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ANALYSIS: Has the far-right become normalised in Sweden?

Does the Liberal Party's decision to open the door to working with the Sweden Democrats indicate a shift in Swedish politics ahead of the 2022 election? The Local speaks with two political analysts to find out what's going on.

ANALYSIS: Has the far-right become normalised in Sweden?
Sweden Democrat party leader Jimmie Åkesson. Photo: Carl-Olof Zimmerman/TT

The Liberal party in Sweden caused a stir just before Easter after it approved a bid to campaign for a centre-right government in next-year’s election. With 59 votes to 31, the Liberal Party’s national committee agreed to the proposal put forward by party leader Nyamko Sabuni. 

Although collaborating with the Moderate Party and Christian Democrats who make up the bulk of Swedish conservatives is not new, this could potentially mean working with the anti-immigration Sweden Democrats, with roots in neo-Nazi movements, after next year’s election.

So will it become the new norm to work with the far-right in Swedish politics?

Sociology professor Jens Rydgren at Stockholm University says that despite the deep friction within the Liberal party on this issue, it is not surprising that they agreed to the proposal due to Sabuni’s role as leader. Sabuni, a former equality and integration minister, was elected leader of the party in June 2019.

“She was very clear from the start that she preferred the Moderate party as the governing party, and she has pushed for the Liberals to take a stance on that. So it [the result] didn’t really come as a surprise, there have been signs of this since 2018, but especially since the election of the party leader,” he says.

The Moderate party and Christian Democrats have previously declared that they are willing to work with the Sweden Democrats. This would enable the right-wing (borgerliga) parties to form a government with the support of the Sweden Democrats, similar to how centre-left Social Democrat Prime Minister Stefan Löfven previously managed to form a government supported by the Centre Party and Liberal Party.

This has already led to further normalisation of the Sweden Democrats, Rydgren says, as it has legitimised the party for many voters. The Sweden Democrats are characterised as a regular party to negotiate with.

“Above all it has led to a situation where the Moderates and Christian Democrats have toned down the opinions that separate them from the Sweden Democrats. They haven’t been interested in highlighting the areas of conflict, but have tried to play it down, and in some sense maybe tried to strengthen the picture of the Sweden Democrats as a regular party.”

Rydgren says it is not a wild guess that this is also how the Liberal party will interact with the Sweden Democrats from now on. He predicts the party will try to emphasise the consensus that exists with the populist party within some policy areas.

“So in that regard, yes, it has led to a normalisation of the Sweden Democrats.”

But there is a complex future ahead for anyone looking to form a right-wing government after next year’s elections.

“There will be tough negotiations and it is reasonable to assume that the Sweden Democrats will continue to sharpen their political programme, to go in an even more radical direction, which will be costly, especially for the Liberals, to agree to those things.”

The leaders of the Christian Democrats (Ebba Busch) and Moderates (Ulf Kristersson), with Sweden Democrat leader Jimmie Åkesson in the background. Photo: Henrik Montgomery/TT

Is folkhem the reason?

Ov Cristian Norocel, lecturer at Lund University, agrees that party leader Sabuni has had an important role to play in the recent developments.

“It seems Sabuni is calculating with an electoral advancement in the coming elections for these borgerliga parties, though she seems committed to ignore that the Sweden Democrats would play an important role in that context,” he says.

The populists party’s support remains high in Sweden.

“If we were to rely on the polls, the Sweden Democrats have the potential to become the third largest political force in the Swedish Parliament (Riksdagen), while the Liberal Party would need to fight really hard to ensure it passes the threshold,” Norocel says.

Across Europe far-right parties have seen electoral success over the past years. Controversially, the Sweden Democrats have their roots in the neo-Nazi movement in the 1980s, setting them apart even from many other similar parties across the continent.

Calls have been made to stop the normalisation of far-right politics. For example, Annie Lööf, the leader of the Centre Party – also a small centrist-liberal party that otherwise has a lot in common with its Liberal colleagues – wrote on Facebook that she “regretted that the Liberals had chosen to open the door to an anti-liberal and xenophobic party”. Nyamko Sabuni herself discussed her experience battling racism throughout her career in a speech to her party during the same meeting where the controversial proposal was voted through.

But there has also been a general political shift to the right in Sweden, including centre-left parties such as the governing Social Democrats taking an increasingly tougher stance on migration issues. 

“The Sweden Democrats have also managed to benefit from the fact that the other conservative forces in the Swedish parliament, the Moderate Party and Christian Democrats, have moved further to the right in the past years,” Norocel says.

So how have the Sweden Democrats managed to establish themselves as a major political force? Norocel’s research argues that the party has managed to claim ownership over the Swedish concept of folkhem (people’s home). A concept that for decades was used by the Social Democrats to pursue a progressive political programme that eventually led to Swedish society enjoying some of the highest levels of equality and development.

“The Sweden Democrats claimed to be the only political party interested in defending this home of Swedish people, thus setting protection of native Swedes against what they claim to be dangerous migrants,” he says. “[Sweden Democrat leader] Jimmie Åkesson has gone so far to claim that if Per Albin Hansson, an influential Social Democrat leader and Swedish prime minister [1932-1946], would be alive today, he would be a Sweden Democrat member.”

But cleaning up its act is not an easy feat for the party.

“One cannot ignore the fact that accusations of racism and Islamophobia among Sweden Democrat party members have followed the Sweden Democrats even after Jimmie Åkesson’s repeated reassurances that the party has left its extreme right past behind,” Norocel says.

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Five of Sweden’s political parties planned to evade party financing laws

Five of the eight political parties in the Swedish parliament discussed evading party financing laws with a businessman secretly working with journalists, a new investigation by broadcaster TV4 has found.

Five of Sweden's political parties planned to evade party financing laws

“There’s every reason to demand moral and political responsibility,” political scientist Jonas Hinnfors said of how Sweden’s society should react to the investigation’s findings. “It’s a threat to democracy.”

The new law on donations to political parties which came into force in 201  dictates that parties must declare all donations received from private individuals or businesses. Donators can remain anonymous, byt only as long as their donation does not exceed 24,150 kronor (€2,281). Larger donations must be declared along with the name of the donor.

The Kalla Fakta team which produced the documentary hired two businessmen to call each parliamentary party and ask how they could donate half a million kronor, while staying anonymous. The conversations were recorded and meetings filmed with a hidden camera.

Three parties – the Centre Party, the Left Party and the Green Party – said that it wasn’t possible for the donor to remain anonymous. 

But the other five parties – the Social Democrats, the Moderates, the Sweden Democrats, the Christian Democrats and the Liberals – suggested different ways of getting around the requirements.

Christian Democrat press secretary Peter Kullgren suggested splitting up donations and donating to individual candidates so that each donation remained under the legal limit.

Another method, proposed by Sweden Democrat head of finance Lena-Karin Lifvenhjelm, consisted of giving the money to another individual who would donate it under their name instead.

Magdalena Agrell, the Social Democrat’s head of finance, discussed finding someone else to act as a front in recorded telephone conversations.

The chairman and communications chief of the Social Democrat’s youth organisation, Diyar Cicek and Youbert Aziz, suggested that the businessman instead create a foundation to donate the money.

The Moderate Party’s ombudsman Patrik Haggren proposed that donations could be sent from different members of the businessman’s family in order to remain anonymous.

Lisa Flinth, who is responsible for leadership support in the Liberal Party, also proposed this method, providing the contact details of a middleman, the consultant Svend Dahl.

Dahl first proposed that his company send an invoice of half a million kronor to the businessman, but later suggested that the money be transferred to him to donate to the Liberals in his name, thereby avoiding having to pay tax.

“It’s important you keep yourself anonymous,” Dahl said in Kalla Fakta‘s recordings of conversations with the undercover businessman.

Dahl is a political scientist and has previously been head of media organisation Liberala Nyhetsbyrån.

Flinth was well aware of the fact that the method undermines the aim of the law, telling the businessman in a telephone conversation that it was very important that nothing could be traced back to the party.

“It could have serious consequences,” she said. “We don’t really have any margins when it comes to credibility.”

“If there was an article about this in the middle of a heated election campaign and we miss the threshold for getting in to parliament, I would never forgive myself,” she said.

Political scientist Jonas Hinnfors, who commented on the conversation for the Kalla Fakta team, said he was shocked after hearing it.

“They know what the point of the new legislation is,” he told Kalla Fakta. “Going against that is political dynamite.”

In a written comment on their website, the Liberals’ vice-party secretary Gustav Georgson stated that the party would not use Dahl’s consulting services again and that it “takes the statements made by Kalla Fakta seriously and will act forcefully to avoid similar situations happening again.”