Elections in Sweden: the astonishing rise of the right-wing Swedish Democrats | TBEN | 13.09.2022

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As Europe waits for Swedish election results teetering on the edge of a knife, some are wondering: how could this have happened?

In Sweden, a stronghold of tolerance, a nationalist and anti-immigrant party is about to join a right-wing coalition in government rule.

A look at the origin and trajectory of the game yields some answers.

What is the current state of the election results?

Sweden held national elections for its parliament, the Riksdag, on Sunday.

With over 95% of the votes counted, no winner has been announced yet.

Exit polls on Sunday evening initially pointed to a victory for the center-left Social Democrat coalition, which has been in power since 2014.

But as the vote count progressed, the right-wing bloc made up of the Liberals, Christian Democrats, Moderates and Sweden Democrats now looks set to win, currently with 49.7% of the vote.

While the final results are not expected before Wednesday, the Social Democrats have received the largest percentage of votes so far, at 30.5%.

But currently the Swedish Democrats are the second strongest party, with 20.6% of the vote in their best ever election performance. That makes them the largest party on the right, ahead of the Moderates who finished a close third with 19.1%.

The cliffhanger election is not expected to be resolved until all postal ballots and absentees have been counted.

What is the origin of the Swedish Democrats?

Founded in 1988, the Swedish Democrats united various elements in Sweden’s far-right milieu, including fascists and supporters of white power. “Some of them also had ties to openly neo-Nazi movements,” said Johan Martinsson, a professor of political science at the Swedish University of Gothenburg.

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In the mid-1990s, however, the new party leadership publicly denounced Nazism.

“Gradually, the party started to normalize and outright ban racism,” explains Martinsson, who has written an extensive article about the party. Openly extremist members were expelled from the country and the platform was reshaped.

But according to Bulent Kenes, a persecuted former editor of a Turkish newspaper who has been living in Sweden to apply for asylum since 2016, “they have a hidden agenda.” He believes that the party merely entrusted its neo-Nazi ideology with a compassionate face to make it more socially acceptable.

A fresh face in party leadership

In 2005, current party leader Jimmie Akesson came to lead the group. When he was only 26, the former member of the Moderate party pushed the Swedish Democrat’s image away from its far-right roots and took it in a more populist direction.

Parallel to other right-wing populist movements, the party sought to portray itself as an “advocate of ‘ordinary people’ against a corrupt elite at the height of a global recession,” wrote scholar Danielle Lee Tomson in a paper on the rise of the Swedish Democrats.

The old logo of the Swedish Democrats exudes a sense of justice

As part of the effort to project a friendlier image, the party’s logo was also changed: from the Swedish flag embodied as a burning torch to the pennywort flower in the flag colors of yellow and blue.

New Swedish Democrats logo, a pennywort flower in flag colors

The new Swedish Democrats logo feels much softer

The party debuted in 2010 in the Riksdag with almost 6% of the vote.

But it struggled to gain traction and was considered a pariah in coalition building.

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That changed after the migration crisis of 2015.

Sweden Democrats go mainstream

Largely as a result of the civil war in Syria, Europe faced a wave of largely Muslim refugees in 2015. In one year, 1.3 million people fled to Europe; Sweden took in some 163,000 asylum seekers (Germany took in about 1 million).

Sweden had the second highest number of asylum applications per capita in Europe that year, after Hungary.

Political scientist Martinsson sees this as an important factor in the party’s appeal.

“The main reason for the party’s success over the past decade has been Sweden’s uniquely high number of asylum seekers and its unusually fast-changing demographics in terms of ethnicity and the proportion of foreign-born citizens,” he told TBEN in an interview from Gothenburg. .

With immigration being a top topic in both the 2014 and 2018 elections in Sweden, the Swedish Democrats took advantage of this concern.

Turkish journalist Kenes, who has extensively profiled the party, said her defense of “Swedishness” is yielding results.

“Especially low-skilled people feel threatened by the cheap labor of immigrants,” he said. “They think [the governing] Social Democrats no longer represent their interests.”

Increasingly visible criminal violence and gang activity are also playing a role in the rise of the Swedish Democrats.

The party more than doubled its position in the 2014 elections, gaining about 13% of the vote. In 2018, that share became 18%.

When the center-right moderates agreed to work with the Swedish Democrats in 2019, it formed the basis for eventual entry into the board.

Overwhelmed by power surge

“It’s surprising to me to see them as the second largest party in the election,” Kenes told TBEN, as Swedish Democrats had lost ground during the pandemic as voters turned more towards established parties.

Speaking from Stockholm, he said that aside from the immigration issue, the economic effects of COVID-19 and the Russian invasion of Ukraine have played a role in boosting the party’s popularity, especially among the working class.

He does not believe that all Swedish Democratic voters share the party’s nationalist ideology, but rather “respond to inflation and economic decline.”

What do the Swedish Democrats stand for?

As for political scientist Martinsson, he defines the Swedish Democrats as “primarily an anti-immigration party with a nationalist ideology,” but shuns to describe it as far- or radical-right.

“In economic terms, the party is more centrist and pragmatic, with a mixture of left-wing and right-wing proposals,” Martinsson said.

Journalist Kenes, however, remains convinced that the party poses a threat to democracy.

He points to a recent review showing that 214 Swedish Democratic candidates who registered in the last election could be linked to right-wing extremism.

The Swedish Democrats are aiming for zero asylum seekers, along with longer prison terms and wider use of deportation. The party also has a Eurosceptic stance.

Swedish Democrat leader Jimmie Akesson speaks at an election rally on September 10, 2022 in Stockholm

Akesson has become the modern face of the Swedish Democrats

“Sweden has been a great country, a safe country, a successful country – and it could all be again,” Politico reported at a meeting in Helsingborg earlier this month.

“It’s time to give us a chance to make Sweden great again,” he said.

Edited by: Kate Hairsine