‘Don’t let the far-right dominate the debate’

As the Sweden Democrats prepare to take their seats in the Riksdag next month, contributor Ruben Brunsveld hopes Sweden's politicians can learn from the mistakes made by their Dutch counterparts in dealing with the far-right.

'Don't let the far-right dominate the debate'

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

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OPINION: Will the Sweden Democrats play nice or will they seek ‘revenge’?

A row over Swedish public television suggests that the room for compromise between the Swedish Democrats and their partners in a possible new coalition government will be limited, argues David Crouch.

OPINION: Will the Sweden Democrats play nice or will they seek ‘revenge’?

On Tuesday evening, SVT’s flagship news magazine Aktuellt included a seven-minute segment about the Sweden Democrats (SD). They invited Willy Silberstein, head of the Swedish Committee Against Antisemitism, and PM Nilsson, the respected political editor of business daily Dagens Industri

This was an example of what TV journalists do all the time – get two sensible people with different views to explain and argue their positions. The approach allows viewers to be exposed to different opinions and make up their own minds.  

Silberstein said it was “frightening” that a party with Nazi roots had so much support in Sweden and expressed a concern that the SD’s strong showing at the polls would encourage racists. 

“I do not mean that the Sweden Democrats in any way call for violence against immigrants, but I think there is a risk that a climate will arise where many people who have racist attitudes feel a greater freedom to say things and possibly also act violently against minorities,” he said.

Nilsson respectfully and sympathetically argued that the SD kick extremists out of the party, and that the experience with similar parties in power in other Nordic countries is that they fail to make any fundamental changes to these liberal democracies. In some ways, it felt like the conversation I had with my Jewish relative that I described in my last column, although Nilsson failed to answer the real fear among ethnic minorities that the election result encourages racists. 

This innocuous bit of television provoked a furious outcry from the Sweden Democrats. Björn Söder, one of the SD’s top leaders and their candidate to become the new speaker in parliament, accused SVT of broadcasting “pure propaganda”. The public service broadcaster should be reported for bias and “fundamentally reformed”, he said.

Barely 48 hours after the polling stations closed, here was the SD with the gloves off, gunning for one of the party’s traditional enemies – journalists. 

In 2016, Linus Bylund, now the party’s chief of staff, called journalists “enemies of the people”. On election night, Bylund joked that he was looking forward to “a lot of what we like to call ‘journalist rugby’” – pushing journalists around, he explained. When Aftonbladet columnist Peter Kadhammar visited the SD stronghold of Hörby in 2020 and asked to read the town council’s official diary – a legal democratic right – two SD goons followed him and sat, arms folded, to intimidate him while he worked.

SD critics of the mainstream media have supporters inside the other right-wing parties that make up the loose electoral bloc that is on the verge of taking power. On Tuesday morning, Gunnar Axen, a venture capitalist and for 16 years a member of parliament for the Moderate party, tweeted: “A piece of advice to the Moderates and SD before the government negotiations regarding ‘public service’: A cancerous tumour is operated on completely, you leave nothing behind because then it starts to grow again.”

Söder’s outburst against the media should be a concern to anyone who consumes journalism in Sweden and relies on journalists to provide them with accurate information on which to lead their lives. But it also raises a bigger issue: to what extent will the party be prepared to compromise in the event that negotiations take place with the three other right-wing parties about forming a new government?

The Financial Times was one of the few foreign media allowed into the SD’s valvaka election vigil party on election night (The Local’s application for press accreditation was rejected). Its reporter Richard Milne wrote: “One word was on the lips of many Sweden Democrats MPs who spoke to the Financial Times: ‘It is revenge,” said Henrik Vinge, deputy leader. Linus Bylund, its chief of staff, added: ‘It is revenge because the other parties have treated us badly — even the three [rightwing] parties on our side.’”

It is easy to forget what it has cost SD politicians personally to get where they are today, and therefore how determined they are to pursue their ideological goals. Leading members have made sacrifices, they were in the movement when it was acceptable to make fun of them and even beat them up. Some have lost their positions or even their jobs for being SD members. Whether you think this was right or not, they have been isolated and bullied by the media and other Swedish institutions.

“These are investments that they have made, and they will not immediately become politically fatigued in negotiations, they are in it for the long term,” one experienced SD-watcher told me this week.

However, the SD have also seen what has happened to other, similar parties in the Nordic countries, and particularly the Danish People’s Party, whose role in propping up a minority conservative government has seen its support fall through the floor.

At the same time, in the municipalities it has controlled, the SD have behaved responsibly and generally stayed away from enacting hardcore policies. Moreover, this approach has seen its share of the vote grow by between 4 and 10 percentage points in all of these towns, which might have taught it that the softly softly approach works.

The election literature I received from my local SD was all about cuddly local issues and mentioned immigration only once – in sharp contrast to the election leaflet from the SD’s national arm.

Will the party take a similar softly, softly approach now it has the chance for power on the national stage, or will it want to show the full extent of its new political power and throw its weight around? If that includes taking revenge on the mainstream political parties and the media, be prepared for fireworks.

David Crouch is the author of Almost Perfekt: How Sweden Works and What Can We Learn From It. He is a freelance journalist and a lecturer in journalism at Gothenburg University.