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SWEDEN DEMOCRATS

MAP: Where do the Sweden Democrats have their greatest support?

The far-right Sweden Democrats hold the toughest stance on immigration. But their voters don’t necessarily come from areas with larger immigrant communities, as The Local's intern Rita Cruz, has shown in this interactive map of the 2018 result.

MAP: Where do the Sweden Democrats have their greatest support?
A map of Sweden's municipalities overlaid over Sweden Democrat voting cards. Photo: Datawrapper/TT

Sweden’s immigration history is an old one. Economic migrants have been coming steadily since the end of World War II, but many others have moved here throughout the last four decades seeking protection from war or persecution, in Chile, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Balkans, and other parts of the world. In 2015, most of the over 160,000 asylum seekers in Sweden were fleeing war in Syria. Recently, many Ukrainians have tried to get protection from Russia’s invasion earlier this year. And even if immigration has been decreasing since 2016, it seems to remain a hard political topic.

The Sweden Democrats (SD), the third largest party in Parliament, centre their discourse on what they believe to be the social and economic problems of immigration. But if we look at the last general election, in 2018, it seems that living among immigrants or people of immigrant background is not a direct predictor of someone’s vote in Jimmie Åkesson’s party.

The absence of a clear correlation between municipalities with a higher percentage of people with a foreign background (here we are considering foreign-born people, but also those born in Sweden to foreign parents) and votes for the SD is because the decision behind that vote has more to do with perceptions than people’s own reality.

Social scientists Kirsti Jylhä, Jens Rydgren and Pontus Strimling, from the Institute for Futures Studies, have looked closely at the motivations of SD voters.

Rydgren, a professor at Stockholm University, points out that the radical right has had good election results in Eastern European countries with extremely low immigration.

“Some voters dislike immigration whether it is high or low. And what counts is perception, not the actual level,", he explains. "Some voters are prone to overestimate the proportion of immigrants in an area. And sometimes, a change in the proportion of immigrants is more important than the actual level. That is, an increase from 2 percent to 4 percent may be seen as a dramatic change, even if the level is still objectively low."

The perception of how big immigration is can be tied to several factors, such as the influence of media and social media, which contribute greatly to those perceptions, as does education.

“Voters with university degrees are strongly underrepresented among the SD voters, which partly explains why SD support tends to be lower in the big cities, where the educational level is higher on average," he said.

In the map, you can see how SD has lower penetration in Sweden's three biggest cities, Stockholm, Gothenburg and Malmö.

Criminality, culture change, and economic costs are the main concerns of those who have a negative view of immigration. “These views exist across society, they are not exclusive to SD supporters”, Jylhä, a researcher in psychology, explains. Still, studies show they are more prevalent in right-wing supporters than among those on the left of the political spectrum.

Attitudes also vary according to which groups of immigrants we are talking about. Not all immigrants are viewed the same, as Jylhä points out.

“There is research showing people differentiate between immigrant groups, and one of the factors is cultural distance,” she says.

This means people tend to have more positive attitudes towards immigrants coming from countries closer to theirs. In the case of Swedes, they are likely to have a more positive attitude towards people from other western countries, whose culture is in many ways similar to their own.

In general, Sweden still compares well with other European countries.

“Swedish people tend to have positive views of immigration in comparison with other European countries. The explanation for the growth of the Sweden Democrats is not that negative attitudes toward immigration would have notably increased but rather that immigration has been increasingly portrayed as a threat in political discussions and voters have started to see it as an important political topic", Jylhä says.

So is the anti-immigration vote rooted in racist or xenophobic beliefs? Research suggests racism and xenophobia aren’t the most important factors for voters of European radical right parties. Jylhä points out that anti-immigration vote is more about immigration as a phenomenon than about immigrants as individual people, although these views can be difficult to distinguish from each other.

This doesn’t mean that some of SD’s voters do not have racist or xenophobic beliefs, as many definitely do.

At this point, it is important to remember that The Sweden Democrats, even if they are perfectly integrated in the democratic system today, have roots in the extreme right. We can say that, as a political party, they have apparently moved away from those roots. This may have increased their success, Jylhä explains, because the public does not readily support parties that have overtly racist or xenophobic discourse, which is no longer socially acceptable. Voters prefer parties that they perceive as non-extreme and adhering to society’s norms.

As a party, we can say the SD’s nationalism and conservatism make them right-wing, and their wish to radically change society makes them radical – but not “extreme”. We can distinguish the extreme right from the radical right on the basis of the paths they take to achieve their goals.

“The radical right aims to work within the democratic system and not resort to violent means, even if it does not accept some fundamental elements of liberal democracy”, Jylhä explains. It tries to earn its place in democratic institutions through elections, and change society from within those institutions.

The Sweden Democrats can be placed the radical right category, among other European parties, such as the Vox in Spain, the Austrian Freedom Party or the Rassemblement National in France. Readers from other European countries might recognize the anti-immigration discourse or distrust in the mainstream media and political institutions from their own national parties. That is not a coincidence, these are part of a general trend in radical right European parties and not exclusive to The Sweden Democrats.

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POLITICS

Sweden Democrats lose power in their flagship municipality

The far-right Sweden Democrats have unexpectedly lost control of the municipality in Sölvesborg, the hometown of party leader Jimmie Åkesson, after their Moderate allies switched sides.

Sweden Democrats lose power in their flagship municipality

Kith Mårtensson, the group leader of the local Moderates, said her party had decided to switch allegiance and instead form a coalition with the Social Democrats, Centre, and Sol parties, after a “severe worsening in the climate of dialogue” between their party and the Sweden Democrats. 

The far-right party, which first won control of the municipality after the 2018 election, managed to increase its share of the vote by nearly 10 percentage points in September, giving the party a total 39 percent of the vote. 

However, Mårtensson said that the far-right party’s success had made them impossible to deal with in negotiations. 

“Unfortunately, after their election success, the Sweden Democrats’ top leaders lost all humility and cut away all the Moderates’ chance of having any influence at all. We didn’t see this as a coalition, but more like Sweden Democrat rule with our support.” 

Louise Erixon, who has served as the town’s Sweden Democrat mayor since 2018 and who is Åkesson’s ex-partner and the mother of his children, said she was “totally flabbergasted” by the news, which she said had “taken her by surprise”. 

She said it was “a betrayal of voters”, and that the Moderates’ only motive was to protect the jobs and salaries of their councillors, which the Sweden Democrats had wanted to reduce to reflect the Moderates’ reduced share of the vote. 

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“The only things they’ve cared about have been the well-paid posts and their personal incomes,” she said of the post-election talks. 

After the decision to go into coalition with the Social Democrats, Moderates in the municipality have complained of receiving a deluge of threats online, by mail, and on the telephone. 

“The weekend has been horrific,” Mårtensson told SVT. “People are ringing my private number and screaming that I should “burn in hell”. 

Jörgen Martinsson, another Moderate local politician said there had been a “hail storm of hate” against Moderate politicians over the weekend. 

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