The electoral success of a formerly neo-Nazi party in Sweden – which has ties to the UK Conservatives – is part of a Europe-wide pattern where the extreme has become mainstream politics
The rise of the far-right in Europe continues, with nominally liberal Sweden confirming its right-wing bloc has won the country’s election and the incumbent Social Democrat Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson resigning.
The far-right Sweden Democrats (SD) party did unexpectedly well, winning 20% of votes and becoming the biggest party in the right-wing bloc, which won a majority of three in Parliament, with 349 seats.
There is now a tension between the SD and its fellow right-wing and centre-right parties which make up the winning bloc, with the more moderate parties saying they will not countenance ministerial positions for the far-right.
The victory of the far-right in traditionally liberal northern Europe is part of a continuing pattern across the continent, where the extreme is increasingly becoming the mainstream – including in Italy, Slovakia, France, Poland, Spain, Hungary, Norway and more.
The Sweden Democrats
There is an iconic photograph that often goes viral on social media of a Swedish woman, a survivor of the Second World War, hitting a neo-Nazi with her handbag on the streets of Växjö in 1985. The act of anti-fascist resistance was in response to a march of the neo-Nazi Nordic Realm Party, which dissolved in 2009.
The SD Party evolved out of similar violent neo-Nazi groups in the 1980s. Its slogan used to be “keep Sweden Swedish” – a message that 43-year-old party leader Jimmie Åkesson has evolved into “make Sweden great again”.
Åkesson has been a member of the party since the 1990s, when he helped to form a youth group, and has called Muslim immigration “our biggest foreign threat since the Second World War”. He welcomed the election as a “fantastic result”.
To gain electoral credibility, Åkesson expelled its obvious neo-Nazi members – although some say the party has not been fully purged of senior members with those views.
Like many far-right parties currently hitting higher poll numbers across Europe, the SD has rebranded itself as ‘socially conservative’, claiming to represent the concerns of ordinary (read ‘white’) Swedish people when it comes to immigration, asylum policy and violent crime.
The SD has linked a recent rise of gun and gang criminality among second-generation immigrant youth in Swedish cities. It has faced criticism for its approach to women’s rights, with one politician accused of blaming victims of domestic abuse for the violence committed against them. Like many far-right parties, it claims to be against gender-based violence commonly associated with migrant communities, such as honour-based violence, while holding sexist views itself.
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The success of the SD in the election has been a surprise, particularly to European observers who tend to see Sweden and its Scandinavian neighbours as bastions of left-wing liberalism and social democracy – not least for their progressive policies on health and education.
But the experiences of black people living in Sweden, and those seeking refuge in the country, are not always positive. A report by the charity Medecins Sans Frontieres has suggested that asylum seekers in Sweden experience mental distress after arriving into the country.
“Uncertainty about the future is the main reason why asylum seekers are feeling depressed and out of hope,” said Jenny Gustafsson, coordinator of the project in Sweden. “It’s tragic and worrying that their situation in Sweden actually makes them feel worse.”
Author Lola Akinmade Åkerström examines Sweden’s approach to race in her novel In Every Mirror She’s Black. Told across three women's perspectives, it includes a storyline about a refugee from Syria named Muna and her struggle to build a life in her new country. The author explores the macro and microaggressions that black women face in Swedish society, raising questions about the country’s self-image as open and progressive. Åkerström has tweeted that her book has not been published in Sweden due to requests from the publisher to “cut out” scenes about Muna and “tone down my voice”.
Perhaps it is not so much of a surprise, then, to see the far-right do so well.
A Europe-Wide Trend
Sweden is not the first country to mainstream a far-right party or far-right views in European politics. It is part of a trend that has seen far-right parties gain increasing vote shares and influence across the region.
It’s hard to think of many things that Nordic Sweden has in common with Mediterranean Italy, but the latter country is also set to elect a far-right led coalition into Government later this month, with Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy expected to take the biggest vote share.
The anti-immigrant, anti-abortion, anti-LGBTIQ party has its roots in Mussolini-era fascism – Meloni has been careful to neither endorse nor repudiate this history. The elections are expected to return Meloni as Italy’s first female leader, alongside the far-right Lega Party led by Matteo Salvini, and Berlusconi’s Forza Italia.
Spain is another southern European country that has a fascist past and an increasingly far-right present, with its Vox Party continuing to win more and more seats across regional elections, including winning a majority in Andalucia in June. Like SD, Vox vows to make Spain “great again” with anti-abortion, anti-migrant, and anti-LGBTIQ policy platforms that seek to win approval from a traditional, socially conservative voter.
In northern Europe, there was much conversation about the success of Thierry Baudet’s Forum for Democracy in the Netherlands, with the young leader combining populist policy-making with references to classical and high culture in a manner not dissimilar to Boris Johnson. However, his party’s fortunes have taken a downturn since the pandemic.
Then, of course, there is the ongoing success of Rassemblement Nationale in France, with Marine Le Pen taking similar steps to Åkesson to try and create a respectable front for a party mired in fascistic history that includes her father “dismissing” the Holocaust.
Meanwhile, her fellow far-right traveller Eric Zemmour did unexpectedly well among young urban voters with his conspiracist, anti-immigration pitch in last year’s presidential elections.
Sweden’s mainstream right is facing a similar dilemma to conservative parties in Slovakia following the success of Marian Kotleba’s L’SNS party.
When the former neo-Nazi won seats in the Parliament, the conservative majority initially refused to countenance voting alongside the far-right. This changed, however, in 2020, when 17 conservative MPs held their noses in order to vote for an abortion ban proposed by Kotleba. The ban did not pass, but it was a revealing moment of how a desire to repress women’s rights can bring fascists, populists and Christian conservatives together in the voting lobby.
Across eastern Europe, far-right parties continue to entrench their power and far-right activists flock to the streets in aggressive displays.
Hungary’s far-right Fidesz leadership has this week announced further restrictions on abortion. Poland’s Law and Justice Party continues to rule with an anti-abortion, anti-migrant and anti-LGBTIQ platform. An estimated 70,000 people took part in far-right protests in Prague this month, including those taking a pro-Russian position regarding the war in Ukraine. And while Estonia’s far-right Conservative People’s Party lost power last year, it’s planning a 2023 comeback.
Almost all of the parties mentioned above – including the SD Party – have a relationship with the UK Conservative Party, due to their shared membership of the European Conservatives Group and Democratic Alliance in the Council of Europe.
The alliance, set up by Law and Justice and which includes representatives from the Conservative People’s Party, Vox, Brothers of Italy, and Fidesz – as well as other far-right parties such as Alternative für Deutschland and Austria’s FPÖ – is chaired by Conservative MP Iain Liddell-Grainger. Various other Conservative MPs and grandees are also members.
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