One of the most difficult, unrewarding and potentially perilous tasks in modern European politics is to find an answer to the following question: can parties of the far-Right become parties of the centre or centre-Right? And if so — if they do move — can they and should they be accepted into the political fold?
It has been a given in Europe since the post-war period that parties of the Left can migrate. Many such groups had their origins in communist or other far-Left movements, but have found over time (especially once they gained some element of political power) that they lost their extreme elements and became parties of the political centre. Can this happen with parties from the other end of the spectrum?
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To even ask this question is to raise concerns. During the 20th century the European continent was rocked between the twin nightmares of communism and fascism. And if those countries which suffered under communism remain particularly sensitive to parties which might like to replay their version of the 20th century, so it is inevitable that countries which suffered under Nazism and its catastrophic vision should remain sensitive to any efforts to replay that disaster.
For anyone surveying this landscape, two big questions stand out. The first is whether the appellation actually holds. Is “far-Right” an accurate description of the party in question? Or it is simply something that is said of a particular party by its political opponents in order to keep themselves in power and their opponents in political quarantine?
The second is whether, if the label was once accurate, it remains so. This is in some ways the harder question, because just as things can go one way, so they can go another, and just as a party may moderate, so it may de-moderate, or radicalise. Much depends on the intensity of the focus kept on them and the knowledge of the people doing the analysis.
On such a delicate question it is certainly the case that we can never know enough, but across Europe these questions need to be asked — not least in order to address a political conundrum which lies perhaps even below the questions raised above. Who can we trust?
Across the European continent, this question is made sharper by the fact that we live with a curious unsolved paradox. The continent had a different 20th century from Britain or America. So there are parties of the Right which undoubtedly had origins in — or at least survived through — the worst years of the last century.
This means that there are parties — Vlaams Belang, formerly Vlaams Blok, in Belgium might be a good example — which have histories mired in collaborationism and worse. Additionally there are parties which were formed after the war ended but whose founders were personally steeped in the same. The Freedom Party in Austria falls into this category, and for many voters such origins make these parties irrecoverably tainted.
But, if those old parties are compromised by their past, then what are we to make of new parties? The experience of Germany and the reception of the AfD (Alternative for Germany) party since its creation in 2013 highlights this difficulty. If old parties are suspect and new parties are suspect, then what are analysts to do and where are voters to go?
One case study comes from Sweden, which in recent years has witnessed one of the most interesting political tales of our time, that of the Sweden Democrats.
Their story is interesting for a number of reasons, the first being that it is a story of a relatively new political party. Founded in 1988, the SD was then and for some years afterwards undeniably — indeed identifiably — a movement of the far-Right. Its party programme was racist. Its founders were open in their white nationalism and in stances that might be summed up as Swedish fascism. Their electoral performance was negligible, with voters understandably put off by the party’s extremism and militancy. SD events were patrolled by fellow extremists including, on occasion, members of the British neo-Nazi movement Combat 18.
At the same time, Sweden itself was undergoing significant changes. During the 1990s, immigration hugely increased, into what had previously been a highly ethnically homogenous country. Migration from the Balkans during the civil wars brought new challenges, including forms of criminality involving organised gang crime. This raised questions to do with integration and what Sweden expected of new arrivals, which in turn raised deeper questions of national identity and what it means to be Swedish.
A few writers and journalists began to question the confused Swedish consensus on these issues, among them Thomas Gür, a Swedish journalist of Turkish origin whose Staten och nykomlingarna came out in 1996. Gür, bravely for the time, described “the illusions of immigrant policy”, asking what values actually lay behind these policies and how integration policies were to be implemented. Such questions began to cut through because they were clearly on people’s minds.
But Sweden has another characteristic that is very striking to any outsider: a media and political class that is remarkably unified in its opinions. Back then it was in complete agreement on the issue, but even now the bandwidth of sayable, received opinion in Sweden remains narrower than in almost country in Europe, except perhaps Germany.
Research into the political sympathies of Swedish journalists carried out in 2011 showed that almost half were sympathetic to the Green Party, with the Left Party and Social Democratic Party following some way behind. In contrast just 14% of Swedish journalists had sympathy with the Moderate Party (Sweden’s centre-Right liberal-conservative party) while support for the Sweden Democrats was at 1%, which was within the margin of error (ie it could be closer to zero).
An example of their groupthink came in 1993, when the paper Expressen broke the immigration taboo and published an opinion poll which showed that 63% of the Swedish electorate wanted immigrants to return to their countries of origin. As the paper noted in its editorial: “The Swedish people have a firm opinion on immigration and refugee policies. Those in power have the opposite opinion. It does not add up. It is an opinion bomb about to go off.” The editor-in-chief was promptly sacked.
The opinion bomb that he predicted in fact turned out to be a slow and far less explosive release. In the 1990s the Sweden Democrats, perhaps seeing the electoral opportunity before them, began to moderate, though their party leadership and membership made the possibility of serious reform impossible.
Then in the 2000s, four young men from the next generation spied an opportunity. All were united in their worries about immigration, integration and the question of preserving Swedishness. All were concerned by the fact that conversations that were possible in the rest of Europe were not happening in Sweden. These men effectively had two options in front of them: to found a new party, or to take over an existing one. Perhaps mistakenly — for it may well have been easier to have just started from scratch — they decided to take over the Sweden Democrats.
Throughout the 2000s, these men, led by Jimmie Akesson, carried out a steady purge of racist elements within the party. The biker gang types went, and as they went a new type of member became willing to join in their place. Five years ago I visited a SD conference in the centre of Sweden and saw it for myself. If the party had put a mere veneer on its racist front, then it would have been hard to sustain in such a place far outside of the respectable centres of Stockholm. The members were to a man and woman reasonable-sounding working- and middle-class Swedes whose conference centred on a desire to affirm Swedish national identity and integrate immigrants who wanted to stay.
In any case, the party started to come to the political centre despite the fact that the centre did not want them. In 2010, the Sweden Democrats entered Parliament for the first time with more than 5% of the vote. MPs from other parties refused to deal with the newcomers either in public or in private, going so far as to ignore them at private Parliamentary events. But throughout the years that followed this became harder, and in the 2014 election the SD more than doubled their share, gaining almost 13% of the vote.
It is not hard to see what the external factors were that helped the party get to this position, since their rise occurred in striking coordination with another. In 1990 non-European migrants accounted for around 3% of the population; by 2016, after the European migration crisis of the previous year, that had increased to around 13-14%. Meanwhile, at the 2018 election the Sweden Democrats share of the vote rose to 17.5%, becoming the third-largest party. Although they had failed to achieve quite the significant breakthrough that they were hoping for, this created the most serious crisis so far for the other parties in Parliament.
Throughout the SD’s rise from the margins, two questions have dominated: the first is whether or not they have genuinely sloughed off their far-Right elements and past; the second whether other parties can or should work with them.
The first question is a complex one. The party has inevitably attracted far-Right individuals, including criminals, but then all political parties can attract unsavoury elements. In recent years, there have been scandals in Swedish politics around the discovery that an Islamist had infiltrated the Centre Party, that the Greens had a member who refused to shake hands with women while another Green Party politician, then in coalition with Social Democrats, turned out to be a Turkish nationalist. In such cases there are two sub-questions. Does the party attract such people for a good reason? And are they — when they are discovered — dealt with and expelled by the party?
The first problem may be unsolvable. After all, if a party is routinely described in the media as a racist or far-Right party it is inevitable perhaps that people who are racist or far-Right will think that this is the party for them. The more important question is whether the party embraces them or not, and for the last 20 years, and especially under the leadership of Matthias Karlsson, the SD have made constant efforts to expel people with such views.
It is still the case that every month or so a person pops up in a local branch who is found to have views which bring the party into disrepute. But the telling fact is that when people are found to have expressed racist opinions, they are — unlike, say, the Labour party in Britain in recent years — consistently expelled. Yet it does happen, and while they might protest that there are some double-standards at play here — that when unsavoury figures are found to have infiltrated other parties this is not seen as defining the organisation — when a pattern consistently emerges it is fair for critics to point to it.
The Sweden Democrats argue that when a party grows at the rate that it has done in recent years there is a manpower problem. People are required to fill positions and are allowed into the party and not all the vetting that might have been done has been done. When a party is identified as being in some way extreme or unsavoury this problem of attracting talent obviously grows.
But five years ago the party did do something that should be recognised as a major step — it broke off its own youth wing. On a visit to the country around this time, I met some members of the group and was struck by their zealotry and desire for trouble. It became clear to the party leadership that the youth branch was veering into what has become known as “identitarianism”, a slightly inadequately-delineated ideology which might more commonly be described as “nativism” but which has had unsavoury displays across Europe in recent years.
Karlsson cut off the whole movement when he saw how toxic it was, and this decision has been vindicated in the years since. The SD youth wing morphed into a political party of its own called “Alternative for Sweden” and it has been clear in the years since that this new organisation does not have the SD’s desire to hive off and expel political extremists. Indeed one person who attended a party rally for research described it as including the sorts of skinhead gangs who had been attracted to the SD back at the time of their far-Right founding.
Despite the fact that there is now a party to the SD’s Right, the media in Sweden and abroad understandably still seeks out examples of extremism in the party and its platform. Accusations of anti-Semitism have been levelled in the same manner in which they have been rightly and wrongly levelled at similar parties across the continent.
In the case of the SD, this criticism has come as a results of its policies, including a ban on male circumcision and ritual slaughter. It is understandable that opposition to such Jewish traditions might raise alarm bells, though as ever the situation is more complex than it is often portrayed. In Sweden, hostility to male circumcision fits into a specific secular-humanist view of society and the rights of people to choose their religion. Shechita slaughter, meanwhile, is something that numerous parties with a platform of animal welfare have campaigned on. These are difficult areas to navigate because a particular highlighting of them may indeed be a dog-whistle in certain places — but the SD do not make a major issue of them, and the socially liberal Centre Party is also opposed to these practices,
To some extent, media critiques of the SD in Sweden appear desperate. One of the main evening news programmes — Agenda – recently ran a lead item on one of the members of a new think-tank set up by the SD to support their work. The person in question was found to have previously expressed opposition to divorce because of the negative effect it can have on children — hardly a “gotcha” moment.
If the media genuinely believes that the SD are merely doing a good job at disguising their true extremism, then such hit-jobs are understandable. But the truth is that it is exceptionally hard to argue that the SD have not moderated, and are not continuing to do so. If their opponents seem overly keen to say otherwise, it most likely comes from the clear fact that the cordon sanitaire which was in place around the SD from the time of their founding has now completely broken.
Indeed, since the last election, the party has been increasingly accepted and even courted by other parties at the local and national political level. Last summer the head of the centre-Right Christian Democrats had a meatball lunch with Jimmie Akkeson. Although there was some uproar, a photo which would previously have been catastrophic for the more mainstream party had no negative results. In fact, as it became clear that the SD were crucial for the Christian Democrats to get legislation through, a poll of their party members found that some 90% approved of their leaders talking to the SD.
Around 50% of Moderate Party members also support dialogue, the Moderates being a more socially liberal but also more economically Right-wing party than the Christian Democrats. Indeed, the Moderate Party has been maintaining talks with the SD, and just last month the Left Party (who have their own communist history) cooperated with the SD in getting funding issues passed.
None of this is to say that the SD’s problems are solved. Although the situation has improved since entering Tye Riksdag, there are still huge problems for the party in attracting useful people like qualified lawyers, who are an asset of sorts to most political parties, and are noticeably absent in the SD, possibly because of how difficult it would be for them to return to work if their political activities were known.
For the time-being some stigma still exists. And it is inevitable that the party will continue to have challenges proving that it has become simply a party of the political centre-Right rather than one of the extremes.