Sweden, a strong welfare state, has traditionally been a society where opposition to racism is instinctively considered part of decent conduct. Boasting a high rate of political participation (with an 86 percent turnout rate for the last national elections), the Scandinavian state has, in contrast to other western European states, long kept the far right on the fringes of the political system.
But this has changed.
For the first time after the end of World War II, the anti-immigrant, radical right Sweden Democrats passed the four percent threshold and entered the Swedish parliament in 2010. Subsequently, in 2014, it received a respectable 12.9 % of the vote to become the third largest political party in parliament after the Social Democrats and the Moderate Party. Currently, it holds 42 seats in the national parliament.
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In the lead up to general elections on September 9th, most polls suggest the Sweden Democrats will increase their share of the vote and even become Sweden’s second largest party. More alarmist voices argue that they may become the critical political kingmakers in the next parliament.
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That prediction is based on a real political problem: Neither the current government, with its Social Democrat leader and Green Party junior partner, nor mainstream conservatives, will be able to form a government on their own.
Until now, there has been a mainstream agreement to freeze out the far right from coalition negotiations. While it is still unlikely that either political camp would agree to a formal coalition with the Sweden Democrats, the pressure will be intense if indeed they gain a sizable proportion of the popular vote.
There are already cracks in the wall of mainstream refusal to negotiate with the far right; last year, the smaller conservative Christian Democrats declared they were open to forming a government with Sweden Democrat support of the SD, and a conservative Moderate Party leader chose to "dialogue" with them.
"Distancing” themselves from Nazism
Officially founded in 1988, the Sweden Democrat ideology has fascist roots that, despite its current leaders’ best efforts to muffle them, tend to re-emerge on a regular basis, just like within other right-wing parties built on a fascist or Nazi past.
Sweden has a century-long history of indigenous fascist ideologues and politicians and since the 1960s has been a key point for the emergence of both white supremacist and far-right parliamentary movements in Europe.
Just recently, two members were excluded from the party for explicitly identifying with Nazism. One regional candidate had purchased items from the neo-Nazi extremist Nordic Resistance Movement; his Facebook account featured posts praising Hitler, calling Arabs rapists and pedophiles, as well as a photo calling Anne Frank "the coolest Jew in the shower room." The other had purchased white power music and racist stickers online.
These two candidates were among 11 party members linked to online purchases from stores that sell Nazi memorabilia and racist goods. Another recent report indicated that several Social Democrat candidates were "deeply rooted in the Nazi environment, including members of Nazi organizations, Nazi activists and those who actively spread propaganda."
The party has serially attempted to distance itself from fascism by marketing a moderate face and by loudly condemning neo-Nazism, the same strategy followed by various other European hard right parties.
Those members of the Sweden Democrats - among them former MPs – angry about the need for such "appeasement" broke away and set up their own party, the Alternative for Sweden (Alternativ för Sverige, AfS), a name obviously inspired by the far right Alternative for Germany, which became third-strongest party in the 2017 elections for the Bundestag.
The Alternative for Sweden boasts even more explicit far right policies, calling for the repatriation of immigrants. Its co-founder and chairman Gustav Kasselstrand warns, in language taken straight from white supremacists, of a "replacement of our people" and mobilizes against "political correctness."
For the Sweden Democrats, the Alternative for Sweden is both a benefit and a threat. The Sweden Democrats fully distance themselves from the AfS and describe it as a neo-Nazi movement, thus coming out in comparison as moderates. But the emergence of another party on the far right clearly creates more competition and may harm the Sweden Democrats’ ambition to become the second largest parliamentary party.
But while Sweden Democrat leader Jimmie Åkesson declares a "zero-tolerance" policy on racism, that doesn’t seem to have resulted in a particularly effective filtering of the party’s candidates with Nazi sympathies. And, just as importantly, there is one form of racism that the party embraces publicly and wholeheartedly: racism against Muslims.
That the Sweden Democrats appear moderate next to the blatantly supremacist AfS should not give the false impression of moderation. The Sweden Democrats are still extremely radical in their anti-Muslim rhetoric.
One party member has suggested that all Muslims in Sweden must become members of the Church of Sweden; another said that, "I hate all Muslims to the extent that I get sick when I see them," and a third declared that Muslims were the antithesis of being human.
The climate towards Muslims in Sweden is already becoming more hostile, with mosques being a particular target of vicious attacks. In 2017, mosques were attacked 39 times, a tenfold increase from the previous year. According to the Islamic Cooperation Council of Sweden, in 2015 seven out of 10 mosques were attacked.
As is typical for the hard right, the Sweden Democrats use the strategy of reversing the roles of victims and perpetrator. In 2010, the party’s general secretary stated: "Just like Nazism was overturned, so does Islam need to be overturned."
Following the European far right playbook
Europe’s much-evoked ‘refugee crisis’ - often parsed as a 'Muslim crisis' - undoubtedly secured Sweden’s far right extra popular support. But it does not fully explain its success.
The Sweden Democrats are following the playbook of its European brethren from France to Germany to Austria to Hungary, who have successfully combined anti-establishment politics with anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant politics.
Meanwhile, as in other countries, the long-established political parties are weakening. The strongest governing party for a decade, the Swedish Social Democrats, are losing support just as the conservative Moderates are as well. The angry, energetic Sweden Democrats have been leading the tone and direction of political discourse for some time now.
They call for a referendum on European Union membership, demand a freeze on immigration, including family reunification, and a crackdown on crime. Its party program accuses multiculturalism of "lead[ing] to fragmentation and segregation where the clash of cultures occur."
Another similarity with other far right European parties is the support they enjoy from armies of online trolls and bots, with some pointing the finger at Russian interference.
The Swedish defense research agency conducted a study of over 571,000 tweets sent between March and August this year. Their analysis paints a clear picture: Both the Sweden Democrats and the Alternative for Sweden received far more support from automated accounts than the other parties. The topics that the bots focus on are unsurprising, in terms of what we have already learnt about online interference in other elections: highly critical of immigration and refugees, the "elites" and the dishonest "mainstream media."
Despite not having yet identified the origin of the bots, in the recent past Sweden's Security Service (Säpo) identified Russia as a possible actor aiming to divide Swedish society on just these issues.
For now, Sweden’s open, liberal society allows Muslims and immigrants to take their place in society. The current government even launched a national anti-racism plan that, for the first time, acknowledged Islamophobia as a form of racism.
However, the continuous, aggressive rhetoric towards Muslims in political life is having an impact, pressuring the mainstream to adopt anti-immigrant policies and contaminating its language towards Muslims.
The Social Democrat Prime Minister Stefan Löfven gave up his creed of "my Europe builds no walls," and sealed Sweden’s borders. Other smaller parties on the center-right such as the Liberals and the Conservatives have started reproducing the Islamophobic discourse of the Sweden Democrats.
There is still a chance the Sweden Democrats will not become part of a governing coalition after September 9. But the precedent from European states such as Austria and Italy show that in the end, their patience will be rewarded; and what was once considered beyond the pale will become politically acceptable.
The Sweden Democrats’ outspoken anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant language has already influenced public discourse immensely. Longer term, it’s no longer quite so improbable that a party characterized by closeted neo-Nazi sympathizers and outright racists could even become the party of government in Sweden.
Farid Hafez is a Senior Research Scholar at Georgetown University's Bridge Initiative and Senior Scholar at Salzburg University in the Department of Political Science and Sociology. He is the editor of the Islamophobia Studies Yearbook and co-editor of the European Islamophobia Report. Twitter: @ferithafez