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Home Opinion The rise of the Swedish far right
Sweden Democrats • Populism • Coalitions

The rise of the Swedish far right

Katrine Kielos - 17 December 2012

The narrow political distance between the Social Democrats and the Moderates appears to be opening-up new space for the Sweden Democrats

The moment the Swedish Social Democrats lost their historic grip on power has widely been documented as coinciding with Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt’s modernisation of the centre-right. Despite the importance of this strategic move, it might be more precise to say that the decisive swing came when Reinfeldt formed a new electoral alliance. That was when the political landscape truly changed.

In 2004 Reinfeldt's party, the Moderates, together with the Liberals, the Centre party and the Christian Democrats announced a detailed and common political platform. They called themselves “The Alliance”. They had come together, in spite of their differences, presumably to bring an end to the social democratic “empire”.

Back then, Prime Minister Göran Persson had governed Sweden for a decade and the Social Democrats had dominated the political landscape stretching back to the 1930s. After 80 years the opposition seemed to have discovered the obvious lesson: the four parties had to get over their differences and focus on forming a credible electoral alternative to the social democratic hegemony.

They did and it changed everything. Fredrik Reinfeldt became Prime Minister in 2006.

The new social democratic leader Mona Sahlin tried to copy Reinfeld from the opposition benches by forming her own “alliance” with the Greens and the Left party.

It turned out to be a big mistake.

I remember Fredrik Reindeldt's chief strategist at a Christmas party in 2008 telling me that even though the Social Democrats were fifteen percent ahead in the polls they would lose the next election. Why? Because of the red-green coalition.

The same move that was genius for Reinfeldt was a disaster for the Social Democrats: “By forming this alliance they are freely giving up the role they've had for decades: they are admitting that they're a party just like any other and not the sun that all the others circle around.”

He turned out to be right.

The Social Democrats lost the 2010 election and Fredrik Reinfeldt entered the history books: the first centre right leader ever to get re-elected in Sweden. He was able to portray his own “alliance” as the stable secure alternative. This represented a fundamental change to the landscape of Swedish politics.

Approaching 2013 the ground is however shifting again.

The Sweden Democrats, a xenophobic anti-immigrant party have nearly doubled their support since it entered the Swedish parliament two years ago. In the most recent polls, they are the third-biggest party; a shocking development in a country that unlike much of the rest of Europe has managed to keep anti-immigrant parties out.

The Sweden Democrats are not just any anti-immigrant party. Unlike many European counterparts, the party did not start out as populist in a general sense, protesting against high taxes etc, to gradually focus more on immigration. The Sweden Democrats have their roots in neo-Nazi circles.

How the mainstream parties handle the journey of this new political competitor, will likely be the big issue for both the left and the right in 2013.

The Social Democrats can no longer expect what they once took for granted: the ability to hold power by themselves.  At the same time, they won't repeat Mona Sahlin's mistake of forming an official red-green alliance, rather they will aim at forming a coalition government with those two parties if they win in 2014. They currently lead in the polls but since the Sweden Democrats are also surging it is very unclear if they would be able to form a stable government.

At the same time Prime Minister Reinfeldt is already governing in minority. He has been very clear in stating that he will never co-operate with the Sweden Democrats and has spoken out very firmly against their values. However, at the same time he is passively dependent on them in parliament on many issues.

This is happening at a time when his party’s “alliance” is crumbling. Small parties tend not to live long in coalition governments and both the Centre party and the Christian Democrats are suffering badly in the polls.

Both the left and the right will therefore desperately look for strategies to stop the Sweden Democrats. It's not likely that this will lead to the centre-right dog whistling on immigration or drawing closer to the ideas of the Sweden Democrats. Their quite recent neo-nazi past and the image of many of their politicians as violent thugs render them a toxic mix.

It's more likely that the mainstream parties draw the conclusion that the small differences between Reinfeldt and the Social Democrats are a contributing factor to the problem. This would also be a much more constructive analysis.

With everyone crowding the centre ground there are few conflicts left, whether about unemployment or the economy. In the eyes of many voters, all the mainstream parties look the same: an elite all catering to the same urban middle class.

With the social democrats too nervous to take a significantly different stand than the government on issues like the economy, they become apolitical and this leaves the field open for the Sweden Democrats to translate them into issues about immigration.

In other words: a social democratic party that is too risk averse now might well suffer for it when trying to form a government in the chaotic new political landscape that might emerge after the next election.

Katrine Kielos is a columnist for Aftonbladet, Sweden and Scandanavia's largest daily newspaper

A contribution to State of the Left - Policy Network's monthly insight bulletin that reports from across the world of social democratic politics

This is a contribution to Policy Network's work on Globalisation and Governance.

Tags: Katrine Kielos , Opinion , Sweden , State of the Left , SOTL , Swedish Social Democratic Workers' Party , Sveriges socialdemokratiska arbetareparti , SAP , The Workers' Party – The Social Democrats , Arbetarepartiet-Socialdemokraterna , Fredrik Reinfeldt , Moderate Party , Moderata samlingspartiet , The Moderate Coalition Party , Moderaterna , The Moderates , Göran Persson , The Alliance , Alliance , Mona Sahlin , Green Party , Miljöpartiet de Gröna , The Environmental Party the Greens , Miljöpartiet , The Environmental Party , Left Party , Vänsterpartiet , V , Red-Green Coalition , Immigration , Europe , Sweden Democrats , Swedish Democrats , Sverigedemokraterna , SD , Neo-Nazi-Neo-Nazism , Neonazi , Neonazisn , Fascism , Populist , Populism , Taxes , Tax , Mona Sahlin , Coalition , Centre Party , Centerpartiet , C , Christian Democrats , Kristdemokraterna , KD , Economy , Unemployment ,

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