‘Hope, lovin’ and trust’ are in short supply in anxious Sweden

Sunday’s election hinges on whether Swedes still believe social solidarity defines their country

A cyclist passes near election campaign posters for the Liberal Party in Stockholm, Sweden. Photograph: Mikael Sjoberg/Bloomberg/Getty Images

A cyclist passes near election campaign posters for the Liberal Party in Stockholm, Sweden. Photograph: Mikael Sjoberg/Bloomberg/Getty Images

 

Business is booming at Nikos’s Taverna, an escapist getaway for weary Swedes in central Stockholm.

A three-course Greek dinner and three hours of Abba hits have made “Mamma Mia: The Party” a runaway success since it opened in 2016 beside a museum dedicated to the band.

Another profitable product in Abba’s post-breakup empire, the musical-dinner theatre mash-up has become welcome, disco-beat retreat for Swedes and tourists alike in a relentless age of anxiety.

In their first 1972 single Benny, Björn, Agnetha and Anni-Frid sang how “people need hope, people need lovin’, people need trust.” But all three are in short supply as an anxious Sweden chooses a new government on Sunday.

Inside a huge shed that, through the miracle of plaster and fake olive trees, has been converted into a Greek taverna terrace, my neighbours at table 52 agree not to discuss politics nor to harvest song lyrics from Waterloo, SOS and Under Attack to comment on a darkening political mood.

I’m a conservative but even my Social Democrat friends are pissed off with everything spiralling out of control

“ABBA today is nostalgia for another time, a simpler time, and that’s why we’re here,” says Alicia, a middle-aged woman visiting with her mother from southern Sweden.

The fluffy show centres on Nikos, his Swedish wife Kiki and their attempt to capitalise on a tourist boom since Mamma Mia was filmed in their village.

With many hits and less familiar songs, many rearranged with thanks to Zorba the Greek, the show rattles along in a crowd-pleasing blur of good food and great performances. Three hours later punters stumble out a blue door. Among them: Leif, a 77 year-old Stockholm economist who is beaming like a teenager.

“I really needed a break from politics,” he said of an election dominated by immigration, healthcare and crime. The three have, in many minds here, merged into a soul-searching debate over who Swedes believe they are and what they want to be in future.

“I’m a conservative,” said Leif, “but even my Social Democrat friends are pissed off with everything spiralling out of control.”

He’s exaggerating a little: social order, despite what Donald Trump claimed last year, has not broken down in Sweden. But three years after welcoming 160,000 migrants - more, proportionately, than even Germany - many Swedes are rattled.

‘Envy of the world’

News reports of rapes, riots or even chemotherapy waiting lists are unheard of in an egalitarian country like this. Its postwar model - a strong welfare state underpinned by collective responsibility and high taxes - was developed by Social Democrats but supported across the political spectrum. Never perfect but always comfortable, it made Swedes the envy of the world.

Even when their patriotic pride tipped over into what their Nordic neighbours complained was smugness, the Swedes could turn that barb back into a compliment and saw themselves as a self-satisfied, self-sufficient people in the best country in the world.

That in turn pushed this country of 10 million to establish themselves in the world as a caring “moral superpower”. But did it overextend itself in the refugee crisis?

Ready to answer that question with a resounding yes is Jimmie Åkesson.

Jimmie Akesson, leader of the right wing party Sverigedemokraterna (Sweden Democrats), campaigns in Motala, Sweden, this month. Photograph: Fredrik Sandberg/AFP/Getty Images
Jimmie Akesson, leader of the right wing party Sverigedemokraterna (Sweden Democrats), campaigns in Motala, Sweden, this month. Photograph: Fredrik Sandberg/AFP/Getty Images

Sweden’s goateed populist leader is not yet 40, and was just out of nappies when ABBA broke up. But on Sunday, after touching a public nerve in the election campaign, he hopes to secure almost one in five Swedes’ votes to enter Europe’s populist premier league.

A talented communicator with a carefully-curated son-in-law image, he argues for a drastic Sweden-first reversal and migration rethink -- or risk a Muslim takeover. The recent refugee crisis has not just made globalised flight a reality, he argues, but rendered obsolete the modern idea of asylum as people in peril seeking refuge in a neighbouring country.

Not even Jesus fled to Sweden, he said in a television debate, but to neighbouring lands.

“There are billions of people in the world living in extreme poverty for whom you cannot but feel sorry,” he said, “but not everyone can come to Sweden.”

Times have changed, but we are still the same party: reformers not revolutionaries

Words like that strike a chord in Marie, a 53-year-old recruit to the SD cause. After voting for the SD in 2014, she is now a volunteer at the party stand on Stockholm’s Odenplan plaza.

“People are tired of what’s happened in the last years - the immigrants, the crime, the waste of money on people who’ll never belong and aren’t even real refugees,” she says. Her coming out as an Åkesson supporter has cost her some friends, she says.

“But to hell with them,” she says, her blue eyes shining. “This cause is too important for my children and grandchildren.”

Earwigging at a neighbouring cabin, campaigners for Sweden’s ruling Social Democrats roll their eyes as they sort brochures promising a “more secure Sweden”.

That slogan reflects tighter asylum laws, introduced amid public alarm in 2016. Social Democratic prime minister Stefan Lövfen hopes his rethink on migration will reverse the dismal fortunes of a shrivelled party.

But half a century after Social Democrat leader Olof Palme rocked Sweden, and took more than half the vote, Mr Löfven will be happy with half on Sunday.

As working class voters defected to the SD, the Social Democrats tried everything - from dirty tricks to pre-election giveaways - to dent the populists’ march.

“Times have changed, but we are still the same party: reformers not revolutionaries,” says Rolf Lindell, a 77 year-old local election candidate whose eyes shine at the memory of meeting Palme half a century ago.

But is it enough for the Social Democrats to have remained true to itself in a very different Sweden?

“That’s a tricky question,” says Mr Lindell evasively, if thoughtfully.

New parliament

Barring last-minute upsets, Sunday’s result is likely to be a stalemate between Sweden’s centre-left and the right-wing “alliance” parties. An SD surge over the summer appears to have sagged in the final days of campaigning. An extended period of horse-trading is likely in Stockholm but even if other parties honour their election promise, and isolate the SD in the new parliament, the SD influence is palpable now across all parties policies and messaging.

A visitor takes a mobile photo of a picture of Ingvar Kamprad, founder of Swedish multinational furniture retailer Ikea, at the Ikea museum in Almhult, Sweden. Photograph: Ola Torkelsson/AFP/Getty Images)
A visitor takes a mobile photo of a picture of Ingvar Kamprad, founder of Swedish multinational furniture retailer Ikea, at the Ikea museum in Almhult, Sweden. Photograph: Ola Torkelsson/AFP/Getty Images)

“The most probable election result, and the most depressing one, is a status quo ... another kind of stagnation and a crisis of politics,” says Horace Engdahl, a literary critic and member of the Swedish Academy.

He traces this crisis back to the 1990s when Sweden abandoned its post-war belief in fundamental change through political reform and state intervention. The country embraced deregulation and, he believes, has never recovered.

“The dominant impression of the election campaign has been one of impotence,” he said, “with trivial or nonsensical slogans and the feeling that these people don’t have the slightest idea how they are going to solve the problems confronting our society.”

The last pre-election pulse point takes me three hours southwest of Stockholm to another cultural-corporate touchstone to rival Abba.

Småland is better known as the Ikea kindergarten but it is also the birthplace of the company, 75 years ago, and its founder Ingvar Kamprad.

Today, the complex Ikea empire is ultimately owned by a tax-saving foundation in the Netherlands. But much of it is still housed in functional grey-and-white industrial buildings along the railway line in the small town of Älmhult.

The company a godsend to this rural region. In the sleepy town of Älmhult, with as many hairdressers as a similar Irish town has pubs, Ikea employs more than half the town’s entire working population: attracting more than 5,000 employees from over 50 nations.

In the late 19th century the traffic was in the other direction. One in three Swedes – around 1.2 million people – left for the US, and a quarter of the total left from here in Småland.

Swedish politics changing

In the language of today’s populist Sweden Democrats they were economic migrants, but Smålanders remember their history. Those who stayed, farming the stoney soil of Småland, honed survival instincts of thrift and inventiveness. That lodged deep in the DNA of Swedes like Ingvar Kamprad and remains with his company, even after his death aged 91 last January.

“For people around the world, Ikea is essentially Swedish,” said Sofie Hansson of the Ikea Sweden press office in Älmhult. “But for Swedes Ikea encapsulates in the best possible way the values of Småland: humbleness, entrepreneurship and using one’s own resources in the best possible way.”

The first-ever Ikea store opened in Älmhult, and the iconic building is now a museum. As well as offering visitors Kamprad hagiography and furniture classics, it explains how Ikea mastered globalisation by maintaining and monetising the Swedish values of its founder.

Regardless of whether you see this as marketing or self-belief, it has clearly worked. And that, in turn, has a remarkable effect on Swedish museum visitors. Even the pensioner tour groups emerge, visibly energised, by their encounter with the Kamprad gospel: things can always be improved - by embracing the Swedish concept of Tillsammas, “togetherness”.

In an Älmhult cafe deputy mayor Elizabeth Pelota, on a break from campaigning, admits Swedish politics is “changing rapidly, horrifyingly rapidly”.

The challenge now, she says, is to refocus attention on what hasn’t changed in Sweden.

“We remain proud of Ingvar Kamprad, his values remain those of our society,” she said. “But there’s a danger that all we see now is the right-wing extremist minority.”

Tomorrow’s election, and what follows, will hinge on whether Swedes still believe that modest egalitarianism, social solidarity define their country.

Or do enough Swedes now think the previously unthinkable – that the state no longer provides for the basic needs of housing, healthcare, schools and security – and that it is time to punish mainstream politics accordingly?

If Swedes yield to populism, joining a growing European trend, what happens next was flagged seven decades ago by author Vilhelm Moberg in his celebrated novels about Småland emigrants.

“These germs of unrest are like seeds, scattered by the wind,” he wrote. “One takes root somewhere deep in a man’s soul and begins its growth.”

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