- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 21, 2010

In the popular imagination, Sweden is the apotheosis of socialist Europe — a country with high taxes, a lavish welfare state, a robust labor movement and a history of welcoming immigrants from around the world.

So to a time traveler from a decade ago, the country’s Sunday election results would have been surprising: A center-right government was re-elected for the first time, the long-dominant Social Democrats turned in their worst showing ever, and a far-right, anti-immigrant party with neo-Nazi roots — the Sweden Democrats — doubled its 2006 vote and gained its first parliamentary foothold in the Riksdag.

To an extent, Sweden’s elections affirmed twin political trends that have spread throughout Europe in recent years: Fiscally conservative center-right parties have gained ground on social-democratic parties owing to budget crises that were exacerbated by the global economic downturn.

Meanwhile, far-right parties have made inroads by exploiting native voters’ anxieties over growing populations of poorly integrated non-European immigrants, particularly those from Muslim countries.

In June, Dutch voters gave a plurality to the free-market Liberal Party, while Geert Wilders’ anti-Islam Party for Freedom edged out the governing center-right Christian Democrats for third place.

A month earlier, after 13 years in opposition, Britain’s Tories gained power while Labor turned in its worst showing since 1977.

And in last year’s elections for the European Union’s Parliament, held across the bloc’s 27 member nations, the right consistently outperformed the left.

At the moment, right-of-center parties reign supreme in the Continent’s four most populous countries — Germany, France, Britain and Italy — and in smaller countries throughout Western and Eastern Europe that traditionally have tilted left.

“If you look across Europe, the political center of gravity has clearly moved to the right,” said Charles Kupchan, senior fellow for Europe Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. “There were deep and broad structural problems on the economy that Europeans had to tackle, and the British began to tackle them under [Prime Minister Margaret] Thatcher. And then the Labor Party moved to the center and continued to tackle them. Now, that process of undoing large state-centered economies is moving to the Continent.”

“One could have easily imagined that the global economic downturn would have fueled the left,” Mr. Kupchan added. “You could have seen labor unions digging in their heels, protectionist voices emerging. That hasn’t happened because parties and electorates realize that in the global marketplace, that reaction would be a disaster.”

“The left parties have also moved to the right,” following in the footsteps of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s “New Labor” in Britain, he said.

Mr. Kupchan noted that, beyond the economy, the issue of immigration was not only “creating space for far-right, populist parties” like the Sweden Democrats and Mr. Wilders’ party, but also “prompting more centrist parties to move to the right to win some of the votes that might otherwise go to the far right.”

During the campaign, for example, the Tories pledged to drastically reduce the influx of “non-EU migrants” — code language, in the eyes of many, for Muslims.

Jonathan Laurence, a Boston College professor who specializes in the politics of Islam in the West, said the mere discussion of Muslim immigration and the challenges that come with it are departures from the past.

“Given Europe’s unfortunate history,” he said, “there had been this taboo on both the left and the center-right on discussing what it means have 5 [percent] to 10 percent Muslim population, which is a conversation worth having, provided it doesn’t descend to the lowest common denominator.”

That taboo, he said, has begun to wear off as the memory of World War II has given way to the post-Sept. 11 reality, where Islamic terrorists — many of them homegrown — have struck in places such as Madrid and London and where public displays of Islam are increasingly becoming facts of life.

This year, Swiss voters overwhelmingly approved a referendum banning the construction of minarets, while France enacted a law banning the hijab.

Mr. Laurence expressed optimism, however, that while past European efforts at institutional equality had yielded mixed results, center-right leaders such as French President Nicolas Sarkozy have sought what Mr. Laurence called creative ways of tackling the added challenge of social integration without demagoguing the topic.

“Even the left-wing parties have come around to admitting that these issues exist, though they haven’t necessarily figured out how exactly to address them,” he said. “But just as the Democrats have a reputation for being weak on national security, the parties of the left are going to find it difficult to shake the voters’ perception that they still just want to bury their heads in the sand.”

Mr. Kupchan, referring to the politics of the economy, compared Europe and the U.S. in a different way.

“I think that what’s happened in Europe is to some extent the opposite of what’s happening here,” he said. “During the Cold War, there wasn’t all that much difference between Democrats and Republicans in the United States, but there were huge differences between Social Democrats and Christian Democrats in Europe.

“Now, here in the United States, Democrats and Republicans are miles apart, but left and right in Europe are converging — and generally moving to the right.”

• Ben Birnbaum can be reached at 138247@example.com.

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