Sweden Democrats: another win for right-wing populism and illiberalism in Europe?

By Orlaith Rice

Frustration with integration policy and fear of crime, two issues which Swedish political rhetoric and public opinion increasingly conflates, fuel the Sweden Democrats’ onward journey into mainstream politics. Orlaith Rice considers where this party sits under labels of populism and illiberalism

In her recent piece for The Loop, Gefjon Off discusses how the Sweden Democrats (SD), a right-wing, nationalist party, became normalised in Swedish politics. The unexpectedly conservative young male vote, boosted by social media, was crucial to the party’s election success. Building on Gefjon’s article, I argue that immigration and crime are key areas of social concern in contemporary Sweden. Harnessing these emotive issues, SD has fuelled its rise to prominence.

A close election

The Sweden Democrats entered parliament for the first time in 2010. After an extremely close election on 11 September, it has grown to become the second largest party in the Riksdag. In this year’s election, SD garnered 20% of the vote, up 3% from 2018, when it was Sweden’s third-largest party.

The left-wing Social Democrats, traditionally Sweden’s largest party, came top, with 30% of the vote – also an increase on its 2018 showing. However, with the right-wing Moderates coming in third, the right-wing bloc has narrowly won the general election by 176 to 173 seats. Magdalena Andersson, briefly Sweden’s first female Prime Minister, conceded the election and resigned, though she remains the Social Democratic leader.

After an extremely close election on 11 September, the Sweden Democrats are now the second largest party in the Riksdag

A new government should form over the coming weeks, though it remains unclear how this will play out. Traditionally, parties have refused to enter into coalitions with SD, though this may now be unavoidable. In practice, reluctance to form coalitions has led to weak minority governments, because neither the left nor right blocs were big enough to form a majority.

Moderate leader Ulf Kristersson is likely to become the next Prime Minister. SD are unlikely to obtain any ministerial posts, although SD’s Julia Kronlid has been voted Second Deputy Speaker of the Riksdag. Nonetheless, SD have been labelled kingmakers of the new government.

‘Making Sweden good again’

Sweden is a constitutional liberal democracy, long assumed to be immune to the resurgence of right-wing populism sweeping world politics. Definitions, of course, abound. But we can characterise right-wing populism as a moral struggle that pits ordinary, hardworking people against a corrupt elite.

Right-wing populist parties capitalise on crises. In Sweden, they use the fallout from generous migration policy, notably the influx of refugees during the 2015 crisis, and the rise in gang activity and gun violence. The SD links these together, speaking about immigrant offenders – so-called ‘crimmigration’.

While conducting qualitative fieldwork for my doctoral thesis earlier this year, I found a striking prevalence of frustration with how integration is handled, and support for punitive criminal justice measures. These included the removal of the automatic sentencing reduction for young people.

Right-wing populist parties tend to be nationalist and exclusionary. Formed in 1988, the Sweden Democrats’ roots lie in neo-Nazism. Its slogans have included ‘keep Sweden Swedish’. Indeed, leader Jimmie Åkesson wants to ‘make Sweden good again’. It’s not quite Trump’s ‘make America great again’ – but it is a far cry from then-Prime Minister Stefan Löfven’s ‘my Europe doesn’t build walls’ in 2015. SD is anti-immigration, anti-Islam, and tough on crime.

At this election, for the first time, crime was the biggest issue for Swedish voters. The anti-immigration, tough-on-crime Sweden Democrats positioned itself as the only party capable of addressing it

The culture of conformity and consensus associated with Swedish politics has effectively silenced the immigration debate for decades. It also hampered the previous government’s ability to address crime and immigration concerns, though in this election campaign the left-wing Social Democrats took a harder stance on migration policy than might have been expected.

At this election, crime was the biggest issue for voters for the first time in Sweden’s history. Weeks before the election, fatal shootings broke yearly records, with 47 deaths from gun violence. SD positioned itself as the only party capable of addressing these crises.

Right-wing populism and illiberalism?

The mainstreaming of right-wing populist parties is proliferating across Europe, in countries as diverse as Austria, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Hungary, the Netherlands, Poland, Serbia, and Turkey. Sweden, meanwhile, with its fêted welfare state, was considered an exception. It was seen as the land of tolerance, multiculturalism, and respect for human rights. This is the notion of ‘Swedish exceptionalism’ which, as SD has proven, is now under strain.

The recent success of Giorgia Meloni in Italy, coupled with Sweden’s election result, have sparked further debate and concern. Luca Manucci, for instance, warns on this blogsite against employing the term ‘populist’ with too broad a brush. He argues that parties such as the Brothers of Italy are more accurately termed illiberal, or neo-fascist.

The Sweden Democrats’ agenda appears exclusionary rather than anti-democratic; its brand of illiberalism ideological rather than disruptive

Some describe SD as populist. The party encouraged this description by, for example, abandoning its Eurosceptic stance ahead of the 2019 European elections. But is SD illiberal? Marlene Laruelle describes illiberalism as the backlash against liberalism. And it is easy to see how the blame for real or perceived failures in integration and crime control could be directed at Sweden’s famed liberalism.

If we follow Jasper Kauth’s distinction, it seems SD’s agenda falls under ideological illiberalism, rather than disruptive illiberalism. It is exclusionary rather than anti-democratic. It’s worth noting, however, that the mainstreaming of the far right and the creep of illiberalism is happening in a country without an authoritarian history.

No landslide victory for the far-right

But we mustn’t overstate the success of SD in this latest election. The party’s vote did not increase drastically from its 2018 share. It is unlikely that SD will attempt to undermine checks and balances as we have seen elsewhere, nor does it currently have the power to do so. SD’s success derives from its ability to speak to Swedes’ legitimate anxieties about integration and crime policy. Other parties have avoided these topics, giving SD a near monopoly on such conversations for years. Nonetheless, it is significant that, even in Sweden, longstanding democratic and cultural traditions are about to be truly tested.