Swedish press: scandal shows ‘true face’ of Sweden Democrats

Amid a still unfolding scandal for the Sweden Democrats, where three prominent party members are seen on film harassing drunks, doling out racist slurs, and disrespecting women, Swedish editorial writers agree that the party has lost its painstakingly crafted non-racist front once and for all.

Swedish press: scandal shows 'true face' of Sweden Democrats

The film clip, recorded in 2010 and published this week by the Expressen newspaper, shows prominent Sweden Democrat members Kent Ekeroth, Erik Almqvist and Christian Westling scuffling with a drunken man, shouting at a woman, and then arming themselves with iron bars.

The independently liberal broadsheet Dagens Nyheter (DN) calls the film a “depiction of the true face of the Sweden Democrats”.

The editorial writers question the statement made by party head Jimmie Åkesson that he was unaware of the existence of the film and of its content.

“As the fight and the documentation of the incident already has been subject to crisis management it is rather unlikely that no one else in the party leadership knew of Almqvist’s actions,” the paper wrote.

“Such a revelation would be Åkesson’s nightmare scenario; it would rock the Sweden Democrats to their core.”

According to DN, the massive support shown for Almqvist by fellow party members on his Facebook page only goes to show that there is widespread acceptance of this kind of behaviour, despite the party leadership’s lofty promises of a zero-tolerance policy for racism.

The independently Social Democrat tabloid Aftonbladet argues that the future of the Sweden Democrats now rests on how Åkesson handles the situation and whether he manages to convince Sweden that he knew nothing of Almqvist’s and Ekeroth’s escapades.

“If it turns out that Jimmie Åkesson knew – and covered up – the attack on Kungsgatan, he ought to accompany Ekeroth,” Aftonbladet wrote.

The consequences for Åkesson and the party could potentially be disastrous, argues the paper.

Svenska Dagbladet (SvD), Sweden’s independently liberal-conservative broadsheet, questioned why society was surprised over the latest scandal rocking the Sweden Democrats.

“These kinds of incidents are as old as the party itself,” SvD wrote.

“Despite party head Jimmie Åkesson’s big clean-out of the more shady elements and despite the zero-tolerance policy against racism that Åkesson announced last month, one racist party member after another has been exposed. This last time within the very inner core of the party.”

However, the paper said that the party may see out this latest scandal and come out of it almost untarnished if Åkesson manages to distance the party from these prominent but now disgraced figureheads.

This being said, SvD argues, the party’s future is far from safe, as there is a big difference between getting in and staying in the Riksdag.

The independently liberal tabloid Expressen wrote that there are two layers to the Sweden Democrats and that the inner and the outer layer are completely different parties.

“Within the party there is a broad understanding that the anti-racism is a front meant for the rest of the world. That’s why serious racist expletives cause very little consternation. Lies that are for the good of the party are good lies; that’s why they respect that Almqvist lied,” the paper wrote.

Indeed, leaders of the party’s youth wing, the SDU, slammed Åkesson in an opinion article published in DN on Thursday, arguing he was wrong to oust Almqvist.

“To impulsively take away the responsibilities of a prominent representative of the party isn’t taking responsibility, it’s succumbing to a witch hunt by the media,” SDU chair Gustav Kasselstrand and vice chair William Hahne wrote.

Expressen argues further that Åkesson has sacrificed his “crown prince” to keep up appearances but that he will suffer the consequences from within the party:

“Many will find the play to the galleries has gone too far when one of the most important politicians was forced away for expressing opinions that not too long ago were seen as uncontroversial within the party.”

The paper questions how Åkesson will be able to keep up his zero-tolerance policy without leaving the majority of party members by the wayside.

“The front has once and for all cracked and the Sweden Democrat’s inherent brutality is plain for all to see.”

Rebecca Martin

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How the Sweden Democrats grew even in their most turbulent stronghold

Sweden Democrat rule in the country town of Hörby has been so turbulent it's a little like Trump's America in miniature. And yet in this month's election, the party grew its share of the vote by four percentage points anyway. What does its success say about the far-right party nationally?

How the Sweden Democrats grew even in their most turbulent stronghold

There have been allegations of tax avoidance, tough policies for migrants, inappropriate drunken nakedness, and a mass departure of civil servants. There have been complaints of a biased media and an entrenched “deep state” resisting every effort to reform. 

The four years of Sweden Democrat rule in the Swedish municipality of Hörby have seen, if not all then at least a bit of, the drama of Donald Trump’s America, played out in and around a country market town of 15,000 people.

Yet when the Sweden’s Democrat’s performance was put to the vote, it raised its share of the vote here by four percentage points, winning an impressive 39 percent. 

“We were shrieking with joy. This was something we could only dream of,” says Cecilia Bladh in Zito, the town’s Sweden Democrat mayor, when The Local meets her in her office, which is decorated with black and white photos of horses being traded at long-gone country fairs.

Hörby, a 40-minute drive northeast of Malmö in the Skåne countryside, was one of four towns the populist Sweden Democrats controlled at the time of Sweden’s general election two weeks ago. This month, it grew its share of the vote between three and ten percentage points in every one.

“We are very, very happy about the trust that we got from our voters,” Bladh in Zito continues. “I strongly believe that [it’s because] the way we are dealing with questions is very real. It’s reality-based political issues. We have both our feet on the ground, and we listen to our voters and the people here in the municipality. What do you need, what do you want?”

The party has managed to keep open the small schools in the villages surrounding the town, which there had been plans to close and consolidate. 

“We said, ‘no, no, no, no way’, because if we take away the countryside schools, the countryside will die out or later,” she says.

It has hired security guards for the city centre, and cut the amount of spending on social welfare by a quarter, she claimed.  

“For the fourth year in a row now, we are increasing safety here in Hörby, so we have less problems now than we had before,” she boasts. 

Cecilia Bladh in Zito, the mayor of Hörby, holds a press conference about the fire in the town. Photo: Johan Nilsson/TT

Bladh in Zito and her team have certainly shaken things up, imposing a new organisational structure on the municipality. “We are driving through real change from the ground up, changing the way we look at costs, and changing a lot of the steering documents,” she says.

The SD-led council has tried to halve the municipal budget for “mother-tongue education”, where children with foreign backgrounds are given an hour’s teaching each week in their home language. It has stopped the gay pride rainbow flag from being flown on municipality buildings. It has scrapped an ambition to be “fossil-free by 2020”, and also claims to have slashed the budget for social benefits by a quarter, again by tightening rules for immigrants.

Someone has taped a pride flag to the sign at the entrance of Hörby municipality as a protest. Photo: Johan Nilsson/TT

But it may be that people in Hörby voted for the far-right party itself more than for what it did in the town. 

“I think it’s a protest, a protest against those who sit and rule the municipality, who haven’t been listening to the problems people on the ground are facing, and anyway and there’s no one who could do it better,” says 81-year-old Kerstin, as she drags her shopping in a wheeled bag across one of the town’s two central squares.

She voted for the party both in 2018 and again this year because of what she sees as the complacency of the established parties.

The party grew its share of the vote in nearly nine out of every ten municipalities across Sweden, gaining both in its heartlands here in Skåne, and in the northern regions of the country traditionally dominated by the Social Democrats.

READ ALSO: What have the Sweden Democrats proved in four years of municipal rule? 

It overtook Sweden’s former farmer’s party, Centre, as the most popular party among agricultural workers, a trend that is likely to be seen Hörby, which is at the centre of some of Sweden’s best agricultural land. 

But as in Trump’s America, the party’s success has divided communities, with Hörby no exception.

“It’s completely crazy that so many people here vote for them,” complains Johan Tinné, co-owner of the central Café Innegarden, who puts the party’s growth down to gang shootings in Sweden’s big cities rather than the performance of Bladh in Zito and her team.

When asked if friends and family also vote for the party, he shakes his head. “The day they start voting for SD, I’ll end all my contact with them.”

Even supporters like Kerstin have misgivings: “There have been stories that haven’t been so nice, but they’ve ridden it out.”

First Stefan Borg, the party’s group leader, withdrew his candidacy for mayor after the activist magazine Expo revealed that he had been spreading pro-Russian propaganda, writing posts about “the last generation of Swedes” and “the great replacement”, and making homophobic statements on social media. Bladh in Zito then stepped in. 

Both Borg and Bladh in Zito are strangely cosmopolitan figures for small-town Swedish politics, and both have a connection to Russia (albeit only a slight one in her case). 

After retiring from his career as a fighter pilot, Borg spent years in Russia learning the language, and told The Local in 2018 that he made his living as “a translator of Russian religious philosophy in the tradition of Dostoevsky”.

Bladh in Zito grew up in the town but spent her 20s and 30s working as a consultant and energy executive in Stockholm, Germany and Rome. According to her LinkedIn profile, she studied in 2000 at Saint Petersburg Electrotechnical University. 

At the start of 2020, seven unions representing civil servants, teachers and other municipal workers raised the alarm after a mass departure of top civil servants, and reports of a bullying culture.

“It’s a very toxic environment,” Maria Westlund, chief health and safety representative for the Saco union told the Telegraph. “The working environment has been hostile: People don’t get information shared with them, they get left out of emails. People talk crap about them when they’re not there. They’re not included in meetings.” 

Renaldo Tirone, leader of the local Social Democrats, accuses the mayor of “ruling by fear”.

But when the struggle was raging, Borg dismissed it in a Facebook post: ”What’s happening is an attempt by the Deep State, through the unions, to take back political power in Hörby.”

Bladh in Zito argues that it was a good thing that civil servants left the municipality if they were opposed to the structural reforms or didn’t want to enact the ruling parties’ plans. 

“Some people said, ‘ok, I don’t want to work in the new organisation’ because they had lost a title, or maybe even lost some power. That’s fine. That’s understandable. That’s very normal. The other thing is that we had some civil servants at the beginning, who said, ‘we don’t want to work in a municipality where the Sweden Democrats are the rulers. We don’t want to work there’.”

She claims, however, that over the four years as a whole, the churn among council civil servants has not been larger than at other comparable municipalities. 

Then the civil servant in charge of the municipality’s social services had to resign after a naked swimming incident at a staff social event.

Most recently, this June, the Aftonbladet tabloid accused Bladh in Zito of paying Polish builders at least 2.5 million kronor in cash to avoid tax when renovating her historic house in the town centre. She claims her Italian ex-husband handled the payments.

She says that her ex-husband, who is conveniently nowhere to be found, was responsible for paying for the renovation, so she can’t say anything about how the builders were paid. But anyway, she claims, she is the victim of a biased left-wing media, with the journalist behind the story “as far left as you can go”. 

“They do not want Sweden Democrats to have the power, and they’ve been trying for four years, even before I was elected, to kick us out,” she says. “They asked my former employers if I did something wrong, they’ve been pushing me politically for three and a half years, and now, because they couldn’t find anything in my professional or political life, they going after my private side.”

For Westlund, Bladh in Zito’s refusal to answer detailed questions about the renovation, like her refusal to work closely with unions, are signs of a worryingly closed and secretive approach.

“They don’t answer the press, they don’t answer when other parties ask them things. They just keep everything quiet,” she says. “I feel like it’s not a democracy anymore.”

Bladh in Zito, on the other hand, thinks the party’s local gains have proven that it can rule responsibly.

“There will always be people who don’t like us, we can never change that,” she says. “But I hope they understand that we don’t bite, we are not neo-Nazis, we are not fascists, and we are not racists. We are a party which has reality-based political views.”
“We’ve done very well in all our four municipalities, and I hope that can give the Moderates the bravery to start cooperating with us at a national level.”