Europe’s last liberal bastion – Sweden's Election and the Israeli Connection

If the polls are correct, the Swedish election on Sept. 9 could spell the end of a century of social democratic rule. What does it all mean and what's the Israeli connection?

Published in Haaretz: 

Sweden is not the type of country that generates dramatic news, and when it does make the news elsewhere around the world, it is usually related either to its foreign policy or to immigration. Recently, however, political commentators from all over the world have Sweden in their sights in the run-up to the elections to be held here on September 9th.

To understand why the upcoming elections in this Scandinavian country of 10 million people are important in the pan-European context, one must remember the two trends that have taken hold on the continent in recent years. The first is the dramatic rise of the populist right, as reflected in the growing strength of political parties such as Alternative for Germany, the Freedom party in the Netherlands and the ruling parties in Poland and Hungary. The second is the weakening of social democratic parties such as the SPD in Germany and the French Socialist party.

Signs of these trends can also be seen in Sweden, but they are only initial indications. The most recent term of the Swedish Social Democratic party has indeed been crisis-ridden, but unlike its sister parties in Italy, Britain and the neighboring Nordic countries, it is still in power and has not really lost an election since 1917. Even in those rare instances in which it lost control of the government, it was still the largest party in parliament and quickly returned to power.

Sweden also differs from its neighbors when it comes to the rise of the populist right. It does have a right-wing populist party, the Sweden Democrats, and the party has indeed grown stronger in recent years. But up to now, it has been neutralized effectively thanks to a broad consensus among the other parties, all of which have refused to cooperate with it.

The Sweden Democrats party got its start in the late 1980s as a far-right party with neo-Nazi characteristics. Over the years, however, it has become somewhat more like the established order. Since passing the electoral threshold for the first time in 2010, it has only grown stronger, but the political establishment’s refusal to bring it into the governing coalition has denied it real political influence.

Now all this may change. Some polls show the Sweden Democrats getting more than 20 percent of the vote, while the Social Democratic Party seems poised to do worse than it has at any time in the past 100 years.

If these polls prove correct, moderate right-wing parties are liable to allow the far right to join the government for the first time or at least support it in return for a seat at the decision making table. Sweden might then become the latest brick to fall from what remains of the edifice of the post-war order in Western Europe. In other words, this could spell the end of the era of democratic welfare states that are open to immigration, cooperate with each other and promote humanistic, universal values. That would be an event of historic proportions.

If instead the polls are wrong, and the Swedish public reelects the traditional political forces, Sweden will be the country where the rightward drift was halted. It could then serve as an inspiration to reverse the trend elsewhere on the continent.

The strengthening of Sweden’s far right has sparked hopes among many Israelis who think that, in contrast with the current Swedish government, a right-wing government would give Israel unreserved support. That is understandable, but it would also be mistaken.

First, the fact that the new European right-wing movements are deeply rooted in anti-Semitism and neo-Nazism is significant. Even if today parties such as the Sweden Democrats and leaders such as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban have targeted Islam, rather than Judaism and Zionism, as their archenemy, there is no guarantee that their rapprochement with Israel isn’t based on temporary interests.

These are parties with swastikas in their past, and today, they have ties with tycoons, politicians and intellectuals motivated by interests and ideologies that hold many hidden dangers for Israel and Jews around the world. As long as the partnership between Israel and the new European right is based on the shaky ground of hatred of Muslims and a battle against media and legal elites, rather than on a deeply seated moral, economic and cultural partnership, it should surprise no one if this friendship is supplanted at times by votes against Israel at the United Nations, by anti-Semitic campaigns and legitimization of Holocaust denial.

But the issue isn’t just anti-Semitism and hatred of Israel, since they also exist on the European left, which has sometimes produced leaders who support Islamic terrorism and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. Just like Europe's left wings voters aren’t necessarily Anti-Semitic, most voters of the populist right aren't Nazis. They are people disappointed by the political establishment and its policies. However, Israelis seeking partners in Europe must consider the fact that the nationalistic right is changing Europe. It is establishing anti-liberal, separatist, Eurosceptic regimes, building walls around Europe and diminishing its spirit. In such a situation, Israeli companies will have trouble exporting to Europe, Israeli tourists will have trouble traveling there and scientists and artists will find less of interest there.

And even if the new Europe’s support for Israel is strong, this won’t help Israelis who support democracy, human rights and solidarity and long for peace. For those Israelis, the support of a Europe where such values actually prevail would be more useful, even if such support is sometimes accompanied by complaints, demands and criticism.