In Hassleholm, a small, drab city in southern Sweden, a minor political earthquake took place last year. The Sweden Democrats, an anti-immigration, populist rightwing party with roots in the neo-Nazi movement, have long been ostracised by all other Swedish political groups. But last spring three centre-right parties in Hassleholm used the Sweden Democrats to oust the centre-left-led local council.
By – Richard Milne
In return, the centre-right backed the Sweden Democrats to take the deputy chair of the city council, the first time the populists had received such support. For a brief period last autumn, Hassleholm’s council even recommended the Sweden Democrats’ budget for 2018 before the mainstream centre-right one was later adopted.
“All the time, my dream was to get to power. The legitimacy of the Sweden Democrats is higher if we show we can lead — lead a municipality, a country. This is the first step,” says Patrik Jonsson, deputy chair of Hassleholm city council and the Sweden Democrats’ regional head in Skane.
In national elections on September 9, the Sweden Democrats are hoping for a much bigger political earthquake. Opinion polls over the past two weeks have given them everything from 16.8 per cent to 25.5 per cent, placing them anywhere from third to first place.
At the very least, they are likely to become potential kingmakers and challengers to the centre-left and centre-right blocs that have ruled for decades. The centre-left Social Democrats have been the largest party in the Scandinavian country for more than a century.A strong showing by the Sweden Democrats would bring its own pressures: it would have to decide whether it wants to be a mere party of protest or a party of influence. Nordic neighbours have either seen rightwing populist parties enter government such as Norway and Finland or seen them gain considerable influence in parliament in Denmark.
But such an outcome would be a deep shock to consensus-driven Sweden, which has long prided itself on being perhaps the most open European country to immigrants at the same time as offering a generous welfare state.
It would put both Sweden’s traditional political system under immense strain and call into question the long-term cordon sanitaire that the main parties have tried to place around the populist party. It would also bring to the centre of political debate the Sweden Democrats’ policies on immigration and of holding a referendum over whether Sweden should leave the EU.
For all these reasons, the results will be watched closely across the rest of Europe. While the European mainstream survived a series of challenges from the far-right in 2017, the results this year in Italy and potentially now in Sweden have demonstrated that the region remains vulnerable to the populist message, especially on the topic of immigration.
Until now, the isolation of the Sweden Democrats has been a deliberate policy of the mainstream parties. When the current centre-left Swedish government called in all parliamentary parties to discuss immigration in 2015 at the peak of the migration crisis, it pointedly failed to invite the Sweden Democrats. “The other parties have invested so much in the isolation of the Sweden Democrats,” says Ann-Cathrine Jungar, a leading researcher into the radical right at Sodertorn University.
The Sweden Democrats have in many ways benefited from their exclusion. The establishment political parties in Sweden long held similarly positive views on immigration. That meant that when Sweden received 163,000 asylum seekers in 2015 — more relative to its population than almost any other European country — the Sweden Democrats initially stood alone in warning of the consequences. “The other parties tied their hands behind their backs,” says Anders Sannerstedt, an expert on the Sweden Democrats at Lund University.
The party’s message over the decades has been remarkably consistent: Sweden’s generous welfare provisions for the elderly and unemployed are under threat from immigration. A party advert from 2010 shows a pensioner moving slowly towards the state budget, only to be outpaced by a group of burka-clad women pushing prams. Mr Jonsson says: “Immigration is costly: it takes resources from teachers, doctors, social workers. It affects everything else, and we can’t look away from that.”
Its surge in support was checked in 2016 and 2017 as the establishment parties, led by the governing Social Democrats, tightened up the rules on immigration. But in 2018 the Sweden Democrats have become ever more popular, topping several opinion polls and spreading something close to panic among the other parties as to how to deal with them.
They are also benefiting from public concern about violent crime. Just this week about 100 cars were set on fire by groups of youths in what appeared to be organised attacks centred on the western city of Gothenburg.
Faced by a suggestion from the Sweden Democrats leader Jimmie Akesson to send in troops to quell gang shootings and grenade attacks in the suburbs, prime minister Stefan Lofven initially was open to the idea, before later backtracking.
“It’s harder for other politicians to distance themselves from the Sweden Democrats as they themselves make policies that are close to the Sweden Democrats on immigration. They have become legitimised,” says Ms Jungar.
Paula Bieler, a senior MP and the Sweden Democrats’ spokesperson on immigration, says many voters have become disillusioned by the other parties’ inconsistent views on immigration.
“If you represent 20 per cent and the other parties don’t even want to negotiate or co-operate, the pettiness of it all makes people lose confidence in the other parties,” she adds. It is not just immigration that attracts people to the party; a survey by Kantar Sifo suggested Sweden Democrats voters tend to feel that politicians do not listen to them or respect their way of life.
For the other parties, the reason for the Sweden Democrats’ isolation is simple: the party’s roots in the neo-Nazi movement. The party grew out of several fascist groups including one “Keep Sweden Swedish”, which also became an early slogan for the Sweden Democrats. “Neo-fascists” is how Mr Lofven calls them, and there is a visceral dislike from left-wingers.
But the Sweden Democrats have become more moderate since they were founded in 1988. Mr Akesson, in charge since 2005, has led a purge of dozens of members for openly racist views. A new party — Alternative for Sweden — was started last year, drawing several of the Sweden Democrats’ most high-profile extreme members. Steve Bannon, Donald Trump’s former adviser, says the party is “perfect casting” for the movement of “right-wing, populist nationalists” he wants to encourage in Europe.
Controversies still surface, however, most recently when a senior Sweden Democrat MP said that Jews and Sami people were not Swedish.
The resulting dilemma for how the establishment centre-right parties should handle the Sweden Democrats — and the opportunities and challenges that poses for the populists — can be seen in Hassleholm. The city council is divided into three factions — a centre-left one with just under half the votes, a centre-right one with a quarter, and the Sweden Democrats with a quarter. Each group used to vote for its own budget, all but guaranteeing the centre-left stayed in power. In 2017, however, the centre-right and Sweden Democrats teamed up to push the centre-left out.
But then it started to go wrong. Ulf Erlandsson, the first Sweden Democrat to become deputy chair of a municipal council, became caught up in various scandals including sharing racist articles on social media. He was forced to resign almost immediately, denting the Sweden Democrats’ credibility. Douglas Roth, the centre-right chair of the council, calls the populists “not serious” for their constant linking of everything to immigration. “The problem with them is that if we want to tarmac the road outside, they say we can’t do it because there are immigrants here,” he adds.
Mr Jonsson, the new Sweden Democrat deputy chair in the city, is frank about the implications of the city’s experiment. “Hassleholm is an example of what we could be — and also what can go wrong if you co-operate with the Sweden Democrats,” he says.
The issues are mirrored at a national level. Ulf Kristersson, head of the centre-right Moderate party and favourite to become prime minister, has said he will not negotiate or co-operate with the Sweden Democrats. But forming a government in that case will be highly tricky. The four centre-right parties are set to get roughly about 40 per cent, the centre-left 40 per cent, and the Sweden Democrats 20 per cent. Any government would require support from either the opposing bloc or the Sweden Democrats to pass legislation.
There are different opinions throughout the four centre-right parties on how to deal with the Sweden Democrats. Some think they should be normalised and given influence in parliament, others that they should continue to be ostracised. Some analysts and politicians believe a one-party minority Moderate government is the most likely result. The more radical alternative would be to seek a left-right “grand” coalition as in Germany. “Nobody really knows what will happen after the elections,” says Mr Sannerstedt.
The dilemma is just as acute for the Sweden Democrats. If the other parties refuse to engage, should they be destructive or constructive? It is a big debate within the party. Mr Jonsson says: “Many of our voters are happy with us showing off our power to the other parties. So ‘do this, or we’ll do that’.”
He argues instead for the alternative. “What I think is the best way is to show we are a reliable party. Even if the Alliance [the four centre-right parties] don’t have a budget that is perfect for us, we have to get an agreement to work together.” Ms Bieler says she thinks a one-party minority government is most likely. The Sweden Democrats’ price for supporting that government would be influence over “migration policy, and a willingness to listen to us”.
As with all populist parties, the danger can be in compromising too much. Ms Bieler refers to the example of the True Finns who joined the centre-right government in Helsinki in 2015 but have since plummeted in the polls and split in two after a disastrous performance where the anti-EU party ended up endorsing the third bailout of Greece.
Party officials instead look over the Oresund strait to Denmark where the Danish People’s party has never entered government but has had increasing power for more than a decade from parliament, especially over immigration. “The question for the Sweden Democrats is whether they can gradually become more accepted without falling apart,” says Stefan Fölster, director of the Reform Institute.
So far, September’s elections are very much being fought on the Sweden Democrats’ terms. Sweden’s economy has performed relatively well since the global financial crisis but there is little discussion of that. Instead, most of the focus has been on immigration, integration, and crime — as well as recently on climate change after summer-long forest fires. Sweden Democrat proposals include restricting family reunification for immigrants, speeding up deportations, improving care for the elderly, and fighting criminal gangs.
With the centre-left Social Democrats seemingly set for their worst result in more than 100 years, Ms Bieler believes that leaves the door open for the Sweden Democrats to do well. “One way or another, the next government will have to talk to all parties,” she says. “If they don’t do it with us, then you will see the results in 2022.”
Read more: From 2018/08/06