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2022 SWEDISH ELECTION

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

On a visit to Sölvesborg, the showcase municipality the Sweden Democrats have led for the last four years, Richard Orange found surprisingly few angry, disappointed, or dissatisfied citizens.

What have the Sweden Democrats proved in four years of municipal rule?
Louise Erixon, the SD mayor of Sölvesborg makes her speech introducing the party's leader (and her ex partner) Jimmie Åkesson. Photo: Johan Nilsson / TT

Perhaps the perfect summer weather has put them all in an upbeat mood, but people in the small and charming Swedish city of Sölvesborg in Blekinge, do not seem to have found the last four years of life under a Sweden Democrat mayor particularly traumatic. 

“As a small businessman and even as a citizen, I can say that it is exactly the same as it was before,” declares a mechanic, hands coated in grease, as he fiddles with an old trailer down one of the coastal city’s many cobbled streets.

“There’s a lot of moaning. Before, the Sweden Democrats were in opposition, which meant that everything the Social Democrats did was wrong, and now the red bloc is in opposition, which means that everything the Sweden Democrats do is wrong. There’s no difference.” 

For Suzanne Karlsson, who runs a health food shop in the main central square, the security guards the Sweden Democrats have hired to patrol the city’s streets are an improvement, but she’s disappointed at the decision to take down the rainbow pride flag from its place outside the municipality offices. 

Even at the election hut for the Left Party in the town’s main square, the activists grudgingly concede that nothing has gone catastrophically wrong. 

“In a municipality, there are no disagreements on most issues,” explains Willy Söderdahl, the party’s leading municipal councillor. “In Sölvesborg council, we think the same thing on about 80 percent, 90 percent of issues, and in schools and healthcare, there are rules from the government, so there’s nothing that we decide.” 

When the Sweden Democrats won the mayoral position in a handful of municipalities in Sölvesborg in the region of Blekinge on Sweden’s southeast coast, and in Hörby and Bromölla, and later Bjuv and Svalöv in neighbouring Skåne, many of the party’s opponents hoped that chaos would ensue, or that the party would put off voters by driving through populist, and sometimes illegal policies. 

And the last four years have not been free of scandal. 

Cecilia Bladh in Zito at a press conference about a naked bathing scandal in Hörby. Photo: Johan Nilsson/TT

In Hörby, the Moderate Party has withdrawn from the ruling coalition, and the opposition councillors have called for the Sweden Democrat mayor, Cecilia Bladh in Zito, to resign after the Aftonbladet newspaper revealed that she had paid at least 2.5 million kronor in cash to building firms when renovating her house to help them avoid tax. 

This came after Stefan Borg, who was expected to take over as mayor after the election, had to stand down after reporters found a string of homophobic and racist posts he had made on social media. 

In Bromölla, next door to Sölvesborg, the Sweden Democrats gave up trying to control the municipality in January last year, after failing to overcome the opposition of other parties. 

And in Svalöv, the Sweden Democrat mayor, Teddy Nilsson, admitted to Sydsvenskan earlier this year that the party had not been able to implement a single one of the promises they had made before the 2018 election. 

READ ALSO: The Sweden Democrats are needed in government’

 

But in Sölvesborg, the home town of Sweden Democrat party leader Jimmie Åkesson, the party pulled out all the stops to make sure it succeeded, to make it a showcase for the party ahead of this year’s election. 

 
For Louise Erixon, Sölvesborg’s Sweden Democrat mayor, her party’s period in office has been a rebuke to the people she denounced in a rousing speech last Saturday as the “professional opinion makers in Stockholm”. 
 
After the 2018 election, these Stockholm-based experts had, she said, shown a “bizarre interest” in seeking to “crush us, crush the coalition, and crush Sweden Democrats”. 
 
“But it didn’t work”, Erixon, who separated from Åkesson two years ago, said. “It had completely the opposite effect. The people who lived here got together. They’ll never manage to crush us, they’ll never manage to crush the Sweden Democrats, they’ll never manage to crush the coalition, because we stand together, and I’m convinced that many other municipalities are going to have the same joy that we have here here in Sölvesborg after this election.” 
 
She cited a poll the party had ordered from SIFO which, she claimed, showed that voter support for SD had increased from 29 percent to 37 percent since the 2018 election. “We are eating up the Social Democrats, bite by bite,” she said. 
 
In the pandemic, she boasted, Sölvesborg had been one of the first municipalities to ban visits to old age people’s homes, and also the first to give staff working with elderly proper protection. She said the municipality was now ranked in the top 15 in Sweden for how business-friendly it was. She pointed to the city’s begging ban, the ‘municipality safety force’, language tests for those caring for the elderly, automatic counselling for all school pupils, and drug tests in schools. 
 
Robert Lindén, a former sea captain and executive with Electrolux and Eniro, who the party appointed its city councillor in charge of elderly care, told The Local that the party had been careful to appoint competent people to posts like his, as it could not afford to be seen to fail. 
 
“We built the team here in Sölvesborg on the basis of competence, that was the main strategy that we had,” he said. “When we picked people from the membership, we were looking for people with experience in business, and that’s what’s different from most other politicians.” 
 

Birgit Birgersson-Brorsson, group leader of the once-dominant Social Democrats, told The Local she still hoped her party would win back the lead in next month’s poll. 

She listed all of the things the Sweden Democrats had done to harm the town, chief of which was the decision to close down a municipality-owned old people’s home, and invite in a private company. 

“We think that was quite bad, because we want to have control over our elderly care the municipality,” she says. 

At the same time, the six million kronor a year the municipality is spending on its security guards, she argues, could be put to much better use. 

“We think we could use that money in schools, healthcare, and elderly care, and also childcare, we could employee a lot more people,” she says. 

Back at the town square, the Left Party’s Willy Söderdahl argued that the Sweden Democrats had benefited from the extra money municipalities were given during the pandemic, saying he expected more problems if they once again win power after September 11th. 

As for the security guards, people in the town do seem to appreciate them. 

“I think it’s a bit better now, and maybe there are fewer kids with drugs, I don’t know,” says Karlsson at health food shop. “But I think it’s good when these security guards and walking around and making it a little bit safer.” 

The guards themselves, however, are not so sure, with Toby Hult, one of the two on duty when I visit saying there was actually not that much for him to do, and certainly no problem with violent crime in the city. 

“We have some problems with Romanians begging and stuff like that, and old guys drinking alcohol, but that’s about it,” he says. “But maybe just our appearance here calms things down.” 

For Söderdahl’s colleagues at the Left Party tent, the guards are just one example of the change in atmosphere Sweden Democrat rule has brought. 

“People are more divided, that’s the most visible change,” says Gördis Byqvist, one of the activists. “They are trying to make people feel uncomfortable and afraid.”

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SWEDEN DEMOCRATS

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.”

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