OPINION: What would a Sweden Democrats backed government look like?

With opinion polls suggesting the nationalist Sweden Democrats could become the largest force in a right-wing coalition, David Crouch asks how the party might behave in power

OPINION: What would a Sweden Democrats backed government look like?
Sweden Democrat leader Jimmie Åkesson holds a press conference in Eskilstuna. Photo: Per Karlsson/TT

Ella is frightened. Well dressed and with perfect hair, she is a successful immigrant to Sweden – an East European of Jewish descent who has joined Sweden’s comfortable middle class.

“The fascists are growing everywhere and are coming to power in Sweden,” she says, stoney-faced. “Is history repeating itself?” History for Ella means the gas chambers, and for her, today’s fascists are the Sweden Democrats (SD).

I was taken unawares by Ella’s outburst and my reassurances sounded unconvincing. But I was less surprised by her confusion and fear. Prime minister Magdalena Andersson herself has accused the SD of being neo-fascist, and the insult is commonly bandied about by prominent figures on the centre-left. So, having now had time to think, here is what I feel I should have said to Ella.

In early 2000, there was international uproar when Austria’s conservatives formed a ruling coalition with the far-right Freedom Party, whose leader in the 1950s was a former officer of the Waffen SS. Condemnation was widespread, and both the USA and Israel recalled their ambassadors to Vienna.

Twenty-two years later, there is no such outrage when far-right, nationalist and right-populist parties win government positions – their presence on the political scene has become mainstream. Once censured as pariahs, they are increasingly considered suitable partners for governing coalitions.

In this sense, Sweden is following a trend in Europe. Far-right parties have entered governments from Italy to Norway, and the world has not stopped spinning as a result.

In the Nordic region, Sweden is behind the curve. In Norway, the Progress Party has frequently polled over 25 percent, and from 2013 to 2020 governed the country together with the centre-right Conservatives. For periods, the PP controlled the ministries of justice, finance, energy, transport, agriculture, labour and – wait for it – equality. The party’s most notorious former member is the Nazi terrorist Anders Behring Breivik.

The far-right Danish People’s Party became Denmark’s second largest party around a decade ago. DPP backing after the 2015 general election enabled a minority Liberal government to hold office and enact some of the strictest asylum and immigration policies in Western Europe. In Finland, the anti-immigrant True Finns (now the Finns Party) joined a centre-right coalition government in 2015.

The recent electoral success of far-right parties in the Nordics has contributed to policies and rhetoric hostile to asylum seekers and Muslims. But these parties have also been subject to the democratic process and been voted out of office. In Denmark and Finland they have been burned by their experience of power, with a collapse and splintering of their vote.

If the right bloc wins next weekend’s Swedish election, how much influence could the Sweden Democrats demand? What might be the direction of a government that relies for its survival on their support?

The other parties in Sweden’s loose centre-right bloc – the Moderates, Christian Democrats and Liberals – say they will exclude the SD from ministerial positions. But recent polls suggest the SD could out-perform the Moderates and become Sweden’s second party. In any case, the SD is likely to extract a high political price for its backing.

“On issues of migration, crime and sentencing, culture and international collaboration, this can drive a [centre-right coalition] government further to the right,” says Ewa Sternberg, political commentator for the liberal Dagens Nyheter. One might say “even further to the right” – pressure from the SD has already seen a substantial rightward shift in the Swedish mainstream.

Coalitions demand compromises. Government is messy and resistant to clear ideological commitments, let alone extreme ones. When The Local recently visited Sölvesborg, where the SD runs the local administration, it expected to find tension and polarisation, but instead encountered little more than a collective shrug of the shoulders.

But what of the SD’s historical roots in the Nazi movement, recently confirmed by the party itself? What about the stream of media exposés – which always accelerates around election time – revealing individual Sweden Democrat politicians as holocaust deniers, Muslim baiters, Nazi sympathisers, homophobes and old-style racists? What about the party’s talk, as recently as 2019, of “inherited essence” (nedärvd essens), smacking of 1930s race biology?

Although leaders such as Åkesson and Mattias Karlsson joined the party in the mid-1990s when its umbilical chord with National Socialism had not been cut, they have tried to exclude the neanderthal element, at one point kicking out the entire youth organisation for being too extreme. This has led some to argue that the Sweden Democrats have transcended their extremist roots and are now right-wing populists, just like other similar parties all over Europe. 

However, while direct connections at the level of ideas between the party and outright Nazis might now be weak, cultural connections are still strong. Some of the popular songs sung at big SD events, for example, are straight from the Swedish white power movement.

And where the party seeks to take root, extremist weeds also seem to flourish. The magazine ETC obtained recently a document with a list of words banned by the party from the comment sections of its social media channels. This is a glossary of extreme right conspiracies and racial hatred, suggesting that the party attracts a milieu in which these ways of thinking are commonplace. 

This poses the question whether the party has the potential to radicalise even further to the right, pulling its coalition partners with it. In Poland and Hungary, for example, conservative parties have become authoritarian in power, gutting democratic institutions and turning them into compliant puppets. Could something similar happen in Sweden? 

I think this is extremely unlikely. Poland and Hungary have recent histories of totalitarianism, their democratic traditions are weak. By contrast, Sweden’s history of political pluralism has deep and active roots in society. When the Nordic Resistance Movement made the mistake of trying to march to a synagogue in Gothenburg in 2017, it seemed as if the entire city came out to oppose them.  

So Ella, please don’t be frightened. We live in a scary world of wars and climate catastrophes, and there are worrying developments in politics on both the left and right. But Sweden is a stable democracy and will remain so regardless of the outcome of next week’s elections.

David Crouch is the author of Almost Perfekt: How Sweden Works and What Can We Learn From It. He is a freelance journalist and a lecturer in journalism at Gothenburg University.

Member comments

  1. This is a shocking article, written from a naively privileged perspective of someone who feels he personally has nothing to fear from the rise of the far right. “The world hasn’t stopped turning so dont worry your pretty head” is both patronising and blind to the real injustice, intolerance oppression that migrants and descendants are already dealing with. His blithe false equivalence of “people on the left and right” is straight out of the Trump playbook and reveals his real politics. I’m very disappointed that The Local saw fit to publish this. Please do read this kind of thing through carefully before publishing in future…

  2. Many thanks for your comment. This is David, who wrote the article. First, it is not true that I personally have nothing to fear from the rise of the far right. My family is Jewish. Ella is my relative. Second, the article is a specific response to Ella’s fear that fascism is on the verge of coming to power in Sweden, not more generally about the racism experienced by immigrants in Sweden (and not just from the far right). For that, see the section devoted to this in my book, or my article in The Local (May 16): “The far right now dominates the immigration debate in Sweden.” The article above makes no blithe equivalence between people on the left and right — I personally am worried that certain people on the left support Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. And I hope you are too.

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OPINION: Sweden should welcome Russians who don’t want to kill Ukrainians 

Finland, Poland and the Baltic states are stopping Russians from leaving Russia. It would be a tragedy if Sweden did the same, says David Crouch.

OPINION: Sweden should welcome Russians who don’t want to kill Ukrainians 
An iron curtain is descending across Europe. But in contrast to the beginning of the Cold War, the curtain is being drawn down by EU countries – not Russia. 

Any day now, Finland is poised to ban Russians from entering the country on tourist visas, to keep out men who want to avoid being drafted to fight in Ukraine. Announcing the policy, the country’s foreign minister said Finland was becoming “a transit country for Russians who want to leave their homeland for fear of being forced into war, and this traffic could harm Finland’s international position”. Opinion polls put 70 percent of the public in favour of a ban.

The number of Russians entering Finland doubled following Putin’s imposition a week ago of a “partial” mobilisation of men for the war effort in Ukraine. Finland’s Border Guard service is demanding a border fence 2.5m to 4m tall, topped with barbed wire, to keep the Russians out – an idea that taken seriously by the government.

Our Nordic neighbour is following a trend: the Baltics and Poland have already put an end to visas for Russians, including conscientious objectors to the war. The Czech Republic said last week that Russian deserters will not receive asylum. 

“We see them not as antiwar people, we see them as anti-fighting-the-war people,” Gabrielius Landsbergis, Lithuania’s foreign minister, told the New York Times. “They were not fleeing Russia when Bucha happened, when Kyiv was shelled or when any other horrific things happened in Ukraine.”

Latvia’s foreign minister chipped in: “Many Russians who now flee Russia because of mobilisation were fine with killing Ukrainians. They did not protest then. It is not right to consider them as conscientious objectors. There are considerable security risks admitting them and plenty of countries outside EU to go to.”

The EU is under pressure from some of these countries to ban Russian tourists, and has already made it much harder for Russians to get tourist visas. But the bloc is divided. Politicians from across the political spectrum in Germany, for example, want to offer asylum to Russian deserters. 

Sweden is starting to debate this question. As a shiny new member of Nato, some Swedes feel we need to show how tough we can be towards the Russian threat. And with a new government keen to stress its anti-immigration credentials, Stockholm may also be tempted to punish Russian travellers because of their brutal government. 

In a situation already tragic beyond the imagination, banning Russian draft dodgers would only add to the tragedy in Europe.

Men of fighting age have been brought up on a diet of state propaganda, pumping nationalism, racism, militarism and hatred of the West into the Russian mainstream. Access to independent and social media has been extremely restricted. Opposition to the “military operation” in Ukraine is punishable by 15 years in jail.

In these circumstances, the mood has changed slowly, fuelled by snippets of official information, incidents such as the death of a friend, social media posts and kitchen conversations. But the steady drip drip of doubt and fear has filled the cup to overflowing. 

Then came last week’s mobilisation, and the pace of change accelerated. Family men without military experience are being dragooned into the army and sent to the front line. A wave of anger has swept across the nation, with arson attacks on army recruitment offices, thousands of arrests and a revolt in Dagestan. The country’s security service itself says 261,000 men fled Russia in barely a week. At one point there was a queue of cars 13km long at the border with Kazakhstan.

For EU nations to turn away Russians who don’t want to fight in Ukraine is to abandon them in their hour of need. At they very moment when they are most open to alternative facts about the war in Ukraine, we would conform to the Kremlin’s propaganda picture of the West as hostile, self-interested and Russian-hating. 

Denying draft dodgers the right to get out of Russia means painting them all as representatives of an enemy with whom we are at war. There might be some short-term political benefits in terms of “uniting the nation”, but this would leave a deep scar on the European psyche.

The debate in Europe has not gone unnoticed in the White House, where the US National Security Council has cautioned against seeing all Russians as universally responsible for the disaster in Ukraine. 

“We also continue to believe it’s important to draw a line between the actions of the Russian government and the Russian people,” a spokesperson told the Financial Times. “We wouldn’t want to close off pathways to refuge and safety for Russia’s dissidents or others who are vulnerable to human rights abuses.”

Sweden has a history of welcoming men who don’t want to fight in unjust wars. Between 1967 and 1973, Sweden granted asylum to around 800 Americans fleeing the Vietnam war. Fifty years later, the decision by the European Court of Justice that Syrian draft dodgers can claim asylum in Europe gives Sweden the legal basis to extend this right to Russians.

What is happening now in Russia could be the beginning of the end of the war in Ukraine, and of the Putin regime. Sweden should welcome with open arms all Russians who would rather get out than be sent to kill Ukrainians. And we should pressure other EU countries to do the same. 

It is likely that Russia will soon close its own borders to stop men from escaping. But let’s not give them an excuse to do so. 

David Crouch is the author of Almost Perfekt: How Sweden Works and What Can We Learn From It. He is a freelance journalist and a lecturer in journalism at Gothenburg University.