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Does Sweden's mainstream have to talk to the Sweden Democrats?

With the media on their side, the SD has managed to persuade many unionised women in the health service that it is the only party for them. Does the mainstream know why?

lead Sweden Democrat supporters of Jimmie Åkesson at a rally in Uppsala, Sweden, during the 2014 election campaign. Wikicommons/ Carl Ridderstråle. Some rights reserved.

One of the three biggest parties in Sweden, the nativist Sweden Democrats (SD) has become a force to reckon with. More scarily still, they might even become the second biggest in the national elections on the September 9. Even coming third would be a massive achievement for a party with links to Sweden’s neo-Nazi subculture.

So far, however, neither the Social Democrats nor the conservative party, Moderatarna (M), are willing to discuss a potential government coalition with SD, despite being unable to achieve a governing majority. Jimmie Åkesson, SD leader, says: ‘ we are big and we are wise’.  He thinks it would be easier for the mainstream to talk to him rather than having to call for new elections. The SD first made it to Riksdagen, the Swedish parliament, in 2010 with 5.7% of the vote and 20 MPs. Fast-forward to 2014, and they had gained 12.9% which gave them 49 seats. In this year’s election, they may gain 20% or even 25% of the vote – with one poll projecting as many as 72 seats being allocated to the populist radical right party.

Åkesson wants power, and he wants it now.  He wants to protect Sweden, Swedish values and Swedish culture like ‘meatballs’ (DN leader portrait, podcast 3 July 2018). He wants to protect the welfare state and reinstall what the Social Democrats since the 1920s having been calling ‘folkhemmet’ (or ‘the people’s home’) that the mainstream have abandoned. He sees Islam as the biggest threat to Sweden since the Second World War. Some top SD politicians recently defected to more radical groups - like the ‘Alternativ för Sverige’ and the ‘Nordic Resistance Movement’ - which makes SD look more moderate. However, extremists haven’t completely deserted the SD’s ranks; the SD mayor of Perstorp, Lars Nilsson, still praises neo-Nazis.

Drivers of SD success

Turning towards the drivers of SD success, the party has largely benefited from mainstream ideological convergence, its own focus on immigration and a process of ‘de-demonising’ the party.  In terms of context, SD was launched in 1988 and grew out of the remains of several extreme parties and movements with links to Nazism; a number of its members and supporters were Nazi veterans, some of whom had even served as volunteers in the Waffen SS. SD nationalism has therefore since been toned down to appeal to people both on the traditional left and right. They have become less radical on immigration. They don’t demand repatriation of post-1970 immigrants, they no longer oppose non-European adoption and have dropped ethnic criteria in relation to citizenship.

Part of the SD’s success is also down to the professionalization of its politicians who are increasingly given airtime by the mainstream media. And they are procuring much more attention from politicians and civil society outside Sweden. Aron Emilsson, an SD MP and political scientist seen to be an expert on culture, was invited to speak at one of the biggest events at the annual Arendalsuka in Norway (public meeting 15/08/2018). Arendalsuka is the largest political gathering in Norway; a week long festival of politics with the most prominent politicians, journalists, and trade unionists in attendance. At Arendlsuka Emilsson was introduced by the senior broadcaster Anne Grosvold.  She said he was a very important SD politician and that it was only natural he started the most important debate of the Arendalsuka, titled: ‘immigration; challenges and possibilities’. The rest of the panel consisted of the Norwegian Minister of justice, defence and immigration, Tor Mikkel Wara from the radical right Fremskrittspartiet ( FrP), governing mayor of Olso from the Norwegian Labour Party (Ap), and two other Norwegian MPs.

The importance given to SD over the border in Norway seems at odds with the way the mainstream in Sweden deals with the party. It is also peculiar that violent right wing extremist groups like the Nordfront and the Nordic Resistance Movement are given permission to demonstrate in Sweden and not in Norway. More pertinently, the SD took a long time to catch up with similar parties in Norway and Denmark. That was despite the fact that the conditions for success have been present for a long time. For example, the austerity measures and commercialisation of the health sector that dominated the agenda during left-leaning government coalitions, together with the mainstream parties ignoring the impact that this has had on increases in inequality and poverty. For the nativist Sweden Democrats, they have been free to propose their own prescriptions for these problems – namely welfare chauvinistic measures and controls on immigration – with more recent anxieties (surrounding the arrival of 160,000 refugees since 2015) left unaddressed by most of the mainstream parties who have stressed that Sweden is an immigrant country that celebrates diversity.

Cultivating Sweden’s TUC

More troublingly, the red – green government coalition’s decision to close the borders in 2015 seems to have boosted support for the SD. In 2018 20% of women in Landsorganisationen (Sweden’s TUC equivalent) suggest that they intend to vote for SD, up from 3% in 2014.  This is a direct result of the cultivation of the LO by Jimmie Åkesson, who in 2014 paid controversial visits to more than 60 work places among them local hospitals - trying to uncover a link between mainstream negligence, immigration and diminishing standards of care.

Over time, and with the media on their side, the SD has managed to persuade many unionised women in the health service that it is the only party which can improve hospitals and take proper care of the elderly, and that this is the SD’s key priority. Maybe the mainstream needs to try and find out why.

About the author

Mette Wiggen is a Lecturer in Teaching and Scholarship at POLIS, University of Leeds. She is a specialist on the radical right in Scandinavia; she also focuses upon widening participation in Higher Education, as well as engaging young Europeans in politics and society.

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