OPINION: What would a Sweden Democrats backed government look like?

With opinion polls suggesting the nationalist Sweden Democrats could become the largest force in a right-wing coalition, David Crouch asks how the party might behave in power

OPINION: What would a Sweden Democrats backed government look like?
Sweden Democrat leader Jimmie Åkesson holds a press conference in Eskilstuna. Photo: Per Karlsson/TT

Ella is frightened. Well dressed and with perfect hair, she is a successful immigrant to Sweden – an East European of Jewish descent who has joined Sweden’s comfortable middle class.

“The fascists are growing everywhere and are coming to power in Sweden,” she says, stoney-faced. “Is history repeating itself?” History for Ella means the gas chambers, and for her, today’s fascists are the Sweden Democrats (SD).

I was taken unawares by Ella’s outburst and my reassurances sounded unconvincing. But I was less surprised by her confusion and fear. Prime minister Magdalena Andersson herself has accused the SD of being neo-fascist, and the insult is commonly bandied about by prominent figures on the centre-left. So, having now had time to think, here is what I feel I should have said to Ella.

In early 2000, there was international uproar when Austria’s conservatives formed a ruling coalition with the far-right Freedom Party, whose leader in the 1950s was a former officer of the Waffen SS. Condemnation was widespread, and both the USA and Israel recalled their ambassadors to Vienna.

Twenty-two years later, there is no such outrage when far-right, nationalist and right-populist parties win government positions – their presence on the political scene has become mainstream. Once censured as pariahs, they are increasingly considered suitable partners for governing coalitions.

In this sense, Sweden is following a trend in Europe. Far-right parties have entered governments from Italy to Norway, and the world has not stopped spinning as a result.

In the Nordic region, Sweden is behind the curve. In Norway, the Progress Party has frequently polled over 25 percent, and from 2013 to 2020 governed the country together with the centre-right Conservatives. For periods, the PP controlled the ministries of justice, finance, energy, transport, agriculture, labour and – wait for it – equality. The party’s most notorious former member is the Nazi terrorist Anders Behring Breivik.

The far-right Danish People’s Party became Denmark’s second largest party around a decade ago. DPP backing after the 2015 general election enabled a minority Liberal government to hold office and enact some of the strictest asylum and immigration policies in Western Europe. In Finland, the anti-immigrant True Finns (now the Finns Party) joined a centre-right coalition government in 2015.

The recent electoral success of far-right parties in the Nordics has contributed to policies and rhetoric hostile to asylum seekers and Muslims. But these parties have also been subject to the democratic process and been voted out of office. In Denmark and Finland they have been burned by their experience of power, with a collapse and splintering of their vote.

If the right bloc wins next weekend’s Swedish election, how much influence could the Sweden Democrats demand? What might be the direction of a government that relies for its survival on their support?

The other parties in Sweden’s loose centre-right bloc – the Moderates, Christian Democrats and Liberals – say they will exclude the SD from ministerial positions. But recent polls suggest the SD could out-perform the Moderates and become Sweden’s second party. In any case, the SD is likely to extract a high political price for its backing.

“On issues of migration, crime and sentencing, culture and international collaboration, this can drive a [centre-right coalition] government further to the right,” says Ewa Sternberg, political commentator for the liberal Dagens Nyheter. One might say “even further to the right” – pressure from the SD has already seen a substantial rightward shift in the Swedish mainstream.

Coalitions demand compromises. Government is messy and resistant to clear ideological commitments, let alone extreme ones. When The Local recently visited Sölvesborg, where the SD runs the local administration, it expected to find tension and polarisation, but instead encountered little more than a collective shrug of the shoulders.

But what of the SD’s historical roots in the Nazi movement, recently confirmed by the party itself? What about the stream of media exposés – which always accelerates around election time – revealing individual Sweden Democrat politicians as holocaust deniers, Muslim baiters, Nazi sympathisers, homophobes and old-style racists? What about the party’s talk, as recently as 2019, of “inherited essence” (nedärvd essens), smacking of 1930s race biology?

Although leaders such as Åkesson and Mattias Karlsson joined the party in the mid-1990s when its umbilical chord with National Socialism had not been cut, they have tried to exclude the neanderthal element, at one point kicking out the entire youth organisation for being too extreme. This has led some to argue that the Sweden Democrats have transcended their extremist roots and are now right-wing populists, just like other similar parties all over Europe. 

However, while direct connections at the level of ideas between the party and outright Nazis might now be weak, cultural connections are still strong. Some of the popular songs sung at big SD events, for example, are straight from the Swedish white power movement.

And where the party seeks to take root, extremist weeds also seem to flourish. The magazine ETC obtained recently a document with a list of words banned by the party from the comment sections of its social media channels. This is a glossary of extreme right conspiracies and racial hatred, suggesting that the party attracts a milieu in which these ways of thinking are commonplace. 

This poses the question whether the party has the potential to radicalise even further to the right, pulling its coalition partners with it. In Poland and Hungary, for example, conservative parties have become authoritarian in power, gutting democratic institutions and turning them into compliant puppets. Could something similar happen in Sweden? 

I think this is extremely unlikely. Poland and Hungary have recent histories of totalitarianism, their democratic traditions are weak. By contrast, Sweden’s history of political pluralism has deep and active roots in society. When the Nordic Resistance Movement made the mistake of trying to march to a synagogue in Gothenburg in 2017, it seemed as if the entire city came out to oppose them.  

So Ella, please don’t be frightened. We live in a scary world of wars and climate catastrophes, and there are worrying developments in politics on both the left and right. But Sweden is a stable democracy and will remain so regardless of the outcome of next week’s elections.

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.

Member comments

  1. This is a shocking article, written from a naively privileged perspective of someone who feels he personally has nothing to fear from the rise of the far right. “The world hasn’t stopped turning so dont worry your pretty head” is both patronising and blind to the real injustice, intolerance oppression that migrants and descendants are already dealing with. His blithe false equivalence of “people on the left and right” is straight out of the Trump playbook and reveals his real politics. I’m very disappointed that The Local saw fit to publish this. Please do read this kind of thing through carefully before publishing in future…

  2. Many thanks for your comment. This is David, who wrote the article. First, it is not true that I personally have nothing to fear from the rise of the far right. My family is Jewish. Ella is my relative. Second, the article is a specific response to Ella’s fear that fascism is on the verge of coming to power in Sweden, not more generally about the racism experienced by immigrants in Sweden (and not just from the far right). For that, see the section devoted to this in my book, or my article in The Local (May 16): “The far right now dominates the immigration debate in Sweden.” The article above makes no blithe equivalence between people on the left and right — I personally am worried that certain people on the left support Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. And I hope you are too.

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Salming: A sporting superstar who changed what it means to be Swedish

The death of ice hockey legend Börje Salming last week touched the nation, partly because he broke the mould for acceptable Swedish behaviour, says David Crouch.

Salming: A sporting superstar who changed what it means to be Swedish

The mood in the stadium was ugly that September night in 1976, as the USA and Sweden national teams prepared for battle in the world’s first truly international ice hockey tournament. The Toronto crowd booed the American national anthem and was indifferent to the Swedish one. 

Then a mean-looking Swede took to the ice and the entire stadium rose to its feet. The ovation continued for several minutes (you can watch it here). It is considered the greatest moment of all time in Swedish hockey.

The Swede in question was Börje Salming, a Swedish legend, who died last week from a cruel and terminal illness. It is no exaggeration to say that his death touched the nation, and beyond. How many Swedes can claim to have had an obituary in the New York Times

For Swedes, Salming was much more than an international sporting superstar. His rise to stardom in North America in the 1970s and 80s reflected a social transformation as Sweden moved away from the collective ideals of the folkhemmet (people’s home) towards a more individualistic, competitive and outward-looking society. 

Tributes to Salming describe how he blazed a trail for Swedish hockey players into the North American big time and challenged the stereotype of the “chicken Swede”, the soft European. But he also changed perceptions about acceptable behaviour. Without Salming, one could imagine that Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the bad boy of Swedish football, might never have made his big break and left Rosengård. 

Salming was born in 1951 near the mining town of Kiruna in northern Sweden. His mother was Swedish while his father was a member of the indigenous Sami population. Salming’s Sami heritage made him a target of abuse, and he often endured racist anti-Sami slurs. In his memoirs, he attributes his toughness as an ice hockey player to his Sami heritage and the adversity he faced growing up.

Börje Salming wearing a traditional Sami kolt and Tiger Williams, one of his former teammates in the Toronto Maple Leafs. Photo Fredric Alm/TT

When Salming started to play professionally, the prevailing style of ice hockey was sossehockey (social democratic ice hockey), according to sports lecturer Tobias Stark from Linnaeus University. Sossehockey demanded that the team come first and no single player should stand out – an embodiment of the Jante law that celebrates modesty and uniformity over exceptional talent. Moreover, Salming was seen as lazy, troublesome, thuggish, and even un-Swedish.

But it was just these qualities that made him attractive to the Canadian scout who recruited him to the Toronto Maple Leafs in the early 1970s. They met in the locker room after Salming had been sent off for wiping out the referee.

In the NHL, he was an overnight sensation with his brave and combative style. After his first game, a Toronto Star reporter wrote: “Toronto is up 7–4, it is ten seconds left of the game. Then Salming throws himself to the ice and blocks a shot! Geez, this is the kind of player the Leafs need.”

He went on to play more than 1,000 games for the Maple Leafs and break all kinds of records for a defensive player. In 1996, he became the first Swede – indeed the first European – to be inducted into the NHL Hall of Fame. 

His reputation as a tough guy was enhanced in 1986 when an opponent stamped on his face, slicing it open with a wound that required 250 stitches. He was back on the ice two weeks later. 

Yet at first, Salming was scorned by the Swedish hockey establishment. They saw him as being seduced by money and joining the ranks of brutal American players with broken noses and no teeth. It took time for his achievements to be recognised back home, where he eventually became a national icon. 

After he stopped playing professionally in 1993, Salming became a successful entrepreneur with his own brand of clothing and cosmetics, and he wrote cookery books. He became a vocal spokesperson for Sami rights and the conservation of the wilderness, speaking out against mining in areas where reindeer-herding is a way of life. 

In August this year, it was announced that Salming had contracted amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or motor neuron disease. The seriousness of his condition was obvious at his last public appearances in Toronto and Stockholm in the weeks before his death. 

When the Toronto Maple Leafs played a game the day after Salming died, their players wore shirts with BORJE written in yellow on a blue maple leaf with a yellow crown, reflecting the colours of the Swedish flag – and a reminder of Salming’s nickname: The King.

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.