For a party that only got its first politicians into parliament in 2010, the Sweden Democrats have enjoyed a stratospheric rise up the political charts, to the point where they’re poised to be the second biggest party in Sunday’s general election.
That’s quite a transition from the fringes of ethno-nationalism to the mainstream of society where it’s become acceptable to support a party with its roots in fascism, that regularly preaches an anti-immigrant message.
Yet still the party is plagued by its past.
“Immigration is the reason they exist in the first place,” explained Pontus Odmalm, a Swede who lectures in politics at the University of Edinburgh.
“The anti-immigration message is a given by now. They want less immigration and more repatriation. But they’ve also shifted the focus to integration failures, and that’s where they tie in law and order to immigration.
“The riots that happened after the Koran burning in April, that was great news for the Sweden Democrats because they said ‘we told you we can’t have different cultures in the same space, it’s the outcome of uncontrolled immigration'” (sic), Odmalm told Euronews.
“They are talking a lot more about nationalism and the importance of putting Sweden first, and being in favour of Sweden and its citizens. They are inspired by the Trump campaign and adopted a Swedish version to ‘make Sweden great again’, putting Swedes first, but without explicitly saying over who,” said Odmalm.
Nazi supporters running for election
This week, just days before the election, Expressen newspaper unmasked a list of Sweden Democrat candidates who spread anti-Semitic conspiracy theories or praised neo-Nazis, some of whom belonged to the radical nationalist Det fria Sverige – Free Sweden – organisation which has an estimated 2,000 members.
The Sweden Democrats’ leadership usually says these type of candidates have kept their views hidden, and are just a few bad apples. The party’s supporters, if they care at all, could dismiss the reports as a liberal media trying to discredit SD.
Either way, the association between the Sweden Democrats and extremists doesn’t seem to have dissuaded some other political parties, like the Christian Democrats, from happily joining their ticket into government if a right-wing bloc wins Sunday’s elections.
The Centre Party, however, traditionally centre-right, have been put off potentially working with the Sweden Democrats because of their more extreme views on immigrants, and has flipped to aligning with the Social Democrats’ left-wing bloc instead.
On Friday evening in the final televised leaders’ debate, Centre Party leader Annie Lööf urged voters to vote for a party “without xenophobia,” and attacked the Christian Democrat leader Ebba Busch for standing far-right and criminal candidates on her own party’s lists, and also for aligning electorally with the Sweden Democrats.
“In Ebba Busch’s party, we have just found out that there are neo-Nazis on the lists and organised criminals in MC gangs [motorbike crime gangs], and if you look at her friend Jimmie Åkesson, there are over 200 Nazis on the lists,” said Lööf.
Swedish politics expert Dominic Hinde, from the University of Glasgow, has been travelling through Sweden in the run-up to the election and says even senior Sweden Democrats party officials have been out canvassing for votes openly criticising Islam, and the perceived threat of Islamification of the Nordic nation, claiming it is responsible for many of Sweden’s social and economic problems.
“It would have been unthinkable for this to happen ten years ago, even, for someone [whose party is] polling 20% to stand openly on a public square, in an election campaign, and get a round of applause from the public,” said Hinde.
“So although the Sweden Democrats are maybe not as extreme as they have been in the past, as they have moderated themselves they’ve also been able to bring new people on board, and to introduce some fairly radical right streams of thought into the mainstream discourse,” he told Euronews.
Sweden Democrats party leader Jimmie Åkesson smiles during a campaign speech Monday, Aug. 22, 2022, in the southern city of Helsingborg, Sweden AP/AP
Who is the Sweden Democrats’ party leader?
Bearded and bespectacled, 43-year-old Jimmie Åkesson is the man credited almost single-handedly for bringing the Sweden Democrats into the mainstream of Swedish politics.
Over the last 20 years, he’s reinvented and modernised the party in terms of membership and image, and the Sweden Democrats now say they reject fascism and Nazism.
So what kind of leader is Åkesson? It’s difficult to know for sure, said Lucas Dahlström, the Stockholm correspondent for Yle Svenska, the Swedish-language public service news outlet in neighbouring Finland.
“Jimmie Åkesson is a very popular leader among the Sweden Democrats and he’s really taken the party to a new level. And I don’t think he ever thought they are going to be this big when he joined the party back in the 90s. You have to say he’s a good politician because he’s taken the party this far,” Dahlström told Euronews in an interview from a Sweden Democrats stronghold in the south of the country.
“He always says ‘we’ve never been in power, so anything that goes wrong in Sweden it’s not our fault!'”
“It’s very convenient, and it might be the reason there’s a worry among the Sweden Democrats this year because they’ve always been this anti-establishment party and now they’re maybe going to be in coalition with the government.”
So does Åkesson draw the line clearly enough between the party’s fascist past and its current policies?
“I don’t think the voters of the Sweden Democrats today care so much about what happened in the past, and you could say that’s a problem,” said Lucas Dahlström.
“Åkesson draws a line where he says there’s no racism allowed in the party and they’re going to expel anyone who is a racist but of course, there are elements of that in the party still.
“You can’t wash away your past that easily.”