The Far Right Comes to Sweden

Swedish politics has taken a xenophobic turn with the explosive rise of the Sweden Democrats.

“We are on track to win,” Jimmie Åkesson, leader of the radical right Sweden Democrats, told supporters at the party’s annual November congress. “In recent weeks we have seen how the other parties, and especially the Social Democrats and the Conservatives have approached our standpoints on immigration policy at a furious pace. Essential parts of our immigration policy are now being put in place by the Social Democratic government.”

Four days earlier, the red-green coalition government had presented a new package of drastic measures to lower the number of refugees granted asylum in Sweden, in an effort to mitigate increasing popular support for the radical right. Perhaps the Sweden Democrats are not on track to victory, whatever that means, but there is little doubt they have now established themselves as the country’s third largest party, and wield enough power to scare social democrats into doing their work for them.

If you want to explain the dramatic sharpening of Sweden’s asylum policy, it is not enough to point to the small country’s acceptance of more than a hundred thousand refugees (mainly from Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq) over the course of three autumn months. Despite the pressure this has placed on officials — imagine the US taking in 3.3 million refugees in the same short period — the recent reversal would not have happened without the political threat posed by the Sweden Democrats.

The Social Democrats and the Conservatives have dominated Swedish politics for nearly a century. Both now face a challenge from a party formed only twenty-five years ago as a violent Nazi sect. The Sweden Democrats took a mere 1,118 votes in its first election in 1988, and did not clear the 4 percent hurdle needed to enter parliament until 2010.

This remarkable development undermines many traditional theories explaining the success of radical right parties, most of them drawn from the experience of European fascism in the 1930s. It underlines the necessity of developing a new understanding of the social forces behind radical, populist right-wing mobilization in Europe, built on a study of the past two decades, in which far-right European parties have grown by seizing new political opportunities rather than merely responding to worsening socioeconomic conditions.

Most political scientists seem to agree that the popularity of the radical right has something to do with the emergence of multicultural societies, globalization, deindustrialization, and other tectonic social shifts. But theories so broad cannot be proved empirically.

Leading Dutch scholar Cas Mudde gathered dozens of recent studies into his 2007 book Populist Radical Right Parties in Europe and found no clear correlation between high rates of unemployment, immigration, or crime and the electoral success of radical right parties. These parties are, Mudde laconically notes, “unlikely to find fertile breeding ground in countries that are (perceived as) monocultural, crimeless, and without political problems, but neither do such places exist.”

Over the past two decades, Western European countries have charted largely similar social trajectories. Most of them also contain reasonably large portions of the population — often 15–30 percent — whose views align with those of radical right parties. But only in some of them, and only occasionally, have these parties managed to achieve significant electoral success.

Contemporary Sweden would not seem like a natural place for a radical right party to grow. The economy is in good shape. Government debt is the lowest it has been in four decades, and growth has held steadily between 2 and 3.5 percent for many years. In just twenty-five years, GDP per capita has risen by more than 50 percent. Unemployment, around 7 percent, is below the European Union average and is predicted to fall further.

The 2008 financial crisis only mildly affected the country. In the first year, GDP plummeted by ten points and unemployment rose by two. Compared to most other countries, however, the crisis was neither very serious nor prolonged.

Racist, homophobic, and misogynist attitudes have been decreasing steadily for decades. In European rankings, the country usually places first in immigrant friendliness and racial tolerance. The public’s trust in politicians has recovered after a long slump, and today polls at the 1970s level of 61 percent. As in most Western countries, crime is falling. The number of murders per capita has halved over the past twenty-five years, and property crime rates have dropped steeply.

No changes in the standard economic or social indicators can alone account for the success of the Sweden Democrats. The party is like the bumblebee — able, against all physical odds, to fly.

The Culture Wars

What has changed, however, is the political landscape. In Western Europe, the dominant line of political conflict has long been drawn between a socialist left and a liberal right. In both rhetoric and practice, this line has been particularly bright in Sweden. The country may well be the most secular on earth, with religion long separated from politics. It also lacks seriously politicized regional divisions and is relatively ethnically homogenous.

Crudely put, political battles in Sweden have typically pitted proponents of an exceptionally strong social democracy, drawn from the working class and a large portion of the middle class, against a center-right bloc led by the Conservatives seeking to lower taxes and limit the state’s involvement in the market. For much of the twentieth century, the Right’s accommodation to social-democratic hegemony was so pronounced that American readers could take the Swedish center-right for US Democratic Party figures.

Historically, cultural issues have not featured in the country’s electoral politics. As in the rest of Western Europe, this began to change in the 1960s and 1970s, with the rise of the new social movements. The left-right conflict over redistribution did not, of course, disappear, but it was gradually transvalued by disagreements between authoritarian and liberal ideals on sociocultural issues.

The first new political formation to emerge in response to these developments was the Swedish Green Party, which appeared in 1980. Claiming to have moved beyond the left-right division, party members built their entire platform around “new” issues. They were the children of the cultural revolution, and their program came to color the entire political landscape, as other Green parties did in parliaments across Western Europe.

The radical right parties that have emerged in Europe over the past two decades represent the cultural counterrevolution. They mobilize on the same issues as the Greens, but for opposing ends, seeking to reestablish traditional values, hierarchies, and ethnic homogeneity. Structured by mutual antagonism, these two party families have together reshaped Swedish politics.

The changing priorities of the mainstream parties have been followed by a shift in their respective class bases. The Greens and other cultural-liberal parties find most of their support in the well-educated middle classes, while the right populist parties tend to draw votes from male workers and those with lower levels of formal education.

Like their counterparts in Denmark, Norway, and Austria, about two-thirds of Sweden Democrats voters have backgrounds in blue-collar professions. They are not members of the country’s poorest or most vulnerable populations, but those clinging to the upper rungs of the working class. The typical Sweden Democrats supporter holds steady employment, receives a near median income, and owns a house.

It could be seen as a tragic displacement of the class struggle. The same lines remain drawn, but the conflict is expressed in narrowly cultural terms. One might say the Sweden Democrats and other radical right parties have created a sort of identity politics for white men with low education, who seek to overturn their cultural, rather than economic, marginalization.

Into the Mainstream

The breakthrough of the radical right came comparatively late in Sweden. In the early 1990s, an economic crisis far more serious than the 2008 recession hit the country, prolonging the economy’s domination of the political agenda for the entire decade and leaving little room for new issues or parties.

When the crisis subsided, the political landscape had shifted. The ruling Social Democrats had been pushed to accept the neoliberal dogmas of low inflation, budget surpluses, privatization, and supply-side labor policy.

The Social Democrats’ right turn was the first great movement into the new political frontier. In the same period, liberal cultural ideals firmly took root in Sweden’s political foundation, and the Social Democrats began to rebrand itself as a feminist, antiracist, gay-friendly party.

The second great movement began in 2005, when the Conservatives took a big step to the left. Party strategists finally accepted that they could only rarely win elections with an agenda that overtly challenged the welfare state and workers rights. They busily jettisoned the symbols that associated the party with the upper class, even issuing a ban on pearl necklaces for their representatives. They scrapped the tax cuts for which they had always fought, started to defend existing employment security laws, vowed to preserve public-sector funding levels, and even declared themselves the “new workers party.”

They also made concessions to prevailing liberal views on cultural issues. After winning the 2006 election, the Conservatives’ popular minister of finance, Anders Borg, called himself a feminist. Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt took every opportunity to make antiracist statements. In power, the center-right government took steps to continue dismantling the military, enforced protections for gay marriage, and tended to support what is often described as the world’s most liberal rules for migrant workforce immigration.  

By the 2014 elections, this double movement had progressed to the point where the traditional right-left divide between the major parties on economic issues had become thinner than ever. The leading parties sounded, and largely acted, like clones.

The Sweden Democrats could now convincingly portray themselves as the only real opposition to a united establishment out of touch with popular opinion. They established immigration as the proxy issue through which the conflict would be waged. When the votes were tallied, the party had won 12.9 percent, cutting into the Conservatives’ constituency and in the process securing a pivotal role in parliament.

For Sweden Democrats voters, politics is no longer primarily about the economy. With no party to fight for their material interests, they choose the one that pursues their cultural priorities — that promises to stop “Islamization,” crack down on perceived freeloaders and criminals, keep gays marginalized, bash “politically correct” elites in Stockholm and Brussels, and, in short, “give Sweden back to us,” as the Sweden Democrats’ slogan puts it.

The process that led to this new status quo in Sweden, in other words, resembles those that have delivered sizable constituencies to the UK Independence Party and Alternative für Deutschland in Germany. Perhaps it is the beginning of a long-term Americanization of European politics.

The 2014 election returns initiated a sea change within the center-right. With the Sweden Democrats capturing larger portions of the electorate, the party’s ideological framework has been normalized, and is now reinforced even by those hostile to its agenda.

It was only ten years ago that many newspapers lifted a ban on the party’s advertising and began to publish members’ opinion pieces. Now, media outlets across the country make sure to include the party and its platform in opinion polling, and take pains to avoid describing it as racist or xenophobic.

A handful of influential papers have shifted their editorial lines so far that they now almost resemble party organs, employing a populist rhetoric previously consigned to the radical right. Immigration, pundits bleat, threatens the welfare state; immigrants create social problems and commit crimes; refugees carry a Trojan Horse packed with Islamic State terrorists; a preening elite of unworldly do-gooders rule Sweden; and so on.

Increasingly, local politicians spring up to champion legislation of an unmistakably right-populist cast. At the national level, the small Liberals party, in coalition with the Conservatives, has flirted with anti-immigration sentiment by proposing language tests for citizenship, a ban on Muslim veils in schools, and narrower asylum eligibility.

Today, 55 percent of Swedes say immigration is the most important issue; the environment ranks a distant second at 13 percent. This in a country where until just a few years ago no issue could compete with education, health care, or jobs. Swedish politics is now trapped in a vicious circle. The larger the Sweden Democrats grows, the larger immigration looms in the public’s mind, and vice versa.

Three of the four parties that make up the center-right parliamentary bloc have concluded that they can stem the leakage of voters to the Sweden Democrats by taking positions that resemble the new party’s, and now vie to outpace one another in a race to the authoritarian side.

Over the course of just a year, the country’s political discourse has so drastically transformed in both tone and content that the Sweden Democrats’ worldview no longer appears as part of a radical fringe, but rather a prominent fixture of the mainstream.

For now, all major parties still refuse to explicitly cooperate with the radical right. But if this balance of forces persists for even a few more years, the Conservatives will be forced to choose between irrelevance and coalition with the Sweden Democrats, which would likely guarantee a stable right-bloc majority for many years to come.

Next Moves

The radical right has not passively inherited its success, but diligently labored to create an opening for itself. At least three moves have been key: working to remove the stigma around the party, establishing friendly media outlets, and rebirthing itself through a concentrated regional campaign.

The biggest obstacle facing the Sweden Democrats in their quest for mainstream respectability has always been the party’s origin in the fascist and white supremacist movements of the late 1980s. Well into the nineties, party militants, many of them drawn from neo-Nazi sects, marched the streets in uniforms under heavy police protection. The party’s rhetoric and its programs dripped with unconcealed racism, antisemitism, and contempt for democracy, making it anathema to all but a few voters.

The effort to break ties to street fascism and make the party presentable to the electorate have long been the Sweden Democrats’ overriding concern — especially since a younger, more professional leadership took over in 2005. The Sweden Democrats’ ongoing de-demonization project resembles the one led by Marine Le Pen for its French sister party, the National Front.

Biological racism has been replaced with cultural racism, which casts non-Europeans — Muslims in particular — as militants pushing values incompatible with supposedly organic “Swedish” ones. Antisemitism has been almost entirely abandoned and replaced by a more politically viable Islamophobia.

The Sweden Democrats actively cultivate the counter-jihadist conspiracy theory that Europe is facing an invasion of Muslim immigrants, who in time will destroy the welfare state and Swedish culture. Muslim immigration, party leader Jimmie Åkesson once said, is “our greatest foreign threat since World War II.”

The party is still full of adherents who cannot keep their mouths shut, and the de-demonization campaign has not been easy. Setbacks have included brazen expressions of homophobia and calls by local representatives to “eliminate” Minister of Migration Tobias Billström and to grant asylum to Anders Breivik, the Norwegian fascist terrorist who murdered seventy-seven people in 2011.

In response, the party has expelled scores of members and, in September, even severed ties with its youth organization, which the leadership viewed as embarrassingly extreme. It has managed to project an image of the party as not totally unblemished by racists and extremists, but now in the hands of a leadership doing all it can to clean out such odious elements.

De-demonization has also entailed a broadening of policy and ideology. The party has dropped several demands proven to be unpalatable, such as deporting naturalized foreign-born residents and reintroducing the death penalty (abolished in peacetime since 1921).

In 2011, the Sweden Democrats designated social conservatism as part of its official ideology, a pillar equal to nationalism in the construction of its new agenda. In recent years officials have developed new programs for almost every area of politics and added to immigration new concerns, including “law and order,” military defense, pensions, and elderly care. The party has now proven itself able to appeal to voters far beyond its traditional core.

Parallel to the Sweden Democrats’ ingratiating efforts, the larger radical right movement has established countless new internet propaganda channels. Most important are a few websites for daily news and commentary from a radical right perspective, most of them amateur blogs only recently professionalized. Together they reach several hundred thousand readers every week, a figure on par with that of the major broadsheets.

The radical right is well on the way to establishing a public sphere of its own, in which adherents can find their beliefs reinforced without challenge and budding fascists can be recruited. Since these outlets are officially independent from the party, Sweden Democrats representatives can reap the benefits while dissociating themselves from any crimes or distasteful transgressions committed by extra-party actors.

The final noteworthy move is the canny strategy the party adopted in the early 2000s. The Sweden Democrats entered the decade mostly unknown, financially weak, and still stigmatized by its association with the extreme right. It chose to concentrate its meager resources on the southern region of Skåne.

The area was well known for a receptiveness to fascist traditions reaching back to the 1930s. More importantly, there were already a number of small protest parties, many of them outspokenly xenophobic, with representatives in local governments. Some of these parties were persuaded to fold themselves into the Sweden Democrats, others joined them in alliances, and the rest were simply outcompeted.

In 2006, while the party only received 2.9 percent in the national elections, it conquered seats in one local government after another in Skåne, often with more than 10 percent of the vote. In the rundown, industrial town of Landskrona, the party took 22 percent.

These regional victories granted the party several million krona from the country’s tax-financed campaign system. More importantly, the party had proven itself a real political force, and its success occasioned sustained media debate. Skåne, and Landskrona in particular, became a national advertisement for the far right.

Nine years later the party attracts comparable levels of support nationally, counting more than 19 percent in opinion polls.

If the Left fails to halt their momentum, we may very well witness the greatest transformation of Swedish politics since the breakthrough of the Social Democrats in 1911. And it is a truly horrible one.