A far-right, Eurosceptic party with neo-Nazi roots looks set to emerge as the kingmaker in Sweden’s general election on 9 September, after polling at an all-time high in the famously tolerant Scandinavian country.
Last week, an investigation by Swedish newspaper Expressen revealed several candidates for the party, the Sweden Democrats (SD), are former active members of the now disbanded violent anti-democratic Nazi party the National Socialist Front.
It comes in the wake of a string of mini-scandals including one of their candidates using a song with the chorus “Swedes are white and this country is ours”.
Supporters of the neo-Nazi Nordic Resistance Movement during a demonstration in Stockholm in August 2018. Source: AFP
It remains to be seen whether the latest revelation will halt the rise of the party, which describes itself as nationalist and socially conservative while seeking a crackdown on immigration as well as hardline law and order policies.
But no matter what happens at the election, outsiders have had trouble understanding how such a party could be polling so well in one of the world’s most progressive countries.
“The Swedes are not racist,” Swedish pollster Torbjörn Sjöströmtold SBS News.
Mr Sjöström’s market research firm Novus conducts one of the country’s major opinion polls. He said: “They’re as much voting against all the other parties as they are for Swedish Democrats. Last time I looked 57 per cent of SD voters said it was a protest vote against other parties. That’s a very, very big group of people.”
Immigration a key issue
Immigration has become a sensitive issue in the Nordic country of 10 million, which accepted over 300,000 asylum seekers since 2015, the highest number in Europe per capita. Three years later, after the government sharply curbed its refugee policy and suspended family reunifications, the situation has calmed considerably. The massive chaos predicted by those opposed to the initially generous refugee policy never materialised. But Sweden now finds itself confronted with the challenge of integrating its new arrivals.
The Swedish culture minister with a holocaust survivor and handball player at a countermarch against the neo-Nazi Nordic Resistance Movement demonstration. Source: AFP, Getty
Jonathan Leman, a researcher at anti-extremism magazine Expo, told The Guardian: “The people who are active in the Sweden Democrats have a mindset where immigrants and minorities are at the centre of everything that’s wrong in society. That’s why we keep on seeing these scandals in the news about SD politicians saying things like ‘Sweden is a place where whites belong and non-whites don’t’.”
Swedish-American actor Joel Kinnaman (The Killing, House of Cards) added his voice to the debate last week in a video posted to his social media accounts. While not mentioning any party by name he said the election “scares me a lot” and issued a warning to voters.
“It feels like the way the wind is blowing right now, both in Europe, in the rest of the world, as well as in Sweden, is moving the country in the wrong direction.”
Mr Sjöströmsaid the key to understanding the party’s rise is that it has plausibly distanced itself from its racist, neo-Nazi roots, and has an appealing, urbane leader in the young parliamentarian Jimmie Åkesson.
Jimmie Akesson, leader of the Sweden Democrats. Source: AP
It has also fed on a sensationalist media environment which has created the perception of an increasing violent crime problem; while mainstream politicians have talked down Sweden’s economy for partisan reasons. This has left voters believing – inaccurately, Mr Sjöströmsays – that the country can’t afford the cost of supporting its record refugee intake on the country’s generous welfare program.
“If my fridge is almost empty, I wouldn’t loan anything to my neighbour. That’s the thinking. If we can’t even take care of our own…” he said.
What do the polls predict?
The party’s growing prominence has alarmed mainstream politicians in Sweden who have vowed not to form an alliance with the Sweden Democrats after the election.
Moderate Party leader Ulf Kristersson told Reuters: “We will not negotiate with the Sweden Democrats on forming a government, nor regarding whether that government can take power, nor regarding a budget. That won’t happen”.
But with months of polls putting the party between 18 and 21 per cent, neck and neck with the main opposition party the Moderates (although behind the long-dominant Swedish Social Democratic Party at 23-25 per cent), it is likely the far-right party could be in a powerful position after the election, forcing Swedish politics to the right.
Their rise echoes the success of other anti-immigration and Eurosceptic parties across the continent since the Eurozone crisis in 2010. Similar parties are now gaining support in Denmark and the Netherlands, are part of the political landscape in Germany and France, members of the governing coalition in Italy, and are governing outright in Hungary and Poland.
While unemployment in Sweden is at its lowest level in a decade and growth is forecast at around three per cent this year, income inequality is growing faster than in any other OECD country, a thorn in the side of a nation that has long prided itself on its egalitarian values.
“They’ve been able to capitalise on economic insecurity in particular and the apparent problem with crime and violence to build a campaign that exploits fear as much as possible,” said Professor Bruce Wilson, director of the EU Centre at RMIT University.
A small rise in violent crime, including riots and shootings associated with criminal gangs, which received saturation media coverage, have been blamed on migrant enclaves by politicians. The most recent incident was and other cities on 13 August.
People protest during a campaign visit of the Sweden Democrats party's leader in Gothenburg on August 28. Source: AFP
“Looking at how well they’ve done, they’re tapping into some sense of discontent,” Dr Ben Wellings, from Monash University’s European and EU Centre told SBS News. “There was this big shockwave of immigration in 2015 and this seems to be a real driver … Beneath that there’s a xenophobia, anti-Islamic feeling coalescing around the issue of sexual harassment, that’s been a key feature of this campaign.”
The power of influence
The Sweden Democrats formed in 1988 out of the country’s white supremacist movement, but after photos of members wearing Nazi uniforms at party meetings emerged in the early 1990s, it began to oust extremists and moderated its policies somewhat, attempting to rebrand as a conservative party. The party first achieved parliamentary representation on the back of more mainstream support in the 2010 election, and polled even more strongly in 2014.
“These parties don’t need to win the vote to win, they just need to influence policy,” said Dr Wellings. “If they come second it’s like a bonus for them. The main effect will be to influence the policy of the centre-right party so that it starts to look more like the far-right party.”
A Sweden Democrats election campaign poster. Source: Twitter
Swedes still report the lowest levels of anti-immigration views in Western Europe . But in some sectors that is changing: a report released by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination last month said there had been a high incidence of“racist hate speech against Afro-Swedes, Jews, Muslims and Roma” during the campaign, as well as noting reports of arson attacks on mosques and asylum seeker centres.
Dr Wellings said the ascendancy of the Sweden Democrats could be “another nail in the coffin of liberal Europe”.
Professor Wilson though believes fears of a far-right surge across Europe are overblown. He predicts this election will see the high watermark of support for the Sweden Democrats, like similar parties across the EU, particularly given the Swedish public’s overwhelming preference to stay in the EU and the European single market.
Jimme Akesson about to address an audience in Gothenburg. Source: Getty Images
“The far right has pretty much exhausted its capacity to grow,” he told SBS News. “I personally think that at worst 20 per cent is where the far right vote sits in Western Europe. In the last five years, even with all the economic and migrant turmoil in Europe, we’ve not seen any far-right party get above 20 per cent, with the qualification of [National Front president Marine] Le Pen in the French presidential elections – but that was a two-horse race.
“The Social Democrats or Moderates will form a government without the Sweden Democrats, and in another six months they might well be forgotten.”
Peter Wolodarski, editor-in-chief of Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter agrees. Writing in The Guardian last month about his own Jewish and Swedish identity, he said it was no surprise why other parties don’t want to cooperate with them.
“It is found in the Sweden Democrats’ consistent and deeply disturbing instinct of ranking people according to their origins, their beliefs or their orientation,” he said.
What’s more, there are other parties in the race. With the election coming at the end of an extraordinarily hot summer in Sweden, with30-degree plus days and wildfires raging even above the Arctic Circle, the focus of politics has been pushed back on climate change, which analysts believe may boost the Green Party vote.
The Sweden Democrats did not respond to requests for comment by SBS News.
- With AFP