September 9, 2022

Last week, Sweden’s far-Right Sverigedemokraterna party published a slick campaign video, a sort of closing argument before this Sunday’s election. “Swedes,” Jimmie Åkesson, the party leader, said, “are not a people who burn cars — we are a people who build cars.”

The messaging had a familiar ring to it: politicians, Åkesson reiterated, had for too long been allowed to make Sweden “uglier, poorer and more dangerous”. It was time to take the power back. “Sweden will be good again,” was the title of the video. Not quite “make Sweden great again”, but close enough.

While Britain, the US and most of Europe have seen populist parties, populist candidates and populist party factions move into power, Sweden remains the outlier. Despite steadily growing support for the Sweden Democrats, the party has effectively been powerless since it won its first seats in parliament 12 years ago.

At first, the other parties simply shut them out. In 2014, six parties even made an elaborate agreement to guarantee the largest bloc passed its budgets — effectively voiding the far-Right’s mandates. The agreement fell apart less than a year afterward, which sparked a debate within the conservative coalition whether to cooperate with the Sweden Democrats or not.

It might sound odd that the conservative and centre-Right parties in Sweden have hesitated for so long. In neighbouring Denmark, the Conservative-Liberal coalition government took parliamentary support from the Danish People’s Party as far back as 2001. But the Sweden Democrats are an odd shrub in the Scandinavian Right-wing flora. While its far-Right sister parties in Denmark and Norway started out as fairly standard Right-wing populists, the Sweden Democrats has roots in racist and neo-Nazi organisations.

The Swedish Democrats, as Anders Ygeman, now a government minister for the Social Democrats, once told a Danish newspaper, “was founded by people who celebrated the German occupation of Denmark and not the Danish liberation”. This is perhaps a bit pointed, but the Sweden Democrats’ troublesome history is a fact that no one questions: the party’s own white paper about its history, released just a couple of months ago, basically confirmed that it was founded by people from different racist groups.

It has been a difficult couple of years for the conservative and liberal bloc. Despite a solid, non-socialist majority in parliament, the Social Democrats have held on to power because no consensus has emerged as to how to handle the Sweden Democrats. In the last election four years ago, the Sweden Democrats gained 17.5% of the vote, making it largely impossible for conservatives and liberals to form a government without their support. After months of negotiation, the Centre Party in the end jumped fences and decided to support the Social Democratic prime minister.

Now, the other three parties in the former centre-right coalition — the Moderate Party, the Liberal Party and the Christian Democrats — have decided to take the Faustian Bargain and ally themselves with the far Right. Will centre-Right voters follow suit? Ever since the Moderate Party began its reluctant courtship with the far-Right, it has siphoned off voters. Since the election of 2014, the last election in which they had a clear line against the Sweden Democrats, they have lost more than a fifth of its support — which is now down to 18% in the most recent polls.

In order to win, they need some of those voters to come home again. Or at least choose the Christian Democrats or the Liberals. The polls suggest the race is too close to call. In any other country, this would be a pretty good environment for the Right-wing bloc to take power. Law and order issues are higher on the agenda than they have ever been in a Swedish election, inflation is running rampant, and households fear what their electrical bills will look like this winter.

The rise in crime, in particular, is a weak spot for the governing Social Democrats. So far in 2022, the Swedish police have registered 47 killings and 273 shootings, putting this year on track to be the deadliest in a series of violent years. Reports of innocent passers-by getting killed or injured also strike a new kind of fear in people. On August 19, less than month before the election, a man was killed and a woman was seriously injured by a teenage shooter at a shopping mall outside of Malmö.

But for many liberal, or even conservative, voters, it is difficult to opt for the Moderate Party or the Liberal Party this year, since a win will inevitably lead to a big influence — and maybe even government posts — for the Sweden Democrats. The far-Right party will likely become the biggest part of the new Right-wing bloc and have insisted that they won’t settle for providing passive support, although they don’t appear to seek the prime ministerial post.

At the same time, however, many Swedes are aligned with the Sweden Democrats on some of their policy proposals. One telling data point is that about a third of all voters say the party have the best migration policy. Many voters also associate the rise in gang-related shootings to the steep rise in migration over the last decade.

But there is more to its package than just a curb on migration. Prominent Sweden Democrats’ MPs have in the last couple of years put forward a host of illiberal proposals, such as control over the Swedish bar association, a replacement of all police chiefs in the country, more government control over the media and so on. In a column for the liberal weekly Expressen, the political editor Anna Dahlberg calls it an “incredibly difficult” choice for voters to make, but still comes to the conclusion that “good liberals” can vote for the Right on Sunday. Other famous liberals — such as the former Liberal Party leader Bengt Westerberg — have come to the opposite conclusion. Last week, he announced that he won’t vote for his old party, citing its decision to cooperate with the Sweden Democrats.

Perhaps most peculiar are the many issues that are completely absent from the election. Neither the country’s Nato accession nor its pandemic strategy are on the agenda. Instead, it all seems to boil down to whether to let the far-Right in or not. The Social Democrats appear to have come to the same conclusion. One of their key messages is what a gamble it is to let the Sweden Democrats near power. As polls now show the Sweden Democrats becoming the biggest opposition party, the Social Democrats have asked for one-on-one debates with Åkesson, instead of with the Moderate Party leader Ulf Kristersson, to hammer home their message. The Green party leader went one step further in a radio debate recently, calling Åkesson a “Nazi”.

Will this be enough? Certainly, Swedes appear to genuinely fear the rise in crime, and they don’t trust the current government — with its pro-migration coalition parties — to deal with it. On Sunday night, we will know which fear is stronger: the fear of crime or the fear of the far-Right.

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