Around the world, Sweden is viewed as a haven for liberal values and progressive policy. This image is likely to change after the election this Sunday. If polls are accurate, the far-right Sverigedemokraterna (Sweden Democrats) will receive about a fifth of the vote, giving them tremendous power in parliament.
In the past few weeks, international media have descended upon Sweden, attempting to explain this rise of the far-right. Most have come up with a similar story, that goes something like this: the political establishment, and the governing parties of the past decade, from the center-left and center-right, have completely failed to handle the challenges of mass immigration, and now they are paying the price. So voters are turning to the Sweden Democrats as a kind of corrective to an unrealistic immigration policy.
We also are led to believe that there has been a substantial change in the Sweden Democrats, who supposedly have shifted away from xenophobic populism to tamer “anti-establishment” politics. This is, conveniently, the same narrative that the Sweden Democrats have been trying to establish over the past decade. But according to most people who have followed the party for a long time, this narrative is too simple.
In the weeks before the election, the Swedish newspaper Expressen and the magazine Expo revealed that at least nine current candidates for regional office from the Sweden Democrats have ties to Nazi groups and organizations. More revelations came out shortly after that. Those members promptly were thrown out of the party. But the Sweden Democrats have been purging about 30 Nazi sympathizers a year for a few years now, so the total number is more than 100, says Tobias Hubinette, a researcher in critical race studies who has followed the far-right in Sweden for more than two decades.
“The image of Sweden that existed globally for a long time will change next week,” Hubinette told The Daily Beast. “It will be a historic election. The Sweden Democrats are now the world’s biggest political party with explicit Nazi roots. I have followed them since they were a microscopic party, and to see them rise to the level they are at today—it is practically impossible to grasp.”
The success of the party can partly be attributed to a perceived shift away from fringe xenophobia, towards the political mainstream. This summer, the party left the populist EFDD group in the EU parliament, and were accepted into the conservative ECR group, with the U.K. Conservative party.
“This re-branding effort is often described as incredibly successful, but it has been a very slow, gradual process, with lots of trial and error,” says Hubinette. “A lot of the foreign media reporting on this election seem to have fallen for the story of an extreme makeover in the Sweden Democrats. But there has only been superficial change. Their party platform still contains language that seems to talk about Jewish conspiracies. Their attacks on the media are getting worse, and they have once again embraced radical rhetoric on immigration that they tried to tamp down for many years.”
For a brief moment last year, it seemed that Europe might reject authoritarian populism and Donald Trump-style nativism. In the months immediately following Trump’s election victory, his unpopularity in Europe seemed to hurt his global allies on the populist right. Marine Le Pen in France, Geert Wilders of the Dutch Freedom Party, and the nativist Vlaams Belang in Belgium all lost elections or fell in the polls.
Trump was so deeply unpopular in Europe that he seemed to damage the reputation of any nationalist comrades across associated with him. When analysts at Five Thirty Eight looked at polls across Europe last summer, they found a statistically significant drop in support for far-right populists following Trump’s victory. “Trump is making Europe liberal again”, Nate Silver, the editor of the website, declared.
A year later, the far-right is surging across Europe. Recent elections in Italy, Hungary, Austria, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia have all been victories for authoritarian, far-right nativists. In Sweden, even the mainstream political parties seem to have read Donald Trump’s victory not as a warning, but as a sign that they ought to adapt to the times and learn from his success. Instead of trying to stave off the xenophobic and anti-democratic currents, they have gradually adopted the worldview and rhetoric of the populist far-right.
For most of this century, the political mainstream in Sweden wanted nothing to do with these ideas. Sweden’s former prime minister, Fredrik Reinfeldt, of the center-right Moderate Party, openly showed his contempt for the Sweden Democrats and said, in 2013, they have “brought hate into Swedish politics.”
This election has been quite different, with most major parties fighting desperately to win back the voters they have lost to the far-right, often by aping their rhetoric and worldview, focusing on crime, law and order, and cultural issues. Campaign ads from the Moderate party, the Social Democrats and the Christian Democrats have focused on banning Muslim calls to prayer, strengthening border controls and “keeping the country safe.”
It is hard to find examples anywhere in the world, where this tactic has worked out for traditional political parties. Cas Mudde, a political scientist at the University of Georgia, has showed that it is risky for mainstream political parties to imitate the rhetoric of the far-right in attempts to win back their voters. When the voters who are susceptible to xenophobic messages are presented with “xenophobia light” they just vote for the original, rather than the watered-down imitation, according to Mudde.
This seems to be happening in Sweden now.
“The political center is collapsing, and polarization is increasing,” says Hubinette. “The far-right is growing but so are the movements opposing them.”
The election might also be a shock to Sweden’s self-image as a welcoming country for immigrants.
“In studies where citizens are asked to share their views on immigration and racial issues, Sweden consistently ranks at the top of the most liberal and tolerant in the world,” says Hubinette. “But at the same time, we are one of the most segregated countries. When you actually look at people’s behavior, where they choose to live, who they spend time with, who they marry and have children with, we are a very segregated society. So we are not that special, but much more similar to other countries. There is a big gap in our perception of ourselves and our real life actions.”
There’s now a grim element of Schadenfreude among Sweden’s Scandinavian neighbors; Denmark, Norway and Finland.
“They have had to put up with being called racist by Swedes for a long time,” says Hubinette. And now Sweden will be the place with a huge party in parliament with Nazi roots.”