When I dropped off my kids at school early last week, I noticed that -another parent’s car was covered in ash — it had been parked in a garage where arsonists had been at work, attacking scores of vehicles. His Volvo had got away: just. ‘My car can be cleaned,’ the father told me, ‘but how can I explain this to my young kids?’
As Sweden goes to the polls next weekend, its politicians face another conundrum: how do they explain all this to the country?
I live in Uppsala, a leafy and prosperous university town north of Stockholm. Around Gothenburg, the attacks have been far more dramatic: in mid-August, 80 torched vehicles made the city’s normally dull boroughs seem more like Aleppo. Videos are being circulated showing explosion after explosion going off. Groups of masked and black-clad arsonists blazed cars and caravans. Smoke plumes above the Gothenburg skyline could be seen for miles around. It was as if the city had just been blitzed by air raids.
Twenty years ago, such scenes would have shocked Sweden to its core. Now they are a prelude to a general election which is being fought amid bitter debates about immigration, integration, crime and populism. The Sweden Democrats, a party that was for years regarded as a sinister group of far-right cranks, looks like it may end up as the largest party in parliament. Even now, Sweden’s established -parties aren’t sure how to respond.
In normal times, if a centre-left government was seen to preside over a collapse of order, it would be the conservatives — in Sweden, the Moderate party — who would benefit. But these aren’t normal times and support for the Moderates is dropping. One of the party’s MPs tells me about his trouble on the doorstep talking to voters — and how many times he ‘can’t get through the anger filter’. A great many voters don’t just blame the government, but the opposition too. Even if he tells voters what they want to hear, he says, ‘they don’t believe me’.
The governing Social Democrats are faring even worse. They, too, would in ordinary times be reaping the harvest from a broadly successful economy and what has been a boom time for the middle class. Unemployment is almost nonexistent among native Swedes and, with interest rates on mortgages still ultra-low, the average household seems more worried about Elon Musk delivering its new Tesla on time than making it through to the next pay day. State spending on schools, hospitals and social security has surged — and yet the government is running a big surplus.
Under the old rules of politics, this would guarantee a feel-good election win for the incumbent government. Instead, Stefan Löfven’s Social Democrats are heading towards their worst-ever result and seem to know it, looking and sounding like a defeated force in Swedish politics. Like the Moderates, they are being punished for failing to control what most concerns Swedes: law, order, immigration and integration.
Step forward the only winner: Jimmie Åkesson, the 39-year-old leader of the Sweden Democrats. Some polls put him in first place, others in second — but all suggest he’ll do far better than the last election. Even if he is destined for opposition, he may end up as the powerbroker of Swedish government. If the country’s traditional bloc divide between the left and the right holds, no new prime minister can be appointed without his direct or indirect support.
None of this was supposed to happen in Sweden, a country that takes pride in being calm and collected. The Sweden Democrats have been called neo-fascist, far-right, racist and xenophobic — yet nothing has halted their rise. Just like Donald Trump, who once quipped he could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot someone without losing any votes, the Sweden Democrats don’t think it matters anymore if the party’s nastiness is laid bare. Their representatives can be caught voicing the most egregious opinions: people will vote for them anyway.
It was the refugee crisis that gave the Sweden Democrats their first boost. Three years ago Sweden had 162,000 applying for asylum, 35,000 of whom were unaccompanied children. The government’s aim was to make Sweden a ‘humanitarian super-power’ and no other party objected to this open-door policy.
Given that the other parties were united against Åkesson and his crew, the Sweden Democrats had a pretty easy time collecting new supporters. For anyone who felt Sweden was accepting too many migrants, there was only one party that agreed with them. Now, however, the party is equally driven by general frustration with the establishment and it gathers up anyone with a grievance.
The big grievance is crime. Paradoxically, figures from the National Council for Crime Prevention show a steady decline in many crimes — in physical assaults, say, and car theft. Yet that success doesn’t seem to matter when the offences on the rise (the burnt-out cars, the organised crime) are so spectacular. Murder is up 40 per cent since 2012; the number of gun homicides has more than doubled in ten years. Compared with Britain, it is five times more common for young men in Sweden to be shot and killed. Even if much of this growth can be attributed to wars between criminal gangs, ordinary people do get exposed to the killings.
In the past year, two of my acquaintances in Uppsala have been witnesses to murders in broad daylight. One of them, a teenager, was chased by the assassin. The other, a parent biking home from the kindergarten with the kids, decided to move from the city because this wasn’t the first time someone was killed nearby.
Such stories are, of course, unusual. But they travel fast — because, not so long ago, Swedish cities weren’t ganglands. It wasn’t a regular feature of city life that cars were torched, nor (as now seems to happen) were hundreds of schools attacked by arsonists.
Sweden is on fire — politically, if not literally — and this is what explains the success of the Sweden Democrats. I have yet to meet any of its supporters who believe that Åkesson’s policies on crime — or anything else, for that matter — are better than what is proposed by other parties. For many of its voters, this election isn’t about policy. It’s a political panic attack.