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Sweden: Election prompts soul-searching

A shift to the far right has Swedes wondering whether their tolerant, liberal self-image is correct.

For Arias and many people her age, the functioning-but-fragile economy remains a concern. According to government statistics, unemployment has dipped slightly but continues to hover at 7.4 percent and benefits for those out of work or disabled have been recently trimmed.

“When I’m done with school I want to feel that there is going to be something there for me,” she said.

Some Swedes, however, are not panicking. Pointing to the less than 6 percent return, many say the Swedish stereotype of a charitable, tolerant and right-minded people may be tarnished but it has yet to be rubbed out.

Using history as an example, voters mention the New Democrats, a different far-right party that gained even more seats in parliament than the Sweden Democrats have during the 1992 national vote only to implode four years later in the next election.

“It’s still tolerant, still liberal,” said 60-year-old Anders Johansson, who resides in a tony suburb of northern Stockholm. “This is 5 percent of the population and I think many of their voters aren’t against immigration they are just fed up with the political system.”

Beside the surprising success of the Sweden Democrats, the election saw the center-right alliance led by the conservative New Moderates clinch their second consecutive victory, a first in Swedish political history, signaling a shift from the country’s long embrace of left-leaning policies.

The Social Democrats, the party that has dominated political life here and piloted a coalition of leftist parties, experienced its worst election returns since before World War I.

Jenny Madestam, a political science instructor at Stockholm University, said voters’ disappointment with the Social Democrats stems from the four years the party spent in opposition while still failing to propose new ideas during their campaign.

What’s more, parties on the right have been able to poach voters from the left by moving toward the center and promising to keep most of Sweden’s cradle-to-grave welfare system untouched.

“Right-wing and moderate parties have been really successful at being the new working parties,” she said. “People in Europe are no longer afraid to vote for parties on the right.”