These days, the most pervasive impression of Sweden is that evoked in the late Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy. All three books have been at the top of the bestseller lists for months in Canada, and even longer elsewhere. The near-2,000-page saga of the unforgettable Lisbeth Salander makes for great reading. But Salander – along with her nemesis, a rogue reactionary cell in the Swedish security service, with tentacles reaching out to the police, judiciary, social services and media – is, of course, pure fiction.

And despite what you may have heard, so is the proposition that Sweden’s September election represented a dramatic shift to the right. In fact, the outcome was but the latest development in an inevitable process: Swedish politics is edging closer to the pattern of its Nordic and northern European neighbours.

Through the particularities of the Swedish proportional system, the Sweden Democrats (SD) entered Parliament by winning over 4 per cent of the vote (5.3 per cent, to be exact). They hold the balance of power with 19 seats, since the margin of the winning centre-right alliance over the opposition Red-Green coalition was only 17 seats.

But the result is not the “nightmare scenario” of the far right in the driver’s seat that some evoked. There is little chance of SD using its position to win policy concessions, as both government and opposition were explicit on refusing to accept this. An indication came in early October, when three Red-Green members’ absence allowed the existing speaker (from the governing Conservatives) to be reelected with enough votes not to be dependent on SD support.

And while early on some Sweden Democrats sounded like the old Nazi sympathizers portrayed in the first volume of Millennium (entitled, in the original Swedish version, The Men who Hate Women), under its current 31-year-old leader, web designer Jimmy Akensson, the SD cleaned house of overtly racist elements. Akensson insists, “We are not against immigrants, just immigration policy.”

Moreover, except in their position on immigration and harsher punishment for youth offenders, the Sweden Democrats are not out of the mainstream. Too much immigration, they claim, is undermining the Swedish welfare state, which they seek to secure, not tear down. In this latter goal, they are not so different from the Conservatives (officially the “Moderates”) and their partners in the centre-right alliance. Prime Minister Frederik Reinfeldt ran an effective campaign. His Moderates, the posters exclaimed, were the true labour party, their policies designed to strengthen the welfare state by making it more efficient at producing jobs.

Given that the Swedish economy has been doing relatively well, the reelection of the centre-right coalition should surprise no one. But it is nevertheless unprecedented, and has been interpreted as the end of an era in Swedish politics. The Social Democrats (SAP), in power for 83 per cent of the years 1932 to 2010, marked their worst results since 1914, with 30.6 per cent of the vote, a mere 0.6 percentage points ahead of the Moderates.

Clearly, the days of SAP hegemony are over, but this should not be taken to mean that the days of the social democratic welfare state are over. Unlike earlier generations, Swedes today do not necessarily associate supporting the policies and institutions the Social Democrats created during their years in power with voting for them in elections. There was no talk of system change. In 2004 the Moderates definitively reconciled themselves to the core components of the welfare state, restyling themselves the “new Moderates” and creating the “Alliance for Sweden” with three small parties. On the basis of a common election platform, they wrested power from the Social Democrats in 2006.

In government, the Alliance got off to a bad start, with unpaid taxes prompting two ministerial resignations. It then picked a fight with the trade unions over ending the tax-exempt status of their membership fees, and over tighter restrictions on social-security eligibility and sick leave. A reform of the property tax system and abolition of the wealth tax also proved unpopular. As a result, the SAP sat back and awaited its “inevitable” return to power, instead of looking into the deeper reasons for its loss.

But other Alliance reforms proved popular. Tax credits were introduced for in-home child care and for a variety of home improvements. Most important was the earned-income tax credit, which raised the disposable income of lower-paid groups and thus served as an incentive to work rather than seek social-security benefits. The Alliance benefited from the previous Social Democratic government’s iron grip on public finances. When Sweden was hit by the economic downturn, cash was available for stimulus projects to speed up recovery. The popularity of the shrewd young finance minister, Anders Borg, soared.

To offer an alternative, in an unprecedented move, the SAP formed the Red-Green Alliance. But the socialist Left Party’s participation was uncomfortable. Before and during the campaign, the Left Party emphasized those areas of policy that were most unsettling for middle-class voters in the bigger cities, precisely the voters lost by the centre-left in 2006. At one point, the Social Democrats and the Greens announced that, given differences over fiscal policy, the Left Party would be excluded. In the face of an uproar in the labour movement, they soon reversed themselves.

SAP leader Mona Sahlin’s authority was undercut by such squabbles, as well as by a certain programmatic incoherence, especially in her sudden promise of big tax cuts for pensioners. With Borg increasingly building a reputation for economic competence, Sahlin was unable to effectively assert the SAP’s traditional claim to being the best economic manager. Indeed, the SAP would probably have done worse if the Sweden Democrats hadn’t surged in the late polls. Sahlin effectively rallied lukewarm supporters in the last ten days.

Most surprising to outsiders is the shock that greeted the SD breakthrough. Given that they have an effective leader and real experience in local councils in southern Sweden, it was inevitable that they would improve their organization and showing. It is this, rather than changing attitudes, that explains the Sweden Democrats’ rise.

But in Sweden, serious public debate about immigration and integration is largely absent. The crime, violence and other problems associated with immigrant-dominated suburbs are little covered in the media and ignored by mainstream politicians who avoid any possible hint of racist attitudes. This of course leaves the field open to the Sweden Democrats and their one-sided analysis.

Turnout went up to just under 85 per cent, among the very highest in comparable countries. The presence of the SD helped bring out voters, as did concerns such as the decline in educational standards compared, in particular, to neighbouring Finland. Overall, the election served to affirm basic Swedish values and achievements and the desire to find innovative ways of securing that achievement. In the exit poll, a remarkable 70 per cent stated that they trusted politicians.

Swedish Social Democrats will have to face up to their party’s loss of hegemony. But they will be able to console themselves with the thought that the edifice that they built remains solid.