressed particular concern over the lack of secrecy in voting. In Sweden, each party has separate ballot papers with the party name prominently displayed, and voters pick the party-specific ballot of their choice from a stand inside the polling station.
The picking of ballot papers takes place in public, so anyone present can observe which party's ballot paper the voter will choose. As a result, some voters may have felt intimidated and reluctant to publicly reveal that they wanted to vote for the Sweden Democrats.
The election observers also criticized family voting, a practice in which Swedish electoral authorities allow more than one voter (normally from the same family) to enter the polling booth together, ostensibly to ensure that the more literate family member can assist the less literate ones to correctly fill in the ballot paper.
The election observers concluded:
"We are concerned about the significant level of family voting where women, older voters and the infirm can be guided or even instructed how to vote by another family member....
"A key aspect of voting is that a voter should have their individual right to cast their own vote independently and without the interference, or even knowledge of another voter.
"We feel this may be a way of suppressing some voters from freely choosing their own choice without the knowledge of others and we would recommend that the Swedish election authorities look at this as part of their own review in due course."
In a study entitled, "Is Voting in Sweden Secret," Jørgen Elklit of the Department of Political Science at Aarhus University wrote that family voting is a long-standing problem in Sweden and appears to be especially prevalent in immigrant communities:
"This type of help to disadvantaged voters obviously also puts repressed family members in a complicated situation, if they want to vote differently from their repressors. Family voting was rather common in the former Soviet Union and in Eastern Europe....
"It was very surprising (almost unbelievable) to read in the ... election observation report from the 2014 Swedish elections ... that the observers noted a considerable amount of family voting in Stockholm. There are ... indications that this phenomenon is primarily seen in polling districts with relatively many voters of non-Swedish background."
Other election irregularities include:
- In Botkyrka, the Moderates party was offered 3,000 votes by local Muslim leaders in exchange for a construction permit to build a mosque. The party waited until two days before the election to reject the offer. Public prosecutors are now probing whether the offer was a criminal offense.
- In Degerfors, a Social Democrat politician allegedly offered to pay voters 500 Swedish krona ($55; €50) in exchange for their votes. In the same town, a Social Democrat politician allegedly followed voters into a polling station, and then accompanied them to the ballot box. The politician, who has not been named, is being investigated for improperly influencing voters.
- In Eda, a Social Democrat politician allegedly helped voters fill in their ballots.
- In Falu, hundreds of ballots were invalidated because they were delivered late by the postal service.
- In Filipstad, the Moderates party filed a complaint with election authorities after men were observed entering the polling station with women, picking the ballot papers for them and then following them to the ballot box to ensure that they voted for the Social Democrats. The Election Committee Chairperson in Filipstad, Helene Larsson Saikoff, herself a Social Democrat, said that she did not see any problem with the practice of family voting: "It is up to the voter if she wants to be accompanied by her husband or some good friend."
- In Gothenburg, the second-largest city in Sweden, some polling stations excluded ballot papers for the Sweden Democrats.
- In Heby, a recount of votes resulted in significant differences between the results on election night. When asked how this could be, the chairman of the electoral committee in Heby, Rickert Olsson blamed the "human factor" which was due to "fatigue."
- In Märsta, poll workers advised voters not to seal their ballot envelopes. Sweden Democrats said that the envelopes could have been tampered with.
Elsewhere, the newspaper Metro reported that ballot papers for the Sweden Democrats were stolen from the Swedish embassies in Berlin, London and Madrid, thereby making it impossible for Swedish "expats" in those areas to vote for the Sweden Democrats.
"In all the election observations I have been on, I have never seen a choice as undemocratic as the one in Sweden," said Danish MP Michael Aastrup Jensen, a veteran election observer who monitored the Swedish election in a private capacity. "It is far from the European standard."
Similar allegations of voter fraud surfaced in 2014 election. At the time, The Sweden Report wrote:
"For starters, a number of mailmen have officially protested delivering voting cards from the Sweden Democrats (SD), the third-largest party in the country, because they do not agree with the politics of the party....
"There are several reports from Stockholm, Gothenburg, Laholm and Halmstad where the envelopes from SD have clearly been opened and resealed. The content has been removed or in some cases replaced with voting cards from other parties....
"Other irregularities against SD includes stolen voting cards at the pre-voting locations, and in one case a more advanced scheme: Someone had switched SD municipality voting cards with those of a neighboring municipality, making it very easy to cast an invalid vote.
"As if that wasn't enough, there's the risk of tampering by the election administrators themselves. In the May election for the EU-parliament, a noted case involved a vote counter openly debating whether to simply throw away the stack of SD votes on Facebook."
Meanwhile, information about an official EU report, which concluded that Sweden has the worst border controls in the European Union, was allegedly kept from voters until after the elections were over, according to the newspaper Expressen.
The report warned that Swedish border guards are poorly trained and lack basic knowledge about how to detect counterfeit passports and other travel documents used by fake asylum seekers and returning jihadis. The report said that the problem is especially acute at Stockholm's Arlanda Airport, the main airport in Sweden, and recommended that Frontex, the EU border control authority, be deployed to help Sweden to secure its external border.
Several border control officers interviewed by Expressen said that officials at the Ministry of Justice deemed the report to be "politically explosive" and that it "should therefore be kept secret until the election was completed." Justice Minister Morgan Johansson denied the accusations.
Some observers argued that the Social Democrats managed to eke out a success in the 2018 election only by adopting some of the immigration proposals advocated by the Sweden Democrats. In May 2018, for example, Prime Minister Löfven, in an effort to stanch the bleeding of votes, announced a plan to tighten asylum rules, improve border controls and cut welfare benefits for migrants whose asylum applications have been rejected.
Others noted that by making the election primarily about immigration, and by forcing the established parties to harden their policies on asylum, the Sweden Democrats emerged as the actual winners.
The leader of the Sweden Democrats, Jimmie Åkesson, addressing the Danish People's Party's annual meeting in Herning, Denmark on September 15, said it would be impossible for the other parties in Sweden to shut his party out of influence in the negotiations to form the next government:
"They make every effort to form a new government without giving us influence. But it will be impossible to keep us out. The sooner they realize it, the faster we will avoid chaos."
The scale of the challenge facing Sweden is daunting. A recent study by the Pew Research Center estimated that even if all immigration were immediately to stop, the proportion of Muslims in Sweden would still rise to more than 11% of the overall population by 2050. A medium migration scenario places Sweden's Muslim population at 20.5% in 30 years; a high migration scenario places the Muslim population at 30.6%.