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ANALYSIS: Has the far-right become normalised in Sweden?

Does the Liberal Party's decision to open the door to working with the Sweden Democrats indicate a shift in Swedish politics ahead of the 2022 election? The Local speaks with two political analysts to find out what's going on.

ANALYSIS: Has the far-right become normalised in Sweden?
Sweden Democrat party leader Jimmie Åkesson. Photo: Carl-Olof Zimmerman/TT

The Liberal party in Sweden caused a stir just before Easter after it approved a bid to campaign for a centre-right government in next-year’s election. With 59 votes to 31, the Liberal Party’s national committee agreed to the proposal put forward by party leader Nyamko Sabuni. 

Although collaborating with the Moderate Party and Christian Democrats who make up the bulk of Swedish conservatives is not new, this could potentially mean working with the anti-immigration Sweden Democrats, with roots in neo-Nazi movements, after next year’s election.

So will it become the new norm to work with the far-right in Swedish politics?

Sociology professor Jens Rydgren at Stockholm University says that despite the deep friction within the Liberal party on this issue, it is not surprising that they agreed to the proposal due to Sabuni’s role as leader. Sabuni, a former equality and integration minister, was elected leader of the party in June 2019.

“She was very clear from the start that she preferred the Moderate party as the governing party, and she has pushed for the Liberals to take a stance on that. So it [the result] didn’t really come as a surprise, there have been signs of this since 2018, but especially since the election of the party leader,” he says.

The Moderate party and Christian Democrats have previously declared that they are willing to work with the Sweden Democrats. This would enable the right-wing (borgerliga) parties to form a government with the support of the Sweden Democrats, similar to how centre-left Social Democrat Prime Minister Stefan Löfven previously managed to form a government supported by the Centre Party and Liberal Party.

This has already led to further normalisation of the Sweden Democrats, Rydgren says, as it has legitimised the party for many voters. The Sweden Democrats are characterised as a regular party to negotiate with.

“Above all it has led to a situation where the Moderates and Christian Democrats have toned down the opinions that separate them from the Sweden Democrats. They haven’t been interested in highlighting the areas of conflict, but have tried to play it down, and in some sense maybe tried to strengthen the picture of the Sweden Democrats as a regular party.”

Rydgren says it is not a wild guess that this is also how the Liberal party will interact with the Sweden Democrats from now on. He predicts the party will try to emphasise the consensus that exists with the populist party within some policy areas.

“So in that regard, yes, it has led to a normalisation of the Sweden Democrats.”

But there is a complex future ahead for anyone looking to form a right-wing government after next year’s elections.

“There will be tough negotiations and it is reasonable to assume that the Sweden Democrats will continue to sharpen their political programme, to go in an even more radical direction, which will be costly, especially for the Liberals, to agree to those things.”

The leaders of the Christian Democrats (Ebba Busch) and Moderates (Ulf Kristersson), with Sweden Democrat leader Jimmie Åkesson in the background. Photo: Henrik Montgomery/TT

Is folkhem the reason?

Ov Cristian Norocel, lecturer at Lund University, agrees that party leader Sabuni has had an important role to play in the recent developments.

“It seems Sabuni is calculating with an electoral advancement in the coming elections for these borgerliga parties, though she seems committed to ignore that the Sweden Democrats would play an important role in that context,” he says.

The populists party’s support remains high in Sweden.

“If we were to rely on the polls, the Sweden Democrats have the potential to become the third largest political force in the Swedish Parliament (Riksdagen), while the Liberal Party would need to fight really hard to ensure it passes the threshold,” Norocel says.

Across Europe far-right parties have seen electoral success over the past years. Controversially, the Sweden Democrats have their roots in the neo-Nazi movement in the 1980s, setting them apart even from many other similar parties across the continent.

Calls have been made to stop the normalisation of far-right politics. For example, Annie Lööf, the leader of the Centre Party – also a small centrist-liberal party that otherwise has a lot in common with its Liberal colleagues – wrote on Facebook that she “regretted that the Liberals had chosen to open the door to an anti-liberal and xenophobic party”. Nyamko Sabuni herself discussed her experience battling racism throughout her career in a speech to her party during the same meeting where the controversial proposal was voted through.

But there has also been a general political shift to the right in Sweden, including centre-left parties such as the governing Social Democrats taking an increasingly tougher stance on migration issues. 

“The Sweden Democrats have also managed to benefit from the fact that the other conservative forces in the Swedish parliament, the Moderate Party and Christian Democrats, have moved further to the right in the past years,” Norocel says.

So how have the Sweden Democrats managed to establish themselves as a major political force? Norocel’s research argues that the party has managed to claim ownership over the Swedish concept of folkhem (people’s home). A concept that for decades was used by the Social Democrats to pursue a progressive political programme that eventually led to Swedish society enjoying some of the highest levels of equality and development.

“The Sweden Democrats claimed to be the only political party interested in defending this home of Swedish people, thus setting protection of native Swedes against what they claim to be dangerous migrants,” he says. “[Sweden Democrat leader] Jimmie Åkesson has gone so far to claim that if Per Albin Hansson, an influential Social Democrat leader and Swedish prime minister [1932-1946], would be alive today, he would be a Sweden Democrat member.”

But cleaning up its act is not an easy feat for the party.

“One cannot ignore the fact that accusations of racism and Islamophobia among Sweden Democrat party members have followed the Sweden Democrats even after Jimmie Åkesson’s repeated reassurances that the party has left its extreme right past behind,” Norocel says.

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SWEDEN ELECTS

Sweden Elects: The latest political news as the election campaign kicks off

What's Sweden talking about this week? In The Local's Sweden Elects newsletter, editor Emma Löfgren rounds up some of the main talking points ahead of the Swedish election.

Sweden Elects: The latest political news as the election campaign kicks off

In an interview that could have jeopardised his job a decade ago, Social Democrat Immigration Minister Anders Ygeman’s suggestion in DN that there should be a 50 percent cap on non-Nordic immigrants in troubled areas of Swedish cities showed how the debate has shifted in recent years.

That said, his comments did not go without criticism. The Left Party slammed them as “racist”, the Greens and the Centre Party also criticised them, and so did the Moderates and some within the Social Democrats.

Ygeman himself said that he had been misunderstood, that he had never meant it as an actual proposal, and that factors such as crime and unemployment were far more important in terms of integration.

“But of course segregation is not just class-based, it also has an ethnic dimension. If you have areas where almost everyone is from other countries, it’s harder to learn Swedish, and if it’s harder to learn Swedish, it’s harder to get a job,” he told public broadcaster SVT.

What do you think? Email me if you want to share your thoughts.

Campaign posters and a new poll

The centre-left Social Democrats and the Moderates, the largest right-wing opposition party, both unveiled their campaign posters last week, which I guess means that the summer holiday lull is officially over and the election campaign is now definitely under way. Just over a month to go.

It’s interesting that the Social Democrats are clearly trying to turn this into a “presidential” style campaign, taking advantage of Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson’s overwhelming popularity compared to the Moderates’ Ulf Kristersson, whose reception among voters is lukewarm.

A poll by the DN newspaper and Ipsos a month ago suggested that 37 percent of voters want to see Andersson as prime minister, compared to 22 percent who preferred Kristersson (12 percent preferred the anti-immigration Sweden Democrats’ leader Jimmie Åkesson, and the other party leaders did not get more than four percent each).

Andersson is in the unique position where voters like her way more than they like her party – a new opinion poll by Demoskop suggests that 28.7 percent would vote for the Social Democrats if the election was held today (the Moderates would get 20.3 percent). The same poll has all the right-wing parties with a slight majority compared to the left-wing parties.

Anyway, the Social Democrats’ campaign posters cover pensions, schools (specifically, limiting profit-making free schools), crime and law and order. Climate change is conspicuously absent, but a party spokesperson told reporters it will be more prominent in its social media campaigns.

When Kristersson, on the other hand, spoke at his party’s event to kick off their election campaign, he emphasised how he’s got a viable coalition on his side – a jibe at the Social Democrats, who will struggle to get their partners (specifically the Centre and Left parties) to collaborate.

He also reiterated his praise for the Sweden Democrats, and The Local asked several experts if the Moderates are the same party that fought the 2018 election, when Kristersson promised Holocaust survivor Hédi Fried he would not cooperate with the Sweden Democrats after the election.

Election pledges

The Local’s Becky Waterton has looked at the election pledges of Sweden’s four main parties, the Social Democrats, Moderates, Sweden Democrats and Centre Party. Click here to read her guide, it’s a really useful roundup.

And what about Covid? Is Sweden’s handling of the pandemic not going to be a talking point in this election? No, at least not if the parties have their way. The Social Democrats run the government, but most of the regions (who are in charge of healthcare) are run by right-wing coalitions. So from a strictly realpolitik perspective, no party is able to attack another without putting themselves at risk of becoming a target. Best forget about it.

In other political news…

… a Sweden Democrat member of parliament has been accused of sending unsolicited dick pics to women, the Moderates want to legalise altruistic surrogacy in Sweden, the Christian Democrats want a national scheme to improve maternity care, the Liberals want to make it harder for people with a criminal record to become Swedish citizens, and Centre Party leader Annie Lööf hit the campaign trail just before the weekend by pledging to reject any proposal for raised taxes after the election.

Sweden Elects is a weekly column by Editor Emma Löfgren looking at the big talking points and issues in the Swedish election race. Members of The Local Sweden can sign up to receive the column plus several extra features as a newsletter in their email inbox each week. Just click on this “newsletters” option or visit the menu bar.

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