The lesson to be learned from the success of the far right in Sweden
Jimmie Åkesson’s career shows what you can achieve through persistence. The Swedish Democrats – a far-right party with neo-Nazist roots – got 1.4% when he took over as leader in 2005. Last week they got 20%, making Akkeson the kingmaker of a coalition of liberals, christian democrats, ‘moderates’ and his own party, which is about to take power in a country that was once the icon of social liberalism.
How a party “cleansed” of ethnonationalists goes from the margins to the position of power broker should no longer be a mystery. Åkesson has simply followed the recipe established by Marine Le Pen in France, the Finns Party in Finland, Vox in Spain and the Brethren in Italy – whose leader Giorgia Meloni seems poised to pull off a similar feat.
The ingredients are: a modernized far-right ideology; a conservative mainstream attracted to this new way of thinking and unable to defend its own; media and tech companies bent on sanitizing fascism for profit; and a society whose liberalism proves fragile in the face of non-white immigration.
Before you panic, note that Magdalena Andersson, leader of the Social Democratic Party and Sweden’s first female prime minister, actually boosted her own party’s vote by two points, to 30%. And the victory for the right-wing bloc was narrow – leaving them with just a three-seat majority.
Thus, the party of Åkesson, which will not have ministers in the government but will take the decisions, could be contained if the Swedish left and center become aware of the danger.
But Swedish politics is now polarized. The Social Democrats, Greens and left-wing parties won overwhelmingly in the towns and countryside of the North. The right/far-right bloc has made inroads in rural areas of southeastern Sweden which – like our own red wall – are solidly working-class and were once solidly left.
Åkesson’s party combines technically sanitized far-right politics with provocative language and behavior typical of fascist populists. In 2020, Åkesson arrived at the Greek-Turkish border with leaflets telling Syrian refugees “Sweden is full. Don’t come to us!
Sensitive to its roots in the white supremacist right, the party has ostensibly adopted a “zero tolerance for racism” strategy. But on election night itself, Rebecka Fallenkvist, one of the party’s TV influencers, couldn’t help but pun on the Swedish version of “Sieg Heil” – which she said had been done to “cause an over-interpretation” before later claiming to have been simply drunk. (the phrase sounds like “victory weekend” pronounced backwards).
Other countries have seen dominant liberalism and conservatism throw a cordon sanitaire around populists and the far right. In neighboring Finland, for example, the rise of the Finnish party to over 20% has forced the Social Democratic, Green, Centre, Left and Swedish-speaking parties to form a centre-left coalition. This made it impossible for conservatives to form any type of government with the far right, and removed the temptation to do so. Åkesson’s chance came when the Swedish Moderate Party, which had disavowed a coalition with the far right, swung into a de facto electoral alliance with them.
And the driving force? The ability of the right and far right, as well as tabloids and social media, to successfully link violent crime and immigration into the popular imagination.
At a time when Swedes are worried about the rising cost of living and the threat of Russian aggression, the election campaign has seen all of these issues pushed aside in favor of the central narrative of the right – that Muslim migrants non-whites leave a trail of violent crime in previously peaceful Swedish communities. This includes an increase in rape, the creation of “segregated neighborhoods” that make integration impossible, and at a cost that reduces Swedish-born people’s access to social benefits. Therefore, the right of asylum must cease and criminals born abroad must be deported.
The election campaign proved with absolute clarity what we already know about Italy, Spain and the UK. Presented with such arguments, the moral fiber of mainstream conservatism regularly crumbles. Center-right parties simply adopted the racialized logic of the far right, telling voters they would deal with the issue in a technocratic way, with less extreme language.
Instead of containing the far right, this approach propelled them into pole position.
The Greens, Social Democrats and left, meanwhile – rooted as they are in progressive, young and urban demographics – could not afford to carry on the conversation effectively. Furthermore, each of the progressive parties is hampered by its own obsession: the left opposed to NATO membership, the Greens opposed to nuclear, the social democrats themselves nurturing the legacy of the Covid-19 pandemic , in which they took an anti-lockdown stance
What do we learn from this? The rise of Åkesson’s party confirms that around 20% of the population of most European countries is ready to vote for parties advocating proto-civil wars against their immigrant minorities. They are almost always found in formerly industrialized areas; almost always from the least educated stratum of society; and impervious to reason or concessions.
The question is no longer “how do we prevent men like Akesson from getting 20%?”, but how do we immunize the next 30% of traditional centre-right voters against ideology and their leaders against electoral cooperation? From Trump’s Republican Party to Spain’s Partido Popular, to our own conservatives, the answer turns out to be: with difficulty.
For the unrecognized fact of modern conservatism is its ideological void. In many countries, centre-right parties have become mere avatars of deregulation and finance capital. On issues that “the market” can’t solve, they have no philosophical backcountry, no belief system other than the nationalism, soft racism and nostalgia that once kept diehard racists in their voting blocks, but who don’t now.
Åkesson’s party, with its neo-Nazi fringe and ugly social media rhetoric, is a classic example of what Hannah Arendt called “the temporary alliance of elite and mob”. The only way such alliances were ever beaten in the 20th century was as an alliance of center and left, in defense of democracy and social justice.
You must link arms and block the far-right’s road to national office so consistently that their supporters either give up or turn desperately to the extremes where law enforcement – like in the United States – can do their work. And, without yielding an inch to the mythology of “immigrant violence”, the police must be given powers to fight crime.
Sweden’s left and green parties both lost seats in this election, in part, probably, because the social democratic party cannibalized their votes. It shows, once again, that where social democracy can be a learning organism – learning above all from the failures of the neoliberal era – it remains the only effective bulwark against the growing threats to democracy and tolerance.