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What have the Sweden Democrats learned from other Nordic far-right parties?

Their sister parties in Norway and Finland joined the main centre-right party in coalition. The one in Denmark stayed outside. What have the Sweden Democrats learned from their Nordic counterparts?

What have the Sweden Democrats learned from other Nordic far-right parties?
Danish People's Party leader Kristian Thulesen Dahl reacts to the Danish 2015 election result. Photo: Linda Johansen/Polfoto

When Jimmie Åkesson danced jubilantly onto the stage at the Sweden Democrats’ election vigil, he made one thing very clear in his speech. The Sweden Democrats’ ambition was to join Sweden’s next government, with ministerial posts, officials in the government offices, and more.

“If there’s going to be a new government we are going to have a central position,” he said. “Our ambition is to be part of the government.” 

The party’s general secretary, Richard Jomshof, has since repeated again and again that ministerial posts are absolutely part of ongoing talks with the Moderate, Christian Democrat and Liberal Parties. 

His party, he says, has learned from the experience of sister parties in the Nordic countries.

So what are these lessons, and how will they affect the coming negotiations and the Sweden Democrats’ behaviour over the next four years. 

If you stay out of government, your voters will punish you

When the Danish People’s Party became the second biggest party in Denmark, with 21 percent of the vote, and chose not to join the Liberals in government, it marked the start of a decline that has since led to total annihilation, with the party having just 2 percent of the vote in some recent polls. 

“We should have been in the government of 2015,” Kristian Thulesen Dahl, the party’s then leader, rued back in 2019. “I believe that a party with such a large mandate from the people should, in the eyes of the voters, end up as a government party.” 

According to Jens Peter Frølund Thomsen, an expert on anti-immigration parties at Aarhus University, the party had in 2015 been too “afraid of the electoral costs involved in going into government”, and had not felt them to be necessary. 

“It thought that it had a golden opportunity to exert very considerable influence as the biggest party of the right without shouldering the burden of office and having to defend decisions when the going gets rough” agrees Nicholas Aylott, Associate Professor in Politics at Stockholm’s Södertörn University. “They thought that was the that was like the dream situation for a party at that time.” 

But in the end, it turned out to be a mistake.  “A lot of activists in the party were really unhappy about the decision to stay out of the cabinet, and thought that was a major failure, and I agree with them,” Thomsen says. 

“Voters didn’t reward them for shirking responsibility in that way,” Aylott agrees. 

The collapse of the Danish People’s Party will not only be top of mind for the Sweden Democrats as they enter negotiations with the Moderates. They will want the Moderates to know it is top of mind.  

“What I suspect Jomshof is doing now is upping the ante a little bit,” Aylott says. “He’s signalling to the other parties of the right in Sweden that ‘I know my modern Danish history’, and ‘I know that it is potentially perilous for a party like the Sweden Democrats not to take the responsibility when the opportunity arises’.”

“Therefore, we want ministerial positions,” he predicts the argument will go. “And if we’re not going to get them, if we’re going to risk our own future, then we need a bloody good payoff.” 

If you do join government, limit your compromises

The Finns Party, Finland’s far-right party, joined the coalition which took power in 2015 after receiving a massive 17.7 percent of the votes. The party’s leader and co-founder, Timo Soini, was then appointed Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister. 

But almost as soon as he took over the foreign ministry, he had to back a third European Union bailout of the Greek economy. This was a total reverse in stance for a party that had built its popularity in the years leading up to the election on vociferously campaigning against the first two bailouts. The party also didn’t force the government it was a part of to tighten immigration rules during the 2015 refugee crisis. 

The Norwegian Progress Party, in contrast, managed to preside over a dramatic tightening of Norwegian immigration policy shortly after taking office, with its current leader Sylvi Listhaug becoming Norway’s first Minister of Immigration and Integration in December 2016.

In the first four months of 2016, asylum applications to Norway dropped to the lowest level since 1993, helping Listhaug to a sky-high approvals rating. 

You need a disciplined party organisation to be in power

With Timo Soini focused on being Foreign Minister, The Finns elected a new leader, Jussi Halla-aho, a fervent Islamophobe, who gave it a much more extreme position on migration position. Soini and other, more moderate members, then left the party to form the Blue Reform party. 

“In general, these parties are quite vulnerable when they get into power, because the rules are different,” Thomsen said. “They have to be responsible, and they have to work within certain levels of constraints.”

“That may cause unrest and internal conflicts in the party, because these parties attract a lot a quite extreme people, and if you get too pragmatic, then you may have a lot of trouble. These parties have to be very, centralised, and governed by very strong leaders with very tough discipline.” 

Norway’s Progress Party is the success story here.

It entered a coalition with the Norwegian Conservative Party in 2013 after securing 16 percent of the vote, and stayed in government for the best part of two terms, after winning 15 percent of the vote in 2017. 

“The key thing was was discipline,” says Nicholas Aylott, Associate Professor in Politics at Stockholm’s Södertörn University. “The party was sufficiently capable of being led, and it did not fragment into different factions, with some hating being in government and wanting to get out and reestablish their status as a vehicle for protest.” 

Thomsen puts this down to the party’s history. “They were disintegrating because of internal conflict in the 1970s so they created a very efficient, cohesive organisation, and that was really, really important when they joined the cabinet, because that always causes a lot of trouble.” 

The party also perfected a sort of double role, with some key party figures staying out of government, where they had a sort of licence to campaign in a populist way. 

The Danish People’s Party never entered government, but Aylott argues that it too developed a formidable organisation under its previous leader Pia Kjærsgaard, who had left the Danish Progress Party after growing frustrated at its chaotic lack of discipline. 

Choose your ministries carefully 

A big mistake in the Finnish case was for the party leader, Timo Soini, to take a ministry that did not bring power over the issues party members were most concerned about, Thomsen argues. 

“Being foreign minister is completely irrelevant for these parties,” he said. “For him it was very good and very interesting, of course, but it was really bad for the party. These parties should have a minister in a post that is really important for the party’s identity. Political values rather than economics, that’s the ball game. Immigration in particular, or law and order.” 

The Progress Party’s decision to lead Norway’s finance ministry makes more sense, given the fact that it had a background as a party protesting against high taxes. But it also secured immigration. 

Anyway, the party is in some ways a special case. 

“Some experts will say that the Progress Party is not a true radical right party,” Thomsen says. “They are very much focused on economic matters and lower taxes. They are focused on restricting immigration but it doesn’t necessarily have the same priority.” 

Will theatrics be enough for the Sweden Democrats’ voters? 

When the Sweden Democrats go into negotiations with Moderate Party leader Ulf Kristersson over the coming week (or weeks), and end up accepting not entering the ruling coalition, it will be important that their voters know this was not by choice, as it was for the Danish People’s Party. 

This may mean they have create some sort of drama, to make this absolutely clear to their supporters. This could be a walk out in the negotiations, or perhaps even for the party to vote down Ulf Kristersson as Prime Minister in the first of the four parliamentary votes allowed for a prime minister before a new election has to called.

“It’s particularly challenging in their case, because they are balancing a number of different priorities,” Aylott argues. “What they want, of course, is, maximum influence, and that could well be achieved by being in government, but this is problematic for the other parties, so they need to signal that they’re doing their very best”

“On the other hand, they’re also interested in building up a reputation as a serious party of government. If they flounce out too quickly, this could reduce the chance that the other parties of the right deal with them in an equitable way in the foreseeable future.”

“They have to balance, on the one hand, not being taken for granted, not having their support just assumed, with on the other hand, not playing up too much, so they are seen as unpredictable and unreliable.” 

Aylott predicts that the party will in the ongoing talks, and then over the coming four years, carry out a balancing act, at times being cooperative, at times more obstructive and difficult. 

We shall soon see which stance they take first. 

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For members


Why is Sweden’s parliamentary speaker election so important?

Sweden's parliamentary speaker is second only to the King in terms of formal rank. The prospect of a Sweden Democrat speaker taking over the role from popular Moderate Andreas Norlén has sparked debate. Here's why.

Why is Sweden's parliamentary speaker election so important?

On Monday, Sweden’s newly-elected parliament will elect a new speaker – talman in Swedish, but it’s still not clear who is likely to take over the post from Moderate Andreas Norlén, who has held the position since 2018.

How is a speaker candidate usually chosen?

There is no formal rule on how a speaker candidate is nominated, with the Social Democrats usually insisting the largest party supplies the speaker, and the Moderates arguing that the largest party in their bloc should provide the speaker.

Until now, that has meant that the Social Democrats believe the speaker should be a Social Democrat, and the Moderates believe the speaker should be a Moderate.

However, with the Sweden Democrats now the second-largest party in Sweden’s parliament, they have made claims on the speaker post, as they are now the largest party in their bloc, meaning under the Moderates’ rules, they should supply the speaker.

This has made the question of who should take over as the new speaker unusually charged.

Often – but not always, the speaker has been from the same party or bloc as the government. However, there are examples, such as in the case of Norlén, who has held the post despite there being a Social Democrat government for the last eight years, as there was a majority supporting him in parliament.

Moderate Party leader Ulf Kristersson sits down for a talk with Andreas Norlén, speaker of the Swedish parliament. Photo: Anders Wiklund / TT

How is the speaker elected?

The first time parliament meets after an election, members of parliament (MPs) decide which MP will become the parliamentary speaker and which three MPs will become the deputy speakers. These four speakers are elected in separate ballots, first the speaker, then the first deputy speaker, the second deputy speaker and the third deputy speaker.

The candidates are nominated by parliamentary party groups, after which a secret ballot is held where each MP votes anonymously. To be successful, a speaker candidate must secure a majority of votes – 175.

If no candidate secures a majority, another vote is held, where a candidate must still gain 175 or more votes to win.

If no candidate is successful, a third vote is held, where the candidate with the most votes is elected – they do not need a majority.

If the third vote ends in a tie between two candidates, lots are drawn to determine which candidate is elected speaker.

A speaker is elected for an entire election period – they cannot be removed by parliament during this period, and the role can only change hands after a new parliamentary election, which usually means that a speaker sits for four years at a time.

What does the speaker do?

The speaker – aside from being the second-highest ranking official in the country after the King – holds a prestigious position.

They do not have political influence and, if elected, must resign from their role as a member of parliament. But they have an important role to play in building a government, nominating Sweden’s new prime minister after an election and dismissing the prime minister if they lose a no-confidence vote.

Although there are checks on these powers – a new prime minister must be approved by parliament before they take power – a speaker could, theoretically, nominate four prime ministerial candidates to parliament in succession, knowing that each would lose a parliamentary vote, and thereby trigger a general election.

The speaker, currently Andreas Norlén (left) regularly welcomes foreign dignitaries alongside Sweden’s King Carl Gustaf. Here seen with King Carl Gustaf (left) and Finland’s President Sauli Niinistö (centre).
Photo: Anders Wiklund/TT

The speaker could also theoretically refuse to nominate a prime ministerial candidate despite them being the leader of the largest bloc, although this has never happened in practice.

It is also impossible for parliament to remove a speaker once they are elected, unless a new parliamentary election is held and an entire new parliament is elected, meaning that if a speaker were to misuse their powers, it would be difficult for parliament to replace them.

The speaker is the main representative of parliament, leading and planning parliamentary activities. The speaker is chairman of meetings in the parliamentary chamber and is an official representative for Sweden at home and abroad.

Why would it be controversial if the Sweden Democrats supplied the speaker?

Electing a Sweden Democrat speaker would be a win for the far-right party, as a confirmation that the party has finally been accepted into the corridors of power.

According to a source at newspaper Aftonbladet, the four parties backing Moderate Party leader Ulf Kristersson to become Sweden’s next prime minister have already agreed on stricter migration and crime policies, as well as who should be voted in as speaker of the country’s parliament when the role goes up for a vote on Monday. 

Multiple parties in the left-wing bloc have objected to a Sweden Democrat supplying the speaker, with outgoing Social Democrat Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson stating that her party is willing to collaborate with the Moderates and reelect Andreas Norlén as Sweden’s speaker instead in order to avoid a Sweden Democrat taking on the role.

Andersson said her party would be willing to “make an exception” to its principle. “We think there are arguments at this time, to have a speaker who can be appointed with very broad support in the parliament. What’s important is that it’s someone who can bring people together, either a Social Democrat or a Moderate”.

“I can state that Andreas Norlén enjoys great respect, both in the parliament, and among the Swedish people,” she said. “He has handled his duties creditably and during a turbulent time, and a problematic parliamentary situation.”

She said she was offering to discuss the issue with Kristersson to avoid the risk of a Sweden Democrat speaker, something she said would be “problematic”.

“This is a party whose whole rationale is to split rather than unite. This is also about the picture of Sweden overseas.”

Moderate Party leader Ulf Kristersson has not responded to Andersson’s comments.

Sweden Democrat former deputy speaker Björn Söder (left) and party leader Jimmie Åkesson (right). Photo: Jessica Gow//TT

There are also some MPs in the Liberal Party – who have agreed to support a Moderate-led government alongside the Sweden Democrats – who have stated they will not approve a government with Sweden Democrat ministers, and may also vote against letting them have the role of speaker.

Sweden Democrat Björn Söder, who held the role of deputy speaker between 2014-18, is a possible candidate for the far-right party. Söder is a controversial figure, having previously stated that Jewish people and Sami are “not Swedes”, leading to calls that he is not suitable for a role as a representative for all of Sweden.

Söder has also previously likened homosexuality to pedophilia and bestiality, stating in an article on the Sweden Democrats’ official online news site that “these sexual aversions are not normal and will never be normal”.

A public petition against electing Björn Söder as parliament’s new speaker had over 65,000 signatures as of September 23rd.