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What can other far-right parties tell us about the Sweden Democrats?

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What can other far-right parties tell us about the Sweden Democrats?
13:30 CET+01:00
With the Sweden Democrats reeling from a racist video scandal, two political scientists look at whether other far-right parties in Europe can tell us if the party's much-touted makeover is more cosmetic than ideological.

The far-right Sweden Democrats have seen a surge in support this autumn. A poll published earlier this month by the Aftonbladet newspaper estimates support for the the party at 11.2 percent, almost double what it enjoyed when entering parliament in 2010.

Hoping to build upon this positive news, party leader Jimmie Åkesson initiated an image makeover to attempt to rid the party of “extremists, racists, dogmatists, or others with a personal need for political or private excesses”.

However, Åkesson's "clean out" has been put in doubt after a 2010 video clip surfaced, featuring two pipe-wielding Sweden Democrat MPs in a drunken brawl, hurling racist and sexist epithets.

The two MPs have consequently stepped down from their party spokesmen duties, leaving the Sweden Democrats in an organizational and identity upheaval.

It remains to be seen what will come of this debacle. Some believe that the events might stir an internal battle that may break the party apart. Others underscore that voters are not that easily affected by scandals such as "SD-gate", as it has been dubbed by the Swedish media, and that support for the party will continue.

An examination of efforts by other West European far-right parties to achieve political power offers further hints as to what to expect from as Sweden looks ahead to parliamentary elections in 2014.

First off, the barrier to becoming a mainstream political party is certainly not insurmountable for far-right parties. Even in countries where the legacy of National Socialism, fascism, and like-minded collaboration still looms large, far-right parties have attempted similar image makeovers, literally dropping combat boots and street brawls for business suits and political debates.

Far-right parties in countries with a comparably less troubled past have achieved relative legitimacy. This applies to Scandinavia, with the Danish People's Party serving just ten years as a support party of the minority government in Denmark; the inclusion of the True Finns in government negotiations in Finland last year; and the potential of the Progress Party to form a government with the Conservatives next year in Norway.

From this perspective, the attempted Sweden Democrat "clean out" suggests that the party now not only seeks votes, but also office.

Despite emanating from a country without a significant history of inter-war far-right success and subsequent stigmatization associated with World War II, the Sweden Democrats long struggled to gain support because of their image as a group of young, male rabble-rousers.

After finally breaking through, the Sweden Democrats appear to be here to stay.

Unlike the "flash-in-the-pan" phenomenon of Sweden's populist New Democracy party from the early 1990s, they offer a more substantial programmatic platform which continues to attract supporters from both the centre-right government and centre-left "red-green" opposition.

While keeping the Sweden Democrats at an arm's length, both coalitions find it increasingly difficult to reach a majority on their own. As a result, the Sweden Democrats' prospects of one day becoming a supporting party, or even entering into office and actually having to respond and execute what they say, becomes more immediate.

The image remake of the Sweden Democrats can be viewed as an attempt to shift from the zone of irresponsible politics, which is more or less excluded by definition from holding a government office, to a position with a cleaned-up act which thus brings with it an increased chance of governing potential.

If the party's current support persists up until the 2014 elections, what influence might the Sweden Democrats carry in future government formations?

While far-right party participation in government across Western Europe over the last two decades has yielded mixed results, a recurrent theme is the collapse of coalitions as a result of infighting between the seemingly obstinate and unpredictable far-right and more responsible mainstream parties.

Whether one considers the Italian Northern League in 1995, the Austrian Freedom Party in 2002, or the Dutch Party for Freedom this year, the far-right has played an important role in the break-up of governments, although not as a product of being far-right per se, but because of immaturity or a lack of government experience that can easily plague any party that is new or has previously spent its existence as a political pariah.

At the same time, participation in government, and arguably interaction in parliament, has a "taming effect" on far-right parties as they are forced to cooperate with mainstream parties.

Such interaction seemingly validates a new generation of leadership reminiscent of Åkesson, or Marine Le Pen, who has shifted the ideology of the National Front away from the anti-Semitism and discussions of the Holocaust to radical Islam and immigration from North Africa.

However, the far-right can still continue to drive government coalitions to the right on cultural issues, and can even, in the unique case of Swiss People's Party, simultaneously participate in government while still acting as the opposition.

Since its arrival in parliament, the Sweden Democrats have not only profoundly altered the political landscape, block politics, as well as the political agenda, they party now also finds itself the third largest in Sweden.

While mainstream parties continue to pay little attention to the Sweden Democrats' parliamentary mandate, Åkesson will continue his reform of the party, now emboldened by "SD-gate".

Only time will tell whether this makeover is more cosmetic than ideological, and whether it can propel the Sweden Democrats to a position where they are considered as responsible governing alternative.

Nina Liljeqvist

PhD researcher at the European University Institute, Florence, Italy

Kristian Voss

PhD researcher at the European University Institute, Florence, Italy

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