STOCKHOLM – It takes about five minutes to walk from where Sweden’s prime minister Olof Palmé was shot dead in February 1986 to the quiet churchyard where he was laid to rest – after Sunday’s general election, the plaque where he was murdered in Stockholm and his gravestone may be all that is left of his social democratic legacy.
Often held up as a model for others to follow for its cradle-to-grave welfare state, its commitment to equality and its high standing internationally, the truth is that Swedish social democracy has been in decline since Palme’s death, and he would barely recognize it in its current form.
In his last election in 1985, Palme’s Social Democrats won 44.7 percent of the vote, while the far right didn’t even register on the electoral scale. In 2022 they will be lucky to get more than 30 percent, with the Sweden Democrats – a party firmly rooted in the neo-Nazi movement – likely to get around 20 percent of the ballots cast.
Gone is the sense of solidarity that created systems of health, education and elderly care that were the envy of the world. They have been replaced by privatization and outsourced solutions across the board, and a school system exposed to for-profit actors that was deemed too extreme even for Augusto Pinochet’s Chile.
Gone too is the diplomatic superpower that built its reputation on Palme’s vocal opposition to the Vietnam war, which has been replaced by a rush to join NATO in the wake of Russia’s indefensible invasion of Ukraine.
In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, decades of freedom of alliance have gone up in smoke as the Swedes have been forced to horse-trade with dictators like Turkey’s Recip Erdogan, throwing Sweden’s Kurdish population under the bus so that they can gain membership of the world’s biggest military alliance, with all that entails.
The decline began in the decade after Palme’s murder – a crime which has never been solved – and accelerated under two consecutive terms of center-right government, led by the Moderate Party’s Fredrik Reinfeldt, from 2006 to 2014.
That period coincided with the rise of the far right, as the Sweden Democrats were gradually been brought in from the cold to become the bull in the china shop of Swedish politics.
Like many fascist and populist movements, they have vacuumed up voters from both sides, from dyed-in-the-wool white supremacists to former social democrats ostensibly worried about the threat from cheap labour.
In doing so they have dragged everyone, including the Social Democrats, a long way to the right, leading to the kind of discourse and rhetoric that would have been unimaginable in Palme’s time.
During the election campaign, parties from across the spectrum have been tripping over themselves to be perceived as tough on crime and immigration, with breathtaking policy suggestions that amount to a suspension of the rule of law in mainly immigrant areas and allow the police to act with impunity.
Undoubtedly, crime is an issue. Parallel with the sell-off of social services and the conversion of schools into for-profit enterprises, gang violence has spiraled as youths, mostly young men, decide that a short life with plenty of money and notoriety from dealing drugs is preferable to taking a more honest path.
These young men don’t care about harsher sentences, or greater police powers. Most of them expect to die sooner rather than later, but such suggestions go down well with voters who will never set foot in the area where these gangsters live.
The Sweden Democrats may have taken some votes from the left, but they have stripped both the ballots and the dignity of the other right-wing parties, who by adopting the racist rhetoric of SD then found themselves on the same playing field, completely unable to compete.
The most shameful U-turn has come from Moderate leader Ulf Kristersson, who promised Holocaust survivor Hédi Fried that he would never collaborate with the Sweden Democrats, only to invite their leader Jimmie Åkesson in from the cold a little over a year later.
Far from such actions stemming the flow, the Sweden Democrats have now outstripped the Moderates to become the biggest of the parties in the right-wing block – almost half of Swedish voters intend to either vote for a party whose first committee contained a former member of Hitler’s SS, or a right-wing party that is happy to govern with their support.
Sweden is no stranger to minority governments, and it is highly likely that Social Democrat prime minister Magdalena Andersson will be returned for another term, in another weak coalition with the Greens and possibly the agrarian Centre Party, whose steadfast refusal to countenance co-operating with the Sweden Democrats make them the exception on the right.
Should Andersson fall short, the country faces the prospect of the deeply unimpressive Kristersson trying to put together a government with the Christian Democrats and the Liberal Party (who are liberal in name only), with support from the Sweden Democrats.
That would be a dream outcome for those who are making money hand over fist from selloffs and those who want to see Sweden’s immigration policies tightened even further, and a nightmare for virtually everyone else.
If you look out of the windows of the Social Democrat headquarters on Sveavägen and slightly to the left, you can see the church where Palme lies buried. Three and a half decades after his murder, one has to look a lot harder to find any trace of the country he left behind.