London Swedes to the polls

It’s a sunny Thursday in August, two weeks before the election. Just off Baker Street is the embassy, a piece of home in my home town of ten years. London is sometimes called Sweden’s fourth largest city, because of the many Swedish citizens living there. Exactly how many that is remains unclear, however. But I’m not alone reading the signs for ‘Röstmottagning’ and ‘Val 2018’ – Polling Station and Election 2018. A gate opens to a stone path through small urban garden of stone flower beds and trees. Before I go in, I sit down on the wall of one of the flower beds, filled with strawberry plants. Four young birch trees, Sweden’s national tree, watch me contemplate my decision.

The 2018 election is momentous. The traditionally left-leaning country of my birth has, like most of Europe, seen an upswing of far-right populism that is unprecedented in the post-war era. The seven mainstream parliamentary parties are divided into pacts and alliances that form one left block, and one right block, but they are all at stark contrast with and united against the eighth – the Sweden Democrats (SD).

The rise of SD has been extraordinary. This is my fourth election, and in my first, in 2006, they were still a fringe party that I’d heard of, strongly disagreed with, and didn’t take very seriously. By my second election, they made the 4% electoral threshold and entered parliament. For my third election in 2014, they were the third largest party in parliament. Now they are polling at 20%, breathing down the necks of the still leading, left of centre Social Democrats (S).

S is traditionally the largest party in Sweden. After dominating 20th century politics they lost in 2006 and 2010 to the Alliance of the four right of centre parties. Changes were made to certain policies (state ownership and monopoly of pharmacies, for example, ended and was privatised), but not to others (state monopoly remains on the sale of alcohol, and the railway is still national). Some benefited, others didn’t, and this changed yet again in 2014 when S returned to power in a coalition with the Green Party, Miljöpartiet (MP). But the question that haunts the mainstream parties and remains at the heart of SD’s politics and success, is immigration.

There is a history of liberal immigration laws in Sweden. Throughout the 1990s up until 2015 Sweden accepted, per capita, the most refugees and migrants in the world. To me, this openness and aid is a Swedish characteristic; it’s what makes Sweden Swedish, distinctly different from neighbours Denmark and Norway. Integration failures, however, have led to large immigrant majority suburbs, where crime is high and employment low. This is why the Sweden Democrats see immigration as an erosion of society; its high costs the cause of the healthcare crisis and the root of organised crime. In 2015 the S/MP government bowed down to public pressure and closed the borders to migrants and refugees, and changed the laws to make asylum claims more difficult. High immigration levels have become a threat to Swedishness.

On the wall outside the Embassy, where a steady flow of Swedish Londoners pass to vote, I contemplate the idea of Swedishness under threat. There are dads with buggies entering the building, women with headscarves and youths with tattoos and green hair all coming to vote for a country they no longer live in, for a country many feel is under threat. I get sour butterflies in my stomach imagining an SD government. I also feel like my country is threatened, but by a very different enemy.

So the question is what to vote for, to best protect the values that I consider important to an open welfare state. The environment is to me the most important challenge facing both Sweden and the world today, and I want to vote for a party that carries environmental policy at its heart. There are two smaller parties that do: the Green Party (MP) on the left block, and the Center Party (C) on the right. Both are important support to the larger parties in each block, and both are polling low enough to risk falling short of the 4% mark required to enter parliament. A smaller environment party would need my vote, and in collaboration with their respective partners they can hold off the anti-immigrant, anti-feminist, climate change-denying threat of the SD. But then, that support will only be needed if one of the larger parties in each block actually win the election. If the SD win, they could still form a government.

The birch tree branches move in the wind. I am torn between voting ideologically for a smaller party, or tactically for a larger party. Do I vote for something I deem important and needs higher representation, or against something I perceive as dangerous to those values? I sigh, heave myself off the wall and go inside. There is great irony that the protective duty I feel towards my country is something I have in common with the Sweden Democrats. Choosing behind the curtain which party’s ballot paper to put in the envelope I think that’s it; the ability to find commonality and similarities in what you fear and deem different, is exactly what I love about Sweden, and what I want to protect.

Before I can think too much I put one of the ballots in the envelope, seal it, and drop it into the ballot box. I’ve cast my vote. Now all I can do is wait and see.

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