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Rise of the right in Europe The Sweden Democrats: from Nazism to government

ANDERS CARLSSON on how the Sweden Democrats, with their roots in open Nazism, rose to become the second-biggest party in one of Natoʼs newest European member states

In Britain we may have election fever but Europe is going to the polls too — with the far right predicted to do well across the continent in elections to the European Parliament from June 6-9.

With our sister papers Junge Welt of Germany and Arbejderen of Denmark, we compiled a series of articles looking at the nature of the far-right threat across different European countries, of which this is the second. We would like to thank Junge Welt for organising the series and translation.

THE nationalist, xenophobic far right in Sweden is primarily represented by Sverigedemokraterna (Sweden Democrats, SD). The SD rose to the position as the second-largest party in Sweden in the 2022 general election, collecting 20.5 per cent of the vote. On the extreme right, there is also the breakaway group Alternativ for Sverige (Alternative for Sweden, AfS), formed in 2017 former members of the SD. AfS managed to get only 0.26 per cent of the votes in the 2022 election.
 
In contrast to the majority of the right-wing populist and xenophobic parties in Europe, the Sweden Democrats have their roots in open Nazism. Several well-known fascists were among the initiators when the party was formed in 1988. The party’s first chairman Anders Klarstrom had his roots in Nordiska Rikspartiet (NRP), a party openly embracing the Nazi ideology. Some of the initiators of the SD had their political background in the uniformed skinhead movement Bevara Sverige Svenskt (Keep Sweden Swedish).
 
In the mid-1990s, SD began a process of distancing itself from its fascist heritage. However, this had only somewhat mixed success. Members who publicly express Nazi sympathies will usually get thrown out. But in the deep base of the party, the Nazi sympathies are common, often shown by party members’ interactions on social media.

Officially, SD today defines itself as a “social-conservative party on a nationalist foundation.” This is a smokescreen: what really characterises the party is right-wing populist xenophobia with strong elements of racism and Islamophobia.
 
The very essence of SD’s policy is the belief that the mass immigration of people from primarily Muslim countries has degenerated Sweden and the Swedish nation. Sweden, the party argues, can only be reborn through the repatriation of foreign elements.

In this struggle, it’s all about “victory or death,” as stated by SD’s chief ideologist Mattias Karlsson in a Facebook post some years ago. A message clearly showing that SD members’ Nazi sympathies are still lurking in the shadows.
 
The rise of the SD started slow in the 1990s. SD received 0.37 per cent of the vote in the general election in 1998. Four years later the election total jumped to 1.4 per cent and 49 seats in municipal parliaments around Sweden. SD electoral support took a sharp upward turn in 2006 with 2.9 per cent of the vote, and with 5.7 per cent and entry into the national parliament in 2010.
 
Alongside immigration, always the top item on the SD agenda, two factors can be identified behind the rise. Firstly, the neoliberal system’s shift. From the end of the 1980s and the decades after, Sweden underwent neoliberal shock therapy, facilitated by EU membership in 1995, and driven by Swedish monopoly capital and its political representatives.

The shift bore with it dramatically increased class inequality, cutbacks and privatisations in the public sector, reduced pensions and increased retirement ages. The system shift was carried out by Social Democratic governments as well as by governments representing the bourgeoisie.

Said shift had no democratic support, in turn creating a trust gap between the political establishment and broad sections of the population. In this gap, SD has acted as a representative for an “it was better in the old days movement,” thus attracting broad groups of former Social Democratic voters.
 
Secondly, EU membership: Sweden became a member of the EU in January of 1995. Membership was preceded by a referendum in the autumn of 1994, where the Yes side was represented by the political establishment and business organisations, while the No side was built by a broad and diverse popular left. In this vote, Yes won a narrow victory.

Since Sweden became a member of the EU, the Vansterpartiet (the Left Party) and Miljopartiet (Green Party), both represented in the Swedish parlament, have successively abandoned their opposition to the EU. This betrayal has given SD the opportunity to appear as an opponent of the EU, now with criticism of immigration and xenophobia as the main issues.
 
The SD of today has a cross-class electoral base. One third consists of workers, one third of the petty bourgeoisie (farmers, entrepreneurs) and one third of the upper class. Surveys from recent years show that this working class electorate is overwhelmingly male, is socially conservative in cultural matters and right-wing in socio-economic matters.

The protest voters have become fewer: nowadays, workers vote for SD because they share the party’s conservative values. Since entering the parliament in 2010, SD has strived to be accepted as a partner within what is called “the conservative bloc.” That ambition was crowned with success before and after the 2022 election, when SD was warmly embraced by the conservative bloc, consisting of traditional right-wing Moderates, Christian Democrats and the Liberal Party.
 
SD is officially not a part of the right-wing government that took office after the election — but it is the largest party in the government coalition formalised by an agreement.

It gives SD the opportunity to dictate government policy, such as in terms of immigration and policies regarding rising crime; gang crime is a big issue in Sweden today. On this issue not only the right-wing parties but also the Social Democrats have copied SD’s policy, which results in repression across the board. SD has managed to push the entire political field to the right.
 
However, the adaptation is not one-sided. In order to be accepted as a co-operation partner, SD has been forced to abandon their opposition to the EU and demand for a “Swexit,” which is not acceptable in political and economic circles in Sweden. SD has to be content with presenting itself as a critic of the EU.
 
After pressure from the capitalist organisation Confederation of Swedish Enterprise, the SD have also abandoned their opposition to profit extraction in the privatised welfare sector, which at least temporarily stopped the voter flight from the Social Democrats to SD.
 
From having been a party on the outside of the political field in Sweden, SD is today embedded in the established, government-forming right. Embedding poses a danger to populist parties like SD, so by organising troll factories SD tries to maintain its outsider status via anonymous accounts on the internet. Whether that balancing act succeeds remains to be seen.
 
SD’s success story is a result of social democracy’s retreat from all forms of left-wing politics. But also rests on the absence of broad popular opposition to right-wing politics. To stop the extreme right, class struggle and proletarian internationalism are required.

Anders Carlsson is former chairman of the Communist Party in Sweden (Kommunistiska Partiet) and currently a member of its central committee. This article appeared in Proletaren.

You can read part 1 of this series on the European far right, on Italy, here.

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