- Interview by
- David Broder
Sweden’s election on September 11 might be seen as a narrow win for the right-wing bloc: it scored 49.6 percent of the vote, just beating the coalition led by incumbent prime minister Magdalena Andersson, at 48.9 percent. But the real change was behind these numbers. While Andersson’s Social Democrats were the biggest single party, with 30 percent support, the single fastest-rising force was the far-right Sweden Democrats (SD), a party founded by neo-Nazis in the 1980s. Today an established part of the parliamentary landscape — other parties stopped boycotting it in 2018 — it scored 20 percent to become the single biggest force within the right-wing bloc.
The SD won’t lead the government, for now. After over a month of coalition talks, this Tuesday Ulf Kristersson of the Moderates, the traditional center-right party, became the new prime minister. His cabinet also consists of Liberals and Christian Democrats, but crucially, in parliamentary votes he will be dependent on the SD’s support. This was first tested as the new parliament voted Kristersson in as prime minister by 176 votes to 173.
Ali Esbati is an economist and MP for the Left Party, reelected last month, who is also known as a survivor of the 2011 terrorist attack by the Norwegian fascist Anders Breivik at Utøya. Jacobin’s David Broder spoke to him about what the SD’s rise means and what the Left can do it resist it.
Let’s start by talking about the effect in Sweden — in the media, in your own party — of this new government taking form. Is it a shock, or had it been expected for a while? What kind of protests has it produced?
Well, the answer to your first question would be — a bit of both. The rise of the SD, and the process of convergence on the right into a nationalist-conservative block under the de facto ideological leadership of the SD, has been going on for a few years. This is a process in line with what has happened in many other countries. In Sweden, it started later but has been faster and more dramatic. The elections were tight. All three parties now forming the new government lost seats compared to the last elections, and even with the Liberal party being fundamentally divided on the SD issue — but narrowly making it into parliament and supporting a government based on the SD — it was still a close call.
The first big shock after election day was the negotiated government platform. To most of us on the Left, it was obvious that there would be considerable concessions to the SD. But still, I think many were shocked to see the extent to which the SD’s priorities, proposals, and language dominates the platform.
In terms of protests, it’s too early to say. There’s been a vacuum of sorts during the month when the government formation negotiations were taking place. Now, when the platform is there, some internal convulsions within the Liberal party have started. Civil-society organizations (dealing with civil-rights issues, children’s rights, development aid etc.) and agencies and organizations working on climate change have already voiced concerns. But then again, the government hasn’t started working yet, and it remains to be seen which issues might stoke protests. The unfolding cost-of-living crisis and how the government handles it will probably have a say too.
Founded by far-right militants including neo-Nazis, the SD are today part of Giorgia Meloni’s continent-wide European Conservatives and Reformists grouping, and combine sharp anti-immigration positions with an outward claim not to be racist, homophobic, and so on. To what extent have this party’s factions and political agenda been through any kind of meaningful reform process or internal splits? What kind of representatives and positions does the party have that point to its origins?
I would say that the SD’s roots are highly vivid, in bloom, in all relevant aspects of the party’s political work. The top clique that runs the party entered it in the 1990s, and there has never been a fundamental break with its founding ideals, but rather a more organic and skillfully executed adaptation to shifting political climates. Of course, you won’t have leading national representatives walking the streets doing Nazi salutes today. And there have been some internal splits. A few years ago, the party’s youth wing leadership went too far into “Identitarian” territory, and the party leadership had to expel them and start over with a new youth league. (Those people have since formed a new party, Alternative for Sweden, with very limited electoral success).
And there has been a constant flow of expulsions when representatives happen to say some too hateful or too overtly racist stuff that becomes public. But this is more a matter of optics. Significantly, some members expelled as a result of such scandals have retained important but unofficial positions close to the party.
Ten years ago, two prominent MPs could be seen in a video where they said aggressive, derogatory, sexist, and racist things about some people they quarreled with late at night, followed by picking up some light metal bars for potential “self-defense.” However, they made a deal with the party and moved to Hungary, where they continued to be involved in the party’s propaganda efforts. And now, one of them has made a comeback in regional politics for the SD, by way of being appointed to a top position despite not having stood on the ballot himself. Other expelled members have secretly participated in the extremely active and important digital “troll factories” tightly associated with the party, and crucial to its success.
These are merely a few examples. Fundamentally, the SD are connected in various ways to any number of racist, ultra-reactionary and conspiracist milieus, and its strong position in Swedish society and politics cannot be assessed without understanding this political ecosystem.
The SD are not directly in this government, but it is dependent upon them. What effect can we see on Kristersson’s immediate agenda? How far was the SD’s effect on the political field visible even before the election, for instance in the other parties drawing a connection between crime and immigration?
Basically, the government platform on which Kristersson will govern is an SD platform. He might add other things to the agenda further down the road, but what we have at the moment is very heavily dictated by the SD. But then again, the parties forming the government had adopted substantial aspects of these policies as their own, already prior to the elections.
This is the really significant shift. The political agenda was absolutely dominated by this rhetorical crime-immigration complex. Energy policies did also rise in importance toward the end. Here too, the nationalist-conservative bloc, rather bizarrely, managed to turn the issue into “identity politics” of sorts with a lot of focus on gas prices, but also by portraying nuclear power as a kind of quick fix — all of this framed as a masculinely coded rational/realist approach versus some notion of flimsy, bleeding-heart environmentalism.
The political agenda was almost parodically dominated by the issues the SD wanted to talk about, and consequently they could largely dodge economic politics, welfare services, redistribution, etc., or reframe those issues in terms of immigration, crime, and other right-wing populist takes. The incumbent Social Democrats certainly did not do much to contest this agenda, but rather contributed to strengthening it. They accepted many of the points of departure from the Right regarding crime and immigration — even boasting that they (the Social Democrats) had done more to cut back asylum influx and propose harsher penalties, and generally bemoaning “integration problems” without providing class-based, equitable social solutions.
Scholars have often noted the tendency for “welfare chauvinist” parties to abandon their “social” positions in favor of alliance with more mainstream right-wing forces. How do the SD claim to be a welfarist party (even if a discriminatory one)? And what role does the previous undermining of the welfare system have in explaining the party’s rise?
Yes, this has been a decisive tendency for the last eight years or so. The employers’ organization and forces associated with the party have worked actively on securing the SD’s votes for a number of positions which are crucial to capitalist interests. The lucrative system of publicly funded, commercially driven services is a centerpiece here. Sweden has gone very far in this direction, with the school system being world-unique in that basically any commercial entity can establish a school and start receiving money based on the number of pupils it can attract.
Also, for those of us following the SD’s digital stormtroopers on a daily basis, the amalgamation between racist rants and old-school right-wing economic rhetoric has been obvious. Vilifying “benefit claimants” on the presumed basis that they are all immigrants is more and more often going hand in hand with attacking the “high-tax, wasteful, Social Democratic state” as such. This is a worldview that has long had great resonance within a social stratum which has been important for the SD’s growth: small business owners, and more lately also young men who are very much into a myth of being self-made, not least through small scale financial operations.
But the SD leadership does still understand the importance of welfarist appearances in relation to other significant portions of its base. So, they have shored up a few notable gains in the platform. The government now promises not to cut back on unemployment benefits, and there is a vague promise of a (long overdue) dental care reform, which the SD had made into a late campaign promise. The previous undermining of the welfare system is, I think, absolutely pivotal in explaining the SD’s rise, by way of deeper socioeconomic processes that this undermining fosters.
Like other successful right-wing populist parties, the SD have been able to gain considerable support within layers of society that have been adversely affected by those cuts by providing them with scapegoats, and with a narrative that can gain credibility only in the absence of a credible counternarrative pointing to collective social improvements. If you feel that whether you vote center right or center left, you’re on the losing side socioeconomically, then you are more likely to buy into a narrative that provides other explanations and other means of having a shot at regained dignity and upward mobility.
In Denmark, Social Democratic prime minister Mette Frederiksen’s response to the rise of the anti-immigration Danish People’s Party imitated some of its agenda, including a harsh crackdown on so-called migrant “ghettos.” How do you think this is perceived among the Swedish Social Democrats, and does this serve as a model in combating the SD?
Certain elements within the Social Democrats have already explicitly advocated a “Danish solution,” and in practice, the current party leadership has been inspired by those kinds of policies and the rhetoric accompanying them. As a model in combating the SD, I think this is deeply flawed. To begin with, Denmark has had a shift in its political agenda going back to the late 1990s. The Danish Social Democrats did manage to break the Right’s grip on government in 2011, when there was a brief break with the focus on immigration and “values.”
However, they governed on a lackluster centrist program and soon lost again. Frederiksen could win the elections in 2019 partly on the basis of a class-conscious election rhetoric, and partly because other parties on the Left (both liberal and socialist) gained ground. The crackdown on “ghettos” is far from an unambiguous success on the ground, and on the whole the government has failed to substantially alter the political agenda on other issues. Thus, the relevant question for Sweden would be — to what end? — but it would be very dubious even in purely electoral-tactical terms. So, the short answer is no.
A year ago, Sweden’s Left Party was able to put pressure on the Social Democrat–led government from the left, over housing. The political initiative, however, seems to have swung away from it before the election. What can the Left Party do, in opposition, to change the political agenda? And within this, what specific role does “anti-fascist” mobilization against the SD have?
Yes, we did lose a lot of our momentum. There are several reasons to this. The war on Ukraine played a role. Both generally, by altering political preferences toward bigger parties (which some voters consider a safer bet during troubled times), and more specifically as a result of a short, initial hesitation regarding Sweden sending weapons to Ukraine (a narrow decision in our party board), which created a lot of turmoil and led to opinion losses.
But more importantly, we simply did not manage to create enough pressure to change the political agenda. The reluctance of the governing Social Democrats to contribute to this did its part. Now, we are in new, partly uncharted territory politically, and we will have to find our role, ideally spearheading opposition politics beyond the strictly parliamentary arena. This, of course, needs to be connected to what the government actually does in the coming years. But anti-fascist mobilization needs to materialize in a broader sense.
The policies of this government will potentially have tremendous negative impact on the daily lives of large swaths of the Swedish population. We need to be a credible, vibrant force to count on. Someone to turn to if and when things go south. Countering corrosive racist rhetoric, and the kind of divisive policies that the incoming government is aiming at, is crucial.
But that resistance cannot be confined to the realm of words and symbols. The goal must be to illuminate and to defend the overlapping interests that a broad majority of the population have, of economic security, functioning social services, better infrastructure, etc. On an abstract level, it’s pretty clear what we need to be doing. That practice, of course, will give rise to an array of new questions, problems — and opportunities.