I was a Human Rights specialist at the Ministry of the Interior and Kingdom Relations in the years after the murder of far-right populist politician Pim Fortuyn, who called for Dutch borders to be closed to Muslim immigrants. The period in which the extreme-right became a political factor of importance in the Netherlands. The years in which one man dominated the political debate: Geert Wilders, who sees Islamization as a “creeping tyranny” and whose break-away Party of Freedom in now the third biggest party in the country.
Now, having moved to Sweden as Director of the Stockholm Institute for Public Speaking, I am merely a witness. A witness to history repeating itself. Different country, but the same slogans. Different faces, but the same rhetoric. Different people but the same message.
Unfortunately I also see the same Pavlovian-reflexes in society as we have had in the Netherlands. Shunning the extreme-right, blocking them from participating in debates and even a proposal to change parliamentary procedures to exclude them from important parliamentary commissions.
This contribution is my modest attempt to help Sweden; help to prevent it from becoming like the Netherlands: a polarized society. A country in the grip of fear. A fear to speak up, a fear to change and a fear to lose an identity that didn’t exist to begin with.
The difficult coalition talks in the Netherlands are just a symptom of the deep wounds in society. For Sweden it is not too late. Not if you can learn from our mistakes.
1. Take the Sweden Democrats and the electorate seriously
It is too easy to ignore the extreme-right or to dismiss them as ignorant. Recognize that almost 6 percent of the voters have cast their votes in their favor. Dismissing the Sweden Democrats would be dismissing voters that have real and serious complaints.
Not all extreme-right voters have extreme-right sympathies. Ignoring their protest and not taking them seriously will only strengthen their conviction that the traditional parties have no answer and are not willing to listen. Ignoring their voice will only benefit the one party that claims to operate outside the system on their behalf.
2. Challenge, charge and conquer
Now that the Sweden Democrats are in parliament you must challenge them from all sides. Challenge their beliefs, challenges their ideas and most of all challenge them to produce solutions. Populists throughout Europe know how to formulate the problems, but they rarely have solutions.
Challenge them to come up with viable, sustainable and long-term solutions that do justice to both your national agenda and the international framework. The people will soon recognize that there is no real substance to their ideology.
You have to charge. This means being on the offensive. Encourage an open debate, set the agenda and deal with it. Do not give the extreme-right the possibility to dominate the public debate. Be one step ahead of them, listen to your voters and most of all, listen to theirs!
This does not mean adapting your political ideology, but it does mean it is up to you to make things happen. It is up to you to make a change and it is up to you to convince people that the Sweden Democrats is not an alternative.
Conquer. There can be no mercy.
It will take a lot of time and energy but every belief must be challenged, every argument countered and every debate must be won. Not through the arrogance of self-righteousness, but through the knowledge that you are fighting a just cause.
3. Honor Democracy
The entry into parliament of the Sweden Democrats was the result of a fair and open election. Honour this principle by allowing them to play the role that the election has put upon them. This means you cannot change the rules of the game, just because there is a party you do not like.
Sacrificing that fundamental democratic principle would mean that those forces attacking democracy have won before the fight has even begun. To quote one of the great thinkers in history: “I may not agree with what you say, but I will fight to the death for your right to say it”.
The three rules formulated above are not a recipe for success. Time will tell how we will all deal with the challenge of upcoming right-wing populism. It is a journey we must go on for the years to come. A journey that all of us living in Sweden are on together.
But one thing I am sure of: we cannot allow the Sweden Democrats to play the victim role. By adhering to the principles of democracy and a transparent debate I am convinced that the real Sweden is resilient enough to withstand this attack on its fundamental values.
Ruben Brunsveld is Director of the Stockholm Institute for Public Speaking