(CNSNews.com) – Voters in Sweden are mulling the future Monday after delivering a too-close-to-call election outcome, with the traditional center-left and center-right blocs evenly poised but with an anti-immigration, anti-establishment, euroskeptic party taking a strong third place in one of Europe’s most liberal democracies.
Although some opinion polls had predicted an even bigger vote, the far-right Sweden Democrats (SD) nonetheless took 17.6 percent, up from 12.9 percent in 2014 and 5.7 percent in 2010 – the first time the party, founded two decades earlier, had reached the four percent electoral threshold required to enter parliament.
Leading Sunday’s contest was the center-left Social Democratic Party (down almost three points to 28.4 percent – its worst result in over a century), followed by the center-right Moderates (down more than three points to 19.8 percent – its worst result since 2002.)
Together with their respective allies or potential allies, the Social Democrats-led center-left bloc has 40.7 points while the Moderates-led center-right alliance has 40.3 points.
Late on Sunday, the Moderates leader, Ulf Kristersson, called on Prime Minister Stefan Löfven of the Social Democrats to resign, but Löfven has not done so.
The gap between the two main blocs is so small – about 30,000 votes – that the final outcome could well be difference once overseas ballots are tallied on Wednesday.
While the makeup of the next government remains to be seen, one thing no-one expects is that the SD will be part of any ruling coalition.
Still, SD leader Jimmie Akesson was upbeat, telling supporters that the party’s tally will give it “real influence” over what happens in the country in the weeks, months and years ahead.
With its origins in white nationalism, the SD from the late 1990s repudiated its fascist forebears, purged its ranks of more extreme elements, and moderated its stances, for instance declaring the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to be the foundation of its policies.
The rebranded SD is still accused of being racist and xenophobic, although according to Sweden’s official statistics agency the party enjoys the third-highest level of support from voters with foreign backgrounds.
The SD remains strongly opposed to unchecked immigration, and much of its growth in recent years has been attributed to dismay over government policies that saw Europe’s most refugee-friendly nation admit more migrants per capita than any other country in the E.U. in 2015.
That year saw a large influx of illegal migrants and asylum-seekers, mostly from Africa and the Middle East, enter Europe. Germany took in the largest number – some 890,000 – but Sweden’s figure of 162,877, in a country of fewer than ten million people, was the highest per capita in the E.U. bloc. Of that number, roughly 51,000 were from Syria, about 40,000 from Afghanistan and some 20,000 from Iraq.
(As was the case elsewhere in Europe, the numbers dropped significantly in 2016, with Sweden admitting 28,939.)
A survey by European think tanks last year found that Sweden, a country with a “strong tradition of liberalism,” had undergone a major change in attitudes regarding immigration in the last couple of years.
“Swedish political discourse has shifted towards questions of national identity and how immigrants need to assimilate into Swedish culture and adopt Swedish values,” it said.
Like a number of other populist parties in Europe, the SD is pushing for a Swedish referendum on leaving the European Union, although Sweden’s mainstream parties do not support the idea.
Sweden’s election, and especially the SD’s showing, drew supportive tweets from likeminded parties elsewhere in Europe.
France’s far-right leader Marine Le Pen hailed the election as “another bad night for the European Union. The democratic revolution in Europe is underway!”
“Congratulations [SD] and [Jimmie Akesson]!!!” tweeted the Dutch anti-Islamist politician Geert Wilders.
In Italy, the leader of the anti-immigrant League party, Matteo Salvini – interior minister in the current government – tweeted that Sweden, the “homeland of multiculturalism and model of the left, after years of wild immigration, has finally decided to change.”
Shortly after President Trump took office he irritated some Swedes when he drew attention in a speech to the security risks associated with the asylum policies of countries like Sweden and Germany.
“They took in large numbers [of asylum-seekers],” Trump said of Sweden. “They’re having problems like they never thought possible.”
The Swedish Embassy in Washington responded coolly, saying it looked forward to “informing the U.S. administration about Swedish immigration and integration policies.”