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Will Swedish values survive the next two weeks?

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Outside the Moderate Party's headquarters the day after the election. Photo: Christine Olsson/TT
14:26 CEST+02:00
The big story from Sweden's election is still to be written. As politicians wrangle, the country's reputation and values are at stake, writes Paul Rapacioli, co-founder of The Local and author of Good Sweden, Bad Sweden.

Going to vote in Sweden's election on Sunday felt like participating in a vast experiment conducted on the world stage.

The hypothesis put forward by the international media was clear: progressive values bite the dust in an environment of high immigration and soaring crime.

So many new, combustible ingredients had been thrown into the mix during the last term of government: a refugee crisis with an astonishingly high number of arrivals in the country, intense focus on integration failures, daily news of gangland shootings, designation as "the rape capital of Europe", and a spate of hand grenade attacks. 

In recent months some polls had predicted a 20-25 percent share for the Sweden Democrats. Many, including the party's own politicians, had talked up their chances of becoming Sweden's biggest party.

The conclusion of this experiment was bound to be explosive and prophetic. It would tell us about the trajectory of European politics and the rise of global populism. The world's media put on its safety goggles, lit the blue touch paper and retreated. 

There was a bit of a fizzle and then the various elements combined into an amorphous pulp of complex political details. Oh.

READ ALSO: Everything you need to know about the Swedish election

With votes from abroad still to be counted, the Sweden Democrats achieved 17.6 percent of the vote. This is a significant increase on their share in 2014 but, as my colleague at their election night celebration reported, the result was a huge disappointment.

And so it should be: the Sweden Democrats were at the centre of every debate, targeted by every other party. They owned the ubiquitous immigration issue. They had the wind of the world's media at their back and a legion of bots sent from who-knows-where spreading their gospel of doom about the country. And yet they gained far fewer new voters than last time around.

In 2014 the Sweden Democrats added 461,568 new votes to their previous tally. On Sunday they added 297,713. That's a 35 percent smaller surge than four years ago despite conditions in this campaign being far more favourable.

On the night, we were treated to the bizarre spectacle of seven out of eight main parties declaring that they were 'winners'. Now the parties' leaders are locked in intense negotiations about how best to form a government. There are said to be a dozen possible outcomes and the country could end up heading left or right or creating a cross-bloc arrangement on a different plane altogether.

It's complicated, because despite widespread international reporting that implied that this election was all about immigration, Swedes are actually more concerned about healthcare, education, equality, law and order, care for the elderly and the Swedish economy.

So what about that hypothesis?

The truth is, the international media didn't get the story they came looking for. The real reason the world was watching Sweden so closely in recent weeks was what people associate with the country: not Abba or Ikea or forests but a set of extreme progressive values, such as tolerance, openness, equality, transparency.

In the global battle between progressive and traditional values, Sweden is the standard-bearer for progressivism. Many outside observers of Sunday's election expected to see the standard-bearer felled and humiliated. The journalists came to report on a bloody and decisive turning point but what they got was boring Swedish political negotiations.


Votes being counted in Malmö, Sweden. Photo: Johan Nilsson/TT

Yes, the Sweden Democrats have grown. Yes, they will have more influence. Yes, immigration is a factor. And yes, this is important news. But the real story of this election is evolving now, slowly and Swedishly, behind closed doors: can Sweden's politicians can find a way to thread the needle of staying true to progressive values while bringing greater effectiveness to government?

These negotiations are going to define how Sweden handles the problems, real and exaggerated, that it faces. These negotiations depend on Swedish values, and Swedish values depend on these negotiations.

If a toothless government emerges then it will be a lot harder to shorten hospital waiting times, improve schools, strengthen the police and solve the housing crisis – and in four years' time we'll be right back where we were last week. If the conservative parties bite the bullet and bring the Sweden Democrats into their play for power, then years of promises not to work with them will have been for nothing and political trust will be undermined for a generation. 

Swedish politicians are only human and politics everywhere is brutal. But while the world is watching, Sweden's reputation is at stake. This is a country of problem-solvers where the consensus still reigns. If the country's leaders believe in the progressive Swedish values that they have been espousing on the campaign trail, now is the time to prove it.

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