international analysis and commentary

The rightist Sweden Democrats: from pariah to power

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The anti-immigration party Sweden Democrats (SD) was the biggest winner in the Swedish parliamentary elections on September 11, 2022 and its right-wing political bloc won the elections. It was already clear that the right-wing nationalist party of Sweden would win more votes than four years ago, but contrary to the situation in 2018, other parties wanted to govern with the SD. What changed? And why does the party seek to avoid any connections to the Italian Lega in the European Parliament?

For many, Sweden is an ideal welfare state where everyone gets a piece of the pie, and where social benefits are the best in the world. Many see the country as a paradise, an ideal society, in which people live in harmony with each other, and social problems are minimal. Upon closer examination, problems do exist, such as social segregation and a high crime rate in and around cities. For example, four years ago, I went to Sweden to survey the situation on the ground. I interviewed police officers who, for their own safety, need bulletproof vests and helmets to protect themselves against hand grenades in areas with social problems and a high crime rates.

Jimmie Åkesson, Swedish Democrats leader

 

Swedish banlieues

In a city such as Stockholm, groups live more or less segregated from each other. The rich and fortunate live in expensive areas in the middle of the capital and the social underclass live in the outskirts of the city. Those areas are comparable with the French banlieues: unsafe areas with tall, concrete flats, mostly inhabited by immigrants. How did these areas come to be? In 1964, the Swedish government wanted to solve a housing crisis. It presented a ten-year plan, anticipating the building of one million houses for common people. Areas with tall apartment buildings outside of Swedish cities were constructed, and working-class families moved in. Later, most of them moved out to other villages and cities, and newcomers from outside of Sweden moved in.

Government activities to integrate immigrants and support them socially were insufficient. As a result, social problems started to grow and a high crime rate developed. However, increasing numbers of Swedish voters became concerned about the problems in these areas. In 1998, the Sweden Democrats were founded. This anti-immigration party partly stems from the neo-Nazi movement, but, since 2005, has been taking a more moderate course, under the leadership of Jimmie Åkesson. Neo-Nazis have been expelled from the party and there is no place for the extreme right, so it is generally known. That said, the SD is the most outspoken political force concerning asylum and integration policies. The party continues to believe that Sweden is taking in more people than it can handle, and it makes a connection between migrants and the high crime rates in the cities.

 

Migration and crime

The SD has been growing since Åkesson took over and won more than 18% of the votes in the parliamentary elections of 2018. At that time, addressing high crime rates was also on the political agenda.

The ruling Social Democrats (S) promised the voters that it would take measures. I interviewed the Minister of Justice and Internal Affairs, Morgan Johansson (S), who stated the country was not prepared for the high numbers of immigrants that came in during the 2015 refugee crisis. He too made a connection between social problems, crime and newcomers. But contrary to the SD, the Social Democratic party did not want a total stop of migration from outside of the EU, as the SD wanted.

 

Blocs and alliances

Swedish politics has a “bloc system”, in which political parties create alliances with others in order to make clear with whom they will govern after the elections. The system is highly similar to the situation in Italy, where blocs and alliances are formulated before parliamentary elections – although no one is legally committed to the coalition pacts. As in Italy, these parties also try to cooperate within their alliance, once elected.

In 2018, Sweden had a progressive bloc and a right-wing bloc, and although it was orientated towards the right, the SD was not allowed to enter the right-wing alliance, as smaller parties within this alliance did not want to cooperate with them. For these parties, the SD was simply too controversial.

 

Rural votes

During the formation of a new government after the 2018 elections — which took a very long time by Swedish standards —, one of the right-wing parties, the Centre Party, switched sides to the progressive bloc. This made a new progressive government possible. In their years of opposition, the right-wing parties started to cooperate more with the SD and began to welcome them in their bloc.

In addition, the progressive government did not succeed in tackling high crime rates: safety in Swedish cities became an even greater issue and crime and violence jumped over into rural areas. Therefore, crime was the most important theme during this election campaign and the SD won big, jumping to more than 20% of the vote, becoming the second party in government. A significant number of new SD voters live in the rural areas and used to vote for the Centre Party. They decided to give Åkesson the benefit of the doubt.

 

Minority cabinet

On September 11, 2022, Sweden experienced an election night with an uncertain outcome: none of the two blocs was a clear winner and everyone had to wait until the votes were counted. Once there was a final count, on September 14th, the right-wing alliance won the elections with a slight margin and Prime Minister Magdalena Anderson (S) resigned. This leaves the path open for a right-wing government.

It is important to state that the SD will likely not be part of it, since the Liberals, one of the smaller parties within the alliance, would only want their parliamentary support. In return, SD leader Åkesson will demand harsher rules against crime and tougher migration policies. It will be up to the Liberals to accept this. In the meantime, Ulf Kristersson, the leader of the biggest party in the pact, has started coalition talks for such a right wing combination: a minority cabinet with parliamentary support of the SD. If he succeeds, he will be the next Prime Minister of Sweden.

 

The European dimension

The situation in Sweden shows that the SD is no longer a taboo party. Other right-wing parties want to govern with them and a breach has taken place. That said, the party guards its image on an international level. In the European Parliament, it does not seek to cooperate with other anti-immigration parties such as the French Rassemblement National (former Front National) of Marine Le Pen and the Italian Lega of Matteo Salvini. Both parties and their leaders have a reputation in Sweden of promulgating extreme ideas and harsh statements.

Therefore, the SD is not a member of the ID Group in the European Parliament, including, for instance, the Danish People’s Party, Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party in Hungary, and the German Alternatives for Germany. The SD is, however, part of the ECR – the European Conservatives and Reformists – a group of conservative right-wing parties with similar ideas, but a less extreme image.

 

Governing challenge

The story of the Sweden Democrats is still not finished: the party will be part of governing and will have to prove itself as a reliable partner. Still, this gives Åkesson and his friends much political power and influence.

It is up to the other parties in the right-wing alliance to decide how much they want to give in to the SD and if this will work. One thing is clear: for many in Sweden, the party is no longer a pariah, rather it is a full player in the democratic and political process.