The astonishing rise of the far-right Sweden Democrats | Europe | News and current events from across the continent | DW
As Europe waits for the Swedish election results that balance on a knife’s edge, some ask: How did it happen?
In Sweden, a bastion of tolerance, a nationalist and anti-immigrant party is about to join a right-wing coalition in government.
A look at the party’s origins and trajectory provides some answers.
What are the current election results?
On Sunday, Sweden held nationwide elections for its legislative assembly, the Riksdag.
With more than 95% of the votes counted, a winner has yet to be announced.
Exit polls on Sunday evening initially indicated victory for the center-left coalition of the Social Democrats, which has been in power since 2014.
But as the vote count progressed, the right-wing bloc consisting of the Liberals, Christian Democrats, Moderates and Sweden Democrats now seems on course to win, currently with 49.7% of the vote.
While final result is not expected until Wednesday, the Social Democrats have so far received the largest share of votes, 30.5%.
But right now the Sweden Democrats are the second strongest party and received 20.6% of the vote in their best election performance ever. That makes them the largest party on the right, ahead of the Moderates who came a close third with 19.1%.
The cliffhanger election is not expected to be resolved until all postal and absentee ballots are counted.
What is the origin of the Sweden Democrats?
The Sweden Democrats were founded in 1988 and united various elements in Sweden’s far-right milieu, including fascists and advocates of white power. – Some of them also had ties to openly neo-Nazi movements, says Johan Martinsson, professor of political science at the University of Gothenburg.
Around the mid-90s, however, the new party leadership publicly condemned Nazism.
“Little by little, the party began to normalize and ban pure racism,” explained Martinsson, who has written one extensive paper at the party. Openly extremist members were kicked out and its platform reshaped.
But according to Bulent Kenes, a persecuted former editor of a Turkish newspaper who has lived in Sweden and sought asylum since 2016, “they have a hidden agenda.” He believes the party is merely putting a compassionate face on its neo-Nazi ideology to make it more socially acceptable.
A new face in the party leadership
In 2005, the current party leader Jimmie Åkesson came to lead the group. Only 26 at the time, the former member of the Moderates pushed the Sweden Democrats’ image away from its far-right roots and took it in a more populist direction.
Along with other right-wing populist movements, the party sought to portray itself as “advocating for ‘ordinary people’ against a corrupt elite at the height of a global recession,” researcher Danielle Lee Tomson wrote in a newspaper about the progress of the Sweden Democrats.
The Sweden Democrats’ old logo conveys a sense of righteousness
As part of the party’s effort to project a milder image, the party’s logo was also changed: from the Swedish flag as a flaming torch to an herb flower in the flag colors yellow and blue.
The new Sweden Democrats logo has a much softer feel
The party debuted in the Riksdag in 2010 when it received almost 6% of the vote.
But it struggled to gain traction and was considered a pariah in coalition building.
That changed after the 2015 migration crisis.
The Sweden Democrats are going mainstream
Largely due to the civil war in Syria, Europe was flooded by a wave of largely Muslim refugees in 2015. In one year, 1.3 million people fled to Europe; Sweden received approximately 163,000 asylum seekers (Germany received approximately 1 million).
Sweden saw that year second highest number of asylum applications per capita in Europeafter Hungary.
The political scientist Martinsson sees this as a big factor in the party gaining influence.
– The main reason for the party’s success in the last decade has been Sweden’s uniquely high number of asylum seekers and unusually rapidly changing demographics in terms of ethnicity and the proportion of foreign-born citizens, he tells DW in an interview from Gothenburg.
With immigration a top issue in both the 2014 and 2018 elections in Sweden, the Sweden Democrats capitalized on this concern.
The Turkish journalist Kenes, who has comprehensively profiled the partysaid that its defense of “Swedishness” is paying off.
“Especially undereducated people feel a threat from the cheap labor of immigrants,” he said. “They believe [the governing] The Social Democrats no longer represent their interests.”
Increasingly visible criminal violence and gang activity also play a role in the progress of the Sweden Democrats.
The party more than doubled its position in the 2014 election, gaining around 13% of the vote. In 2018, that percentage was 18%.
When the centre-right Moderates agreed to cooperate with the Sweden Democrats in 2019, it set the stage for possible entry into the government.
Surprised by current strength
“It’s surprising to me to see them as the second largest party in the election,” Kenes told DW, as the Sweden Democrats had lost ground during the pandemic as voters turned more towards established parties.
Kenes fled to Sweden after being placed on a list of “terrorist suspects” in Turkey
Speaking from Stockholm, he said that in addition to the immigration issue, the economic impact of covid-19 and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have played a role in increasing the party’s popularity, especially among the working class.
He does not believe that all Sweden Democratic voters share the party’s nationalist ideology, but rather “react to inflation and economic deterioration”.
What do the Sweden Democrats stand for?
As for the political scientist Martinsson, he defines the Sweden Democrats as “mainly an anti-immigration party with a nationalist ideology” but refrains from describing it as extreme or radical right.
– In economic terms, the party is more centrist and pragmatic, with a mixture of left and right proposals, said Martinsson.
However, the journalist Kenes is still convinced that the party is a threat to democracy.
He points to one recently reviewed which suggests that 214 Sweden Democratic candidates who ran in the last election can be linked to right-wing extremism.
The Sweden Democrats aim for zero asylum seekers, along with longer prison sentences and wider use of deportation. The party also has a Eurosceptic stance.
Åkesson has become the modern face of the Sweden Democrats
“Sweden has been a great country, a safe country, a successful country — and it can be all of those things again,” Politico reported Åkesson during a rally in Helsingborg earlier this month.
“It’s time to give us a chance to make Sweden great again,” he said.
Edited by: Kate Hairsine