Populists, Sweden’s second largest party?

Stockholm’s House of Culture is a kind of Swedish Beaubourg, strongly marked by the modernist architecture of the 1960s. On its large square, which has not aged well, Taje has come from Eskilstuna, 100 kilometers west of the capital, to run a kiosk. The entrepreneur, who runs a small forest products company, wants to believe that on Sunday voters will bring the right-wing bloc supported by the Sweden Democrats (SD) to power.

In this country, we had good defense, good schools, a good energy policy and little immigration, all of which has deteriorated over the years, says this former Social Democrat activist who joined the populist party. They can call us racist, but it doesn’t work anymore. We kicked out the neo-Nazis who were there when the party was founded a long time ago. We have become a normal party. We were even the first to raise the problems of immigration and crime that are now recognized by all. I’d rather vote for the original than for the copies.

While the left- and right-wing blocs facing off on Sunday are neck and neck in the polls, in a surprise move, the Sweden Democrats appear to have crossed a new threshold. With 20 per cent of popular support, the party is said to be on the verge of becoming Sweden’s second largest political party, behind the Social Democrats (SAP), at 28 per cent, and ahead of the conservative Moderate party (M), at 18 per cent. This is an achievement for a party that has long been banned from parliamentary life and whose first president, Anders Klarström, was clearly identified with national socialism.

These sulphurous origins, which no one denies, are regularly in the headlines. In this campaign, no less than five candidates have had to resign after old statements anti-Muslim or anti-Semitic resurfaced. On TV4 on Wednesday, leader Jimmie Akesson reiterated what he has been saying since he took over the leadership of the party more than ten years ago to expel the most radical elements: “We are pursuing this policy of zero tolerance [à l’égard du racisme] by expelling these people from our electoral lists.”

Populists on the rise

Yet such incidents do not seem to have any effect on the Democrats’ steady progress, acknowledges political scientist Johan Martinsson of the University of Gothenburg. We expected the party to go down in the polls. The opposite is happening. Martinsson points to the fact that when all Swedish parties attend the traditional Visby meeting each summer, which brings together thousands of activists from all walks of life on the island of Gotland, it is not uncommon for participants to wear the Democrats’ T-shirts.

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Recently, this progression has been shaking the fragile balance of the right-wing bloc composed of Ulf Kristersson’s Moderates (conservatives), Göran Hägglund’s Christian Democrats and Johan Pehrson’s Liberals. In a context where the two blocs are practically tied in the polls, if the Democrats were to overtake the Moderates on Sunday, it would constitute a small revolution in Swedish politics.

Sweden could find itself in the strange position of having Ulf Kristersson come to power even though he is the third largest party, while the second largest party would be left out. For while the Moderates have created a shock (and caused the centrists to leave) by announcing that they would agree to govern for the first time with the parliamentary support of the Democrats, there can be no question of them or their liberal allies agreeing to take part in the government. This is even though Kristersson likes to point out that this has already happened in Austria, Finland and Norway.

A normal party?

It’s no coincidence that the little flame on the Sweden Democrats’ logo has been replaced by an anemone. For the past four years, the Democrats have been running the city of Sölvesborg, in the south of the country, without too much trouble. The only real changes are that night patrols now roam the city and the gay activists’ rainbow flag has disappeared from public buildings.

While the party may not yet be considered quite “normal,” it is clear that it has changed a great deal and has become an essentially conservative and nationalistic party, Martinsson believes. “Jimmie Akesson would benefit from being magnanimous and humble by agreeing not to participate in government. This will not prevent him from having a great deal of influence in the negotiations. Strangely enough, this could tilt the government to the left, since the Democrats have a more left-wing economic agenda than the other parties on the right.”

Nevertheless, beyond the grand declarations that make headlines in the media, Swedish politics seems to be taking its course. Since the Sweden Democrats entered parliament (in 2010), the parties have learned to work together without too much difficulty. In the day-to-day work, we are far from the animosity of the public statements during the campaign,” says an official who works in the Riksdag, the Swedish Parliament. We have a long tradition of political consensus and negotiation in this country, and that should not change.”

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Left divided on NATO

But it is not only the right-wing bloc that is divided. The left is not in a better situation. Since the defection of the Greens last year, Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson has led a minority government. Her campaign focused on reducing immigration and fighting crime in the suburbs did not make her only friends on the left. “If the left-wing bloc wins, the negotiations will not be easy,” says Martinsson.

This is without counting Sweden’s choice to join NATO. The Left Party, a parliamentary supporter of the Social Democrats, has always been opposed to this integration. Its leader, Nooshi Dadgostar, has called in vain for a referendum on the subject. Since the Russian aggression in Ukraine, observers note, it has only taken a few months for Sweden’s traditional policy of neutrality to evaporate. A policy that was established in the 19th century.e century!

“Our traditional solidarity with Finland played an important role in this historic decision,” says the Social Democratic Party’s head of international relations, Johan Hassel. This is one of the reasons, he says, why, despite its parliamentary support, it is out of the question for the Left Party to participate in the government.

In this country, the political debate has always been rather harmonious, says Anders Mellbourn, former editor of the Stockholm daily Dagens Nyheter. “However, in recent years, it has never been so acrimonious. The problem is that they are trying to fit this election into the traditional left/right scheme. But it doesn’t work. Within the left and within the right, they are fighting each other. Yet the two major parties on the right and left have never been so close to each other.”

In the press, the idea of a German-style “grand coalition” that would bring together the Social Democrats and the Moderates, possibly with the support of the Centre Party, began to gain ground. “In a time of unprecedented gloom, with the war in Ukraine, the COVID pandemic and the energy crisis, maybe it’s time to try something else,” says Anders Mellbourn. One thing is certain, whoever wins on Sunday will win by a very small margin.