For months, it seemed that one of Europe's great bastions of liberalism might fall to the right-wing populist wave that has swept much of Europe. Despite their best efforts to appeal to Sweden’s famously tolerant nature, the country's political establishment had no answers to slow the surging fortunes of the far-right Sweden Democrats.
Then came the fires.
With the outbreak of devastating wildfires that scorched the Arctic Circle, Sweden's political mainstream unexpectedly found an issue to animate voters in the same way the Sweden Democrats’ relentless campaign against immigration had: climate change.
Though the Sweden Democrats are still poised to make historic gains this Sunday, experts say the arrival of climate change as a major election issue in late July — a first in a Swedish election — delivered a boost to other parties, and likely helped the country's establishment resist a populist takeover.
“It slowed [the Sweden Democrats] down because the focus shifted from only immigration and law and order to climate,” Toivo Sjörén, head of opinion surveys at Swedish pollster Kantar Sifo, told VICE News.
Where a poll-of-polls had the party neck-and-neck with the governing Social Democrats at 23 percent on July 20, it now has the anti-immigration party at 18 percent. That’s allowed those who viewed the rise of the nativists as a threat to Sweden’s status as a “moral superpower” to breathe a small sigh of relief.
“It was a very big and scary thing.”
Environmentalists and lawmakers say that while Swedes have always cared about the environment, climate change has never factored this strongly as a political issue.
Things changed this summer, as record-breaking temperatures created an emergency that seemed to personally impact virtually everyone in this country of 10 million people.
The wildfires that spread rapidly in the unusually dry, hot conditions — some started by unattended barbecues, others by lightning strikes — forced residents to flee their homes. They overwhelmed emergency services who were forced to call in firefighters and equipment from across Europe. They led to drought and water shortages that affected the country’s agricultural industry.
“It was a very big and scary thing,” Janine Alm Ericson, a lawmaker for Sweden’s Greens party, told VICE News.
“It made people realize what climate change will actually mean, what we’re up against. It was easier to get a picture of the urgency and the importance of dealing with it because it’s going to be tough on society in many different ways.”
“The forest fires and the extremely hot temperatures have contributed to climate change and the environment becoming even more hot button issues.”
Soon, the sudden bite to a previously abstract issue shifted political debate inside the country. Before the summer infernos, Swedish voters ranked environment and climate issues seventh out of nine issues they were asked about, according to one survey conducted in May. But in the latest Demoskop poll published Wednesday, the environment ranks as the most important issue for voters, one point ahead of immigration.
“The forest fires and the extremely hot temperatures have contributed to climate change and the environment becoming even more hot button issues,” Erik Brattberg, director of the Europe programme at the Carnegie Endowment, told VICE News. “That’s benefited parties that are seen as strong on climate change.”
“It would be devastating if the Sweden Democrats had any influence on Swedish climate policy.”
The growing concern over climate change has also helped shift public focus away from the Sweden Democrats’ core issues of immigration, integration, and crime — subjects the nativist party had made the defining issues of the campaign — and exposed the populists’ climate-skeptic views as an electoral liability.
“In political discussions, the debate has shifted from immigration and crime to be more focused on climate — which is not the agenda of the Sweden Democrats,” Greenpeace Sweden’s climate spokesman, Rolf Lindahl, told VICE News.
While other political parties have been scrambling to impress voters with their climate proposals, from EU-wide taxes on carbon emissions to boosting spending on environmental initiatives, the Sweden Democrats, which was the only Swedish party to vote against ratifying the Paris Agreement in 2015, has been promising price cuts on petrol.
“They have such low climate priorities, it’s bordering on total ignorance,” said Lindahl. “It would be devastating if the Sweden Democrats had any influence on Swedish climate policy.”
Slowed, but still strong
Prior to the wildfires, the surging fortunes of the Sweden Democrats, on the back of its hardline messaging on crime and immigration, had largely defined the campaign.
Enjoying its highest ever levels of support, the party — which did not respond to questions from VICE News — was polling first-equal with the center-left Social Democrats in mid-July. Speculation had turned to whether they could even overtake Prime Minister Stefan Löfven’s party, which, like so many other social democratic movements in Europe, was struggling to respond to the populist juggernaut.
To do so would be an extraordinary development for the Sweden Democrats, a previously marginal player in Swedish politics, with roots in neo-Nazism and fascism, which has been ostracized by other parties since it first crossed the 4 percent threshold for parliamentary seats in 2010.
Under the direction of its charismatic 39-year-old leader Jimmie Akesson, the party has gradually purged its more extreme and openly racist elements to present a more palatable image. That had helped it to set the agenda for much of the campaign by capitalizing on deep public unease over immigration, integration and crime in a country that took in 163,000 asylum seekers during the 2015 migration crisis, and has been grappling with a spate of gang violence, often in areas with high concentrations of immigrants.
But since the forest fires shifted public debate, the party’s climate skeptic position — it denies there is any link between climate change and extreme summer temperatures — has become a political liability.
When other parties reacted to growing climate concerns by trumpeting their environmental credentials, Akesson took a different route, decrying their statements on the issue as “the worst sort of populism.”
“To make politics out of one summer’s weather is simply not serious, it is the worst sort of populism,” he said last month, drawing a scathing response from other parties.
“It's embarrassing to have a climate-denier as a party leader,” said Annie Loof, leader of the rival Center Party, labelling Akesson a “Trump clone.”
The climate debate isn't going away
While the climate issue may have hurt the Sweden Democrats, it’s given a small but critical boost to the Greens, junior coalition partner to the Social Democrats.
The environmentalist party looked unlikely at the start of the campaign to reach the 4 percent threshold required in the Swedish system to gain parliamentary seats. But following the country’s newfound focus on climate change, the Greens now appear poised to return to parliament, where they could potentially play a crucial support role in helping the Social Democrats form a new government.
Sweden’s fractious political landscape, in which eight parties look set to take seats in the next parliament, means the outcome of Sunday’s vote is very much up in the air — especially given the new variable of a powerful Sweden Democrats. And while some degree of horse-trading will likely be required to form a government, all other parties have established a cordon sanitaire around Akesson’s party, pledging not to work with them.
Such a quarantine will only be reinforced by the Sweden Democrats’ toxic environmental politics, says Lindahl, who believes their climate skepticism will only isolate them further.
“They’ve been a no-go because of their nationalist policies,” he said. “Now you can add climate issues to that. It will make it even harder for other parties to collaborate with them.”
Cover image: In this photo taken on Sunday, July 15, 2018, a wildfire burns in Karbole, outside Ljusdal, Sweden. (Mats Andersson/TT News Agency via AP)