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OPINION: Sweden Democrats have only themselves to blame for election setback

Richard Orange
Richard Orange - [email protected]
OPINION: Sweden Democrats have only themselves to blame for election setback
The Sweden Democrats' lead MEP Charlie Weimers (right) together with the other top candidate Beatrice Timgren at the election vigial on Sunday. Photo: Pontus Lundahl/TT

Sweden Democrat leader Jimmie Åkesson normally serves a cleaned-up, easily digestible version of far-right politics. This election he gave voters the real thing. It's no surprise fewer were ready to swallow, writes The Local's Nordic editor, Richard Orange.


Ten years ago, foreign journalists writing about the rapid rise of the far-right Sweden Democrats, used to describe the party's leader, Jimmie Åkesson, as "every Swedish mother's ideal son-in-law".

This was the man who had joined a fringe neo-Nazi party and detoxified it, kicking out anyone revealed to be overtly racist rather than more acceptably "culturally nationalist", and given it a smiling, well-presented front, with his neat haircut, chinos, and heavy use of the word rimligt ("reasonable"). 

But that changed when the party was at the start of last month hit by the mother of all journalistic stings.

A reporter from the broadcaster TV4 managed to get hired first by Riks, the supposedly independent YouTube channel, and then by the party's communications division, and went on to show how the party uses anonymous social media accounts to attack its supposed political allies and to spread disinformation, with people internally calling it a trollfabrik or "troll farm". 

It's been the biggest political scandal in Sweden in years. But the damage to the Sweden Democrats came arguably less from the revelations themselves, than from how they reacted to them. 

Åkesson could have claimed the communications division had gone rogue, apologised and sacked the main offenders, and then pledged to stop using anonymous accounts in future. But instead he went on the offensive.

In a speech on Youtube, he claimed the investigation was part of a conspiracy – "a gigantic, domestic propaganda operation launched by the entire left-liberal establishment". He then attacked politicians, journalists and activists as a klägg, meaning literally a "sticky morass", a concept similar to Donald Trump's "swamp".

Sweden Democrat party leader Jimmie Åkesson gives a speech after the Sweden Democrats experienced their first ever retreat in an election on Sunday. Photo: Pontus Lundahl/TT

This set the tone for an election campaign where the party seemed to return to its early 1990s roots, with a slogan Mitt Europa bygger murar or "My Europe builds walls", used to tie together hard-edged campaign videos. One, for instance, showed, a crowd of black, African migrants coursing down a street in Spain, before a cartoon wall comes down followed by the slogan, "My Europe builds walls".

Åkesson then wrote an opinion piece in the Expressen newspaper in which he claimed Sweden was undergoing, or had undergone, a folkutbyte – literally "a replacement of peoples", language he knew full well was used by Swedish neo-Nazis promoting the Great Replacement conspiracy theory, meaning it was guaranteed to enrage left and liberal journalists and dominate headlines for a few days.  


The plan was presumably to maximise publicity and to mobilise the party's core voters, who are among the least likely to bother to turn out in EU elections.

Instead, the shift to more extreme rhetoric seems to have scared more moderate voters off. And a recording from the party's election vigil of the Sweden Democrat MP David Lång singing the German racist song Ausländer raus, meaning "foreigners out!", will mean that some, at least, will not regret their decision. 

With 94 percent of votes counted, the party is at 13.2 percent, down 2.2 percentage points on what it got in the last EU elections in 2019. On the face of it, that is not so dramatic.

As Åkesson was quick to stress in his speech at the party's election vigil, the party has kept all three of its seats in the European parliament, so its power in Brussels remains undiminished, but he admitted the result was a disappointment. 

"We're going to need to analyse why we didn't grow but instead only kept our three seats – but don't forget that we did keep our three mandates," he said to cheers from supporters. 


He also seemed to defend the combative approach the party had taken after TV4's troll farm revelations. 

"We are the Sweden Democrats. We are not a party that follows the herd or folds when someone else thinks we should. We are not a party that just lies down flat and says sorry," he said. 

But for a party which has increased its share of the vote at every single election – both national and European – since it was founded in 1988, this is a watershed.

For Åkesson, it will come as a warning that the more radical politics and rhetoric his party has been flirting with since it gained real power in the Tidö Agreement with the three government parties – most notably in the provocative statements about Muslims made by the MP Richard Jomshof – may be too much for some its voters to stomach.

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