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Not polished enough! Have Swedes had enough of the far right?

In an increasingly unequal Sweden, the far right has been able to capitalise on growing insecurity for its xenophobic ends—but it faces strong public resistance as Swedes go to the Euro-polls

Anti-fascist protest against attacks on Women's Day march in Malmo Climate of tension: protests followed the attack on a Women's Day march in Malmö. Demotix / Hakan Akçura. All rights reserved.It has been a difficult spring for the Sweden Democrats (SD). Campaign posters have been defaced and torn down. Postmen have refused to deliver the party’s leaflets. Teenagers have barricaded their schools against it. For every person who has come to listen to the town-square stump speeches of the leader, Jimmie Åkesson, ten have come just to turn their backs. His national workplace photo-opportunities tour turned into a farce, when employees boycotted or sabotaged the events. 

SD still expects to win its first seat in the European Parliament this weekend but it has been caught off guard by the strength of a concerted popular campaign against racism. The party, which has its origins in the white-power movement but now describes itself as “nationalist” and “social conservative”, is used to hostility. It has even thrived on a sense of persecution. But the extent and organisation of the recent protests seems to have surprised it. 

The campaign trail

It’s a fine spring morning. On the tiny green island of Långholmen, near central Stockholm, sunshine pours through the treetops into the amphitheatre. Everywhere there are streamers and blue and yellow balloons. The speakers are playing “those lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer”. Young women with colourful badges dole out popcorn and ice cream while young men in tight blazers and chinos stride around in search of hands to shake. The hot-dog stand is already doing a brisk trade, not least thanks to the police.

There are a lot of police. Jimmie Åkesson is coming to launch the SD European-election campaign.

For now the cops have nothing to worry about. Only twenty or so protesters have arrived and they seem quite congenial. Some are singing; others have brought trumpets, drums and vuvuzuelas. They have set up a band just beyond the cordon on the crest of the hill. 

If anything, the wafting music lightens the mood. The audience is mostly male, muscular, thirty-or-forty something and rather shy. Many are sitting on their own, studying leaflets or glancing around, waiting for something to happen. The leaflets, and the banners draped down the back of the stage, say “Brussels out of Sweden”, “Ordinary people against Brussels” and “No more EU begging in Sweden”. 

I speak to a young couple who have been members for a few years. What attracted them to the party? Immigration, they say almost in unison: “It’s a matter of safety.” She does not feel safe walking home at night. She has to call her boyfriend to let him know she’s okay. If he takes her home it will only be worse. The immigrants are always looking for a fight. “And then there’s the environment,” she adds, after a pause—the government is having to cut down forests to build more homes.

I ask what she thinks about the protesters. Is it fair that people call SD fascists and racists? The boyfriend cuts in. That’s just what newspapers want people to think, he suggests. SD is the least racist of all. We can help more refugees “over there” than we can bringing them here. Anyway, it is not against the law to be racist.

A man takes to the stage to announce the party’s new “Stop the begging” campaign. Foreigners who come to Sweden to beg should be deported, he says. “Organised begging” should be a criminal offence. He sees more beggars every day now on the streets of Stockholm than he saw in his entire childhood. The elite have opened up Sweden without thinking of the consequences. 

All the morning’s speeches circle around a fixed set of tropes: safety, security, common sense; Brussels, Islam, the elite. A group of the men in blazers want to tell us about the party’s youth league, how it has been building links with nationalist parties elsewhere in Europe, as part of a “new wave across the continent”. There is a light-hearted interview with one of the European Parliament candidates. Q: How many trucks go back and forth between Brussels and Strasbourg every week? A: Trick question. The answer is too many. 

Next up is a speaker from the SD women’s league. “They say that we are a men’s party. Well, I am here, a normal woman, I live in Täby with my husband and three kids, a villa and a Volvo.” She promises that the party will increase allowances for those who want to stay home longer and look after their children. They will make sure that women can walk the streets without fear of verbal harassment and gang rape. She thinks we should recognise that men and women have similarities and differences—not force everyone to be sexless and identical (applause).

The crowd is becoming restless. She gets a warm reception but by far the biggest cheer is when she says: “Thank you, Jimmie, for being such a fantastic leader and doing so much for our beloved Sweden.”

It’s Jimmie we are really here for. The only queue longer than that at the hot-dog stand is for signed copies of his memoir-cum-campaign-diary-cum-testament, Satis Polito. Åkesson says that the title, Latin for “polished enough”, is meant to sum up how it feels for a boy from Sölvesborg who used to play truant from school to be taking coffee with the king or debating with the prime minister. It’s also the casting requirement for a leader of today’s populist right: straight-talking and “politically incorrect” on the one hand, all “trygghet [security] and tradition” on the other. The synthesis of these two impulses is the slogan “common sense”.

But satis polito could also describe the party he has built. Any trace of imagery or rhetoric that might too strongly evoke the party’s extremist past has been carefuly expunged. The old torch emblem, uncomfortably similar to the logo of the former British National Front, has been replaced with an inoffensive blue anemone. The vocabulary of race and ethnicity has been replaced by “culture”, white skin by “Swedishness”. (Åkesson admits that it is “hard to put your finger on” exactly what Swedishness is but he can rattle off a good list of what it is not—“honour killings, gang rape and halal slaughter”, for instance.[1] “Organised begging” is a recent addition to the list and there are vaguer shibboleths to watch out for, such as “un-Swedish body language”.)

His work is never finished. The price of polish is eternal vigilance: every now and then a local party boss has to be expelled for overstepping the mark. And he even had to lose two senior members of parliament in 2012, after they filmed themselves drunkenly chasing the comedian Soran Ismail down the street, armed with iron bars and yelling racial abuse.

This disciplined centralism is another typical feature of populist parties. A handful of hardliners have lost patience and defected to the more extreme Party of the Swedes but everyone else is happy to enjoy the success. In 2010 for the first time SD breached the 4 percent threshold to enter the Riksdag. By the end of last year it was touching 10 percent in the polls and could boast of being Sweden’s third largest party. Åkesson has stewarded it into the mainstream. At the rally I find nobody willing to say a bad word about him. “Jimmie has already changed the debate,” one man tells me. “Now the politicians have to talk about immigration.”

The mood is warming up. People are mingling. The ice cream is running out. Nearby a group of middle-aged men are having an earnest discussion about military policy. They are worried that the government is leaving Sweden undefended against the Russians. It turns out that they have only just met but there is already an air of camaraderie. Another pair behind me are discussing the dearth of classic Swedish movies on television.

Maybe 500 people are here now and the empty benches at the front are suddenly full of men in suits. Over the hill the vuvuzuelas are piping up again: “No fascists on our streets.”

A black BMW with tinted windows pulls up by the stage, to a round of applause. The compere makes a rambling welcome, comparing the two big parties to exhausted prize-fighters leaning on each other for support—he looks rather shaky himself. At last Åkesson takes the stage.

There is a brief din from the bushes. The protesters have attempted to break through. A couple are quickly wrestled to the ground and the rest are driven back by loud packs of police dogs and photographers. Åkesson raises his eyebrows but doesn’t skip a beat. He is more than polished enough today; indeed his forehead is quite luminous. He has the same uniform as the young handshaking men—the chinos and blazer—and a headset microphone so he can stride about the stage, pausing only for the odd glance at his iPad.

Since this is an Euro-election event, there is plenty about the “superstate” and “national independence”. He warns about uncontrolled immigration from the new EU members—yet again, those Romanian beggars. But we know that the real target is the general election in September and the real enemy is the political establishment at home—in particular, the Social Democrats and the trade unions.

SD is now the real labour movement, Åkesson announces. He has been enthusiastically welcomed in workplaces up and down the country. The protests are the work of “extremists”, bullying enemies of free speech, a sign that SD is growing and that the “fake labour movement” feels threatened. The big trade unions waste your subscriptions on perks and fancy conferences, politically correct propaganda and “so-called international solidarity”. (SD has established its own, “independent” trade-union federation.) Social Democrats say they care about the unemployed but they let the jobs go to foreigners. They say they care about women but they won’t stand up to Islamists, with their Sharia law and their gender segregation. They are afraid of the tough issues.

To underline the point, Åkesson pulls out a chicken costume he has bought as an Easter present for Stefan Löfven, the Social Democrat leader. Do we want to allow the power elite to continue consorting in the corridors of Brussels, out of sight? If not, we have to help him seize the opportunity. It won’t do to sit at home on the sofa waiting for change. This is the chance to take our country back, he says—and the crowd are on their feet.

Enemies of democracy?

It is a typical Åkesson performance: bravado, humour and obstinate self-pity. Persecution is his favourite theme, whether it’s left-wing students or the immigrants who bullied him at school. This is why some argue that protests and blockades are a tactical error, that they only give SD the martyrdom it wants—better to debate respectfully and win arguments, perhaps even better to ignore it altogether. Some columnists even say the protesters have become a threat to democracy.

These arguments are mistaken. True, snooty editorials or stone-throwing anarchists do a leader like Åkesson no harm at all. This is precisely why it is important that the job of challenging racist parties is not delegated to the usual suspects. When entire town squares turn their backs, when schoolchildren, nurses, doctors and firemen refuse to meet you, it is hard to blame the extremists and the power elite.

Viktor works as a fireman in a suburb of Stockholm with a large immigrant population. Last month, when SD leaders came for a visit and photo-opportunity at his station, he and his colleagues refused to come to work: “We sent out an announcement and got a surprisingly big response. Then we heard from Malmö that they were doing the same thing, and now we linked up with firemen from Gothenberg and Norrland and elsewhere. We didn’t know there would be such a strong public response and so much attention.”

Within days the network’s Facebook page, “Firemen against racism”, had received thousands of likes and messages of support. He thinks the protests have taken SD by surprise: “I think they expected firefighters to be sympathetic. And they genuinely don’t believe they organised it themselves. They think it must be someone from [the newspaper] Aftonbladet or the communists who set them up. We make fun of them over that. I haven’t met them but I have a hard time believing that all the firemen in Malmö are secret communists.

“We are not anti-democratic—we don’t want to silence anyone. I think the protests are a really positive development for democracy. You can see the difference in the station. Now during coffee breaks people are talking about politics, not just their plans for the weekend—it becomes part of our world, rather than just an event once every four years.”

Lena* is a postal worker in central Sweden (she would prefer me not to say exactly where) who refused to distribute SD campaign literature: “For me they are a party with Nazi roots and racist baggage. I believe that deep down they have the same opinions they had twenty years ago.”

Their shared obsession is the threat to national cohesion posed by immigrants in general and Muslims in particular

SD says it stand up for working-class people like Lena. Its members are the last true stewards of the “people’s home” the Social Democrats built and then betrayed. They speak harsh truths which the establishment wants to hide—that in Sweden’s suburbs the failure of multiculturalism is simply a fact. She disagrees: “Racism grows in our midst. There is division where I live but it is due to lack of resources and not because different types of people live in the same neighbourhood. In the 60s, when it was only Swedes living in the suburbs, people found other things to blame. It was the same problem then as now—poverty—but the discussion is different.”

Ingrid* helped organise a protest against SD’s attempt to distribute election material at her secondary school in Södermalm. Dozens of students blockaded the entrance and in the end the visit had to be abandoned.

She recalls: “Lots of people got in touch to say they were inspired or impressed. A few people in school were angry they didn’t get the chance to ‘debate’ with the SD. The headmistress told the media she was ashamed of us. That was unbelievably humiliating. It felt like she took the racists’ side when she could have taken ours, that she doesn’t take our fears seriously.

“Racism is becoming normalised. You can see it even in our way of talking. ‘Racists’ have been replaced with ‘immigration-sceptics’, neo-Nazis protest on the first of May and suddenly we are all supposed to put up with SD in our streets, schools and workplaces, even though there are lots of people who feel threatened by them.”

Ingrid’s mention of the neo-Nazi parades points to another limitation of “debate” as a strategy. There are other racist forces growing in the warmth of SD’s shadow. They are not very open to discussion, nor are they easily ignored.

Therese* lives in Kärrtorp, a quiet suburb in southern Stockholm built in the 1950s. It is not a neighbourhood accustomed to social strife. “If anything it’s rather homogenous here, mostly white and middle class,” she says.

Last winter swastikas began to appear in sports centres and school playgrounds. Residents with immigrant backgrounds were heckled and assaulted in the street. It was rumoured that the incidents were connected to an underground neo-Nazi organisation called the Swedish Defence Movement.

Therese got together with friends to organise a protest, calling themselves “Line 17 against racism”, after the metro line that runs through the neighbourhood from the city centre: “It felt important to do something because I don’t want my children to grow up in a city where racists control the streets.”

The peaceful demonstration was attacked by a gang from the Swedish Defence Movement armed with bottles and knives and stones, and several people were injured. Police later connected four of the assailants to the attempted murder of Fidel Ogu, a Nigerian tourist stabbed two weeks earlier outside Hökarängen metro station, a few miles from Kärrtorp.

When Line 17 called a new demonstration the following week, 20,000 people took part. Therese again: “The reaction has been really positive, and many people have started up similar groups in their own communities. We’re seeing a strong anti-fascist wave across the country now.”

But she does not feel the authorities are taking the problem seriously. “As long as the police treat the left-wing groups as more dangerous than the Nazis and misjudge the Nazis’ intentions and capacity, they will fail and leave us open to attacks.” And she feels certain that SD’s success has encouraged the extremists to be more daring: “They have brought about a normalisation of racism that prepares the way for groups like Swedish Defence Movement.”

The roots of resentment

Henrik Arnstad is a journalist and historian specialising in the study of fascism. His most recent book, Beloved Fascism, is a short ideological history of the movement from Mussolini to the present day. We met because I want to understand better the resurgence of the Scandinavian far right. Why have these movements grown so strong across Europe’s most prosperous, peaceful and egalitarian societies?

Arnstad is clear: “We let our guard down. We had a certain image of ourselves in Scandinavia. Since the war the Germans have always been on guard but we thought social democracy had inoculated us. So when these ideas began to appear we told ourselves it couldn’t really be racism—it must be something else.”

For most of the twentieth century, the Swedish extreme right was fissiparous and marginal. In the 1930s would-be demagogues, such as Sven Lindholm and Bircher Furugård, attempted to establish Ersatz “fascist” and “national socialist” movements, aping German and Italian models. But between them they never won more than a few thousand votes.[2] After the war fascism ceased to exist except as a recherché hobby for businessmen and nostalgic intellectuals, devotees of Per Endgahl and his “European Social Movement”. The conservative protest parties which organised and amplified racist sentiment from the late 70s in many European countries, most notably France, had no equivalent in Sweden.

But racist—indeed explicitly Nazi rhetoric and symbolism—reappeared, blended with elements of skinhead culture and pagan kitsch, in the form of the white-power movement. During the 1990s white-power groupuscules, funded by the sale of heavy-metal CDs, pursued what Stieg Larsson called a strategy of “low-intensity-terrorism”—an intermittent campaign of savage attacks on immigrants, homosexuals and left-wing activists, including more than a dozen murders.[3]

These organisations persist and they have the ability to spread panic and arouse public indignation. There were nationwide protests after a gang affiliated to the neo-nazi Party of the Swedes (SvP) stabbed six participants in a march on International Women’s Day in Malmö. When SvP held a May-day parade in Jönköping, thousands came to protest and the church bells rang all afternoon, “to warn against the danger to our open society”. Some reports suggest the party is growing. It is fielding local-election candidates in 30 districts and developing links with major fascist parties abroad, such as Golden Dawn and Jobbik.

But Sweden is hardly Greece or Hungary. The very qualities which endear SvP to a narrow subculture—its notorious violence, militaristic iconography and preoccupation with arcane racial doctrines and conspiracy theories—serves to exclude it from mass appeal. Any party that wants to succeed must cut its ties with such a world.

That is exactly what SD has managed to do. Today it has hundreds of councillors and twenty members of parliament—and it hopes to double that number at the Riksdag election in September. Its leader receives long, indulgent TV interviews. The governing conservative coalition has sworn not to co-operate with it but is dependent on its tacit support for a parliamentary majority.

SD is only the latest far-right party to gain prominence in Scandinavia. The origins of these parties are entirely different: the Norwegian Progress Party and the Danish People’s Party began life as anti-tax liberals (allied in the latter case with Lutheran conservatives), the True Finns as agrarian populists. And they disagree on certain matters, such as the EU, albeit in most regards they have gradually converged.

Their agenda is xenophobia and “welfare chauvinism”: end or drastically curtail immigration, prioritise jobs and homes for the indigenous, and clamp down on foreigners’ criminality and abuse of the welfare state.[4] Their shared obsession is the threat to national cohesion posed by immigrants in general and Muslims in particular, supposedly lacking in liberal values. Paradoxical demands often arise: censor in the name of free speech; liberate brown women from their veils while returning white ones to the kitchen.

It has been argued that the rise of xenophobic politics demonstrates the incompatibility of the Nordic welfare state and mass immigration: one can have openness or solidarity but not both. This claim is made by both liberals and conservative left-wingers, though they draw opposite conclusions.

Arnstad does not agree: “I would say that immigration in Sweden is mostly a success story. In a globalised world with an open, export-oriented economy you always have this influx and turnover. Of course the first generation never completely integrate. When I was growing up in the 70s—the racists like to pretend it was homogeneous back then, like hell it was! In my neighbourhood there were Finns, Greeks, Yugoslavs—that’s all forgotten now.

“The collapse of the Social Democratic hegemony opened up a new political space. There is a great disillusionment with the mainstream parties and pessimism on the left, so the disillusioned have nowhere else to turn. In the early 90s we had New Democracy, a neoliberal populist party, who reached as much as 10 percent and then collapsed. Ten years later the same thing happened with the Pirate Party—they came from nowhere and disappeared. These protest parties did not last because they had no ideological foundation. The fascists do. When fascism takes root it is much harder to dig it up.”

In some ways SD is not yet a truly national party. Their voters are predominantly male, small-town and working-class. They are heavily concentrated in Skåne in the south of the country, where the far right has always been strongest and there is a robust regional antipathy to “bloody Stockholmers”.

“SD have tried very hard to reinvent themselves and they have been successful up to a point,” says Arnstad. But he adds: “You still can’t say at a Stockholm dinner party that you are a Sweden Democrat. And they always get lower ratings if a poll is done over the phone compared to email, because people don’t want to admit they vote for them.”

He believes the protests are already having an effect. The party’s poll ratings have begun to sink. More importantly, such shows of popular feeling will help to discourage the big parties from pandering to the far right: “The most dangerous thing is how these ideas spread beyond the extremist parties. So in Norway you can have a left-wing MP saying Muslim welfare claimants should be interrogated to see if they have Norwegian values.

“It moves so fast. Fascism has always been underestimated. It shouldn’t be so hard to call a racist a racist. ”

* Names have been changed to protect individuals.

[1] interview in Sverigedemokraterna, Ett parti som andra? (Expo, 2006)

[2] See Viktor Lundberg, En Idé större än döden (2014).

[3] Stieg Larsson, “Det Heliga Raskriget”, in Demokratins Förgörare (Demokratiutredningens skrift 28, 1999)

[4] Henrik Arnstad, Älskade Fascism (2013)