Since the second half of the 20th century, Sweden has been characterized by high living standards, a comprehensive social welfare system, and a generous refugee policy. The Sweden Democrats have long been a pariah party, an aberration. So how did they come to play an outsize role in the upcoming elections?
Gellert Tamas, who has been writing about the Sweden Democrats since the party was founded in 1988, explores that question in his most recent book, Den Avgörande Striden (The Decisive Battle). The Sweden Democrats’ first gatherings, he recalls, involved “maybe 500 people doing the Nazi salute, screaming ‘Kill the Jews,’ those kinds of things. It was very radical. They wouldn’t call themselves a neo-Nazi Party, but were strongly influenced by their Nazi roots. And then it slowly changed.… In the mid ’90s, they were able to attract a new generation of right-wing students. And among them were four young students who then joined the party directorate called the Gang of Four, and they are still in the leadership today.”
Is Tamas surprised to see them where they are now?
“I had never ever expected that the party—such a radical, openly Nazi-supporting party—would be accepted as a mainstream party and…that it even might be included in the government.”
Sweden’s center-left Social Democrats, who have won the largest share of votes in every single election since 1917, are again in the lead, polling at 27.8 percent in a recent poll. But the Sweden Democrats are in second place, at 21.5 percent. There is no danger that the Social Democrats will form a coalition with any far-right parties, but the center-right Moderate Party and Christian Democrats might.
If they did, it would shatter a decades-long taboo that mainstream Swedish political parties have adhered to—refusing to work in coalition with the Sweden Democrats. The barrier between the mainstream and far-right parties though, began to break down in 2019, when Ebba Busch Thor, the leader of the Christian Democrats, met with Sweden Democrat leader Jimmy Åkesson.
The Moderate Party, which describes itself as a party of “freedom, individualism and entrepreneurship,” has more support than any of Sweden’s center-right parties—but is only polling at 18 percent. “It would be impossible to form a government on the right without” the Sweden Democrats notes Nidia Hagström, former news director for public broadcaster Radio Sweden. “And parties like the Moderates and the Christian Democrats that up until even two years ago refused to cooperate with them are now opening their arms to them.”
A center-right party like the Moderates, though, also has the option of crossing over to work with the center left, points out Hagström. While such an alliance might sound odd to people in countries where opposition political parties categorize one another as the enemy, coalitions that bridge different political orientations are not unusual in countries with proportional representation (like Germany). And while Sweden has not had a left-right coalition before, center-right voters polled in 2018 said they would prefer a center left/center right coalition to one made up of the center right and far right.
Every shift in political orientation has its own narrative, and the one about the rise of the Sweden Democrats offered by right wing politicians in Sweden and beyond claims that the arrival of 163,000 asylum seekers in Sweden in 2015 caused social upheaval and a rise in violent crime, which in turn increased support for the Sweden Democrats.
The facts, however, do not support this narrative.
The Sweden Democrats first entered parliament in 2010 with 5.7 percent of the vote, and the biggest growth in support for them took place years before the 2015 refugee crisis (between 2010 and 2014, when they went from polling at 339,610 to 801,178).
“Sweden has in general, I would say, a pretty normal European level of crime,” Jerzy Sarnecki, chair of Stockholm University’s Criminology Department, said. “But shootings are a problem. How big problem is it? Well, the last few years we had around 45 people shot to death…per year. Again, counting per 10 million inhabitants [this] is not very big.”
So why is crime the most important issue named by Sweden’s voters?
Gun deaths, says Sarnecki, are “something which is very new to our society. We did not have this kind of problems 10 years ago. To be very specific, we started to observe this increase in 2013.”
And do the recent shootings involve people who arrived as refugees in 2015?
No, says Sarnecki. They’re the result of gang violence carried out by children of an earlier wave of immigrants, born and raised in Sweden, and “what happens is not related to the ethnic background but to the class position.” The gang violence, he explained, involves people who (after migrating) have ended up in the lowest socioeconomic position in Sweden.
But the far right’s framing of events is one that many other parties are adopting. “Social Democratic ministers—for instance, the minister of immigration here, unfortunately my former student—would say that we have to reduce the overrepresentation of immigrants from outside the Europe in some areas of our cities because there are too many.”
What the party policies and posters show as Sweden’s election draws closer is what happens when parties adopt the language and policies of the far right. We’ve already seen what happens in other countries when “the center right says: we have to talk to the far right.… they will be more easy to handle and they will be more like any other party,” Tamas points out. [Instead] “we see the total opposite. The more they’re embracing them…the more radicalized the [far right] party gets.”
Sweden is a country that historically has prioritized egalitarianism and inclusion. “What we have had,” says Hagstrom, “is a powerful welfare sector that wants to even out people’s opportunities in life.” The majority of people in Sweden, she notes, were proud that their country offered refuge to the asylum seekers who arrived in 2015 (Sweden took in the most per capita of any European nation).
If the Sweden Democrats’ policies upend Swedish civil society, it will not be because Sweden is troubled by migration, or crime, or “segregation.” It will be because Sweden’s other political parties gave the Sweden Democrats space to grow, because they adopted its perspectives and policies out of political opportunism and expediency.
“If you look at Sweden today and Germany, Sweden Democrats today are still around…20 percent in the opinion polls.” But in Germany, Tamas points out, the far-right AfD has been locked out by all mainstream parties. “I’m not sure that the Sweden Democrats would have scored as high as [they’re scoring now if] a formal policy of noncooperation had been kept in Sweden as well.”
Sweden’s other political parties—especially its center-right—still have the power to freeze out the far right in Sweden. The question, this election, is whether they’ll choose to do so.