The results from yesterday’s general election in Sweden are in – and continuing the narrative of European elections over the past five years, the results are bad news for the left. The centre-left Social Democrats lost 17 seats in the parliament – just the latest blow for a party that until recently had dominated Swedish politics.
But the ruling centre-right coalition, who will hold on to power, weren’t exactly jumping out of their seats last night in celebration. Only Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt's party managed to gain seats, while his three coalition partners all lost seats. This left the coalition just short of a majority, and they will have to ally with the Swedish Greens in order to put them over the threshold. So if everyone seemed to lose seats, where did the votes go? They went to the far-right Sweden Democrats (SD), who will now enter the parliament for the first time after winning 20 seats in yesterday’s election. It's a stunning development for a historically left-of-centre country like Sweden.
The Sweden Democrats are not a new party, they’ve been around for over 20 years. But they have only recently started to enjoy any electoral success. The party has its origins in the anti-immigrant “Keep Sweden Swedish” movement of the 1980’s. For years it was a fringe group known for violence at its rallies, where extreme racist and xenophobic views would be aired. But starting about ten years ago the party leadership decided to rebrand the group. That effort was stepped up dramatically by the SD’s current leader Per Jimmie Åkesson (who, incidentally, is my age). Åkesson has worked hard to oust the most extremist members from the party and to scrub the party’s literature of overtly racist slogans or ideas. His goal was to make the nationalist party more respectable, to make it more electable. Yesterday’s election showed that the strategy worked.
The SD have sought to model themselves on the other “Euronationalist” parties in other European countries, most notably the National Front in France. By purging the party of its most outspoken or unhinged leaders and minimising overt references to race or violence, the National Front has been able to find a place in mainstream French politics over the past decade. In 2002 the party’s leader Jean-Marie Le Pen famously became the challenger to sitting President Jacque Chiraque. The party then saw an explosion of popularity, and was the third-largest party in the country from 2002 to 2006.
This pattern of political success for far-right parties who in previous decades were unpalatable to the general population has been an increasing pattern throughout Europe. Last year in the UK Nick Griffin’s British National Party, which has had a similar history to the SD, scored its first national electoral victory by picking up two seats in the European Parliament. This year in Holland Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom won 24 seats in the Dutch parliament – making it the third largest party.
In all of these Western European examples the story has been the same. A far-right movement that was previously unelectable rebrands or renames itself and starts seeing electoral success. Take a look at the Sweden Democrats web page, and now look at the one for the British National Party. They’re almost identical on subtance: Images of happy smiling white families, pristine scenes of unspoilt nature, appeals to patriotism and service to one’s country, and a sense of ‘fighting back’ against elitist and out-of-touch governing politicians. But neither contains any overtly racist imagery or, really, any details at all about what their policy positions are.
The SD’s Åkesson has pursued the same strategy of rebranding as Nick Griffin. This strategy was on full display when Griffin appeared on the BBC programme Question Time last year. The fact that the BBC invited him to participate kicked off a huge uproar, and people tuned in to find a hate-spewing fanatic. Instead they found a man who seemed to be at pains to stress how moderate he is. He loves immigrants, he said, he just thinks they don’t belong in Britain and should all be kicked out. He’s not homophobic, but gay people gross him out. In fact to hear him tell it there was little that separated him from the political platforms of Britain’s centre-right.
Of course what he failed to mention was the fact that the BNP is actually just a reincarnation of the white supremacist UK National Front, which was violently active in the 1970’s and 80’s. But Griffin was keen not to mention this, or really anything about his previous days being arrested for inciting racial hatred or leading rallies with skinheads. It was as if his life had begun anew in the year 2000 and anything that took place before then was a mystery to him. If someone had just tuned into Question Time not knowing anything about Griffin, they would have been led to believe he is just a conservative man who’s concerned about immigration.
It’s no secret that during times of economic hardship people tend to gravitate toward the far right. Europe saw a similar pattern take palce in the 1970’s. But what does seem to be different about these recent incarnations is that they are pursuing a careful and deliberate strategy of softening their image in order to gain mainstream acceptability. Back in the 1970’s, a far-right group was just that – and it didn’t pretend to be anything else. But the 2000’s have seen the emergence of the ‘stealth far right’.
Perhaps this is just a fluke and people will fall away from these groups if they are unable to offer anything but general platitudes about patriotism and family. Inevitably they are going to have a problem - their actual policy ideas can’t be clearly expressed without alienating voters, but without those ideas these groups dont actually stand for anything. Still, they are definitely a force to watch. If the far right can succeed in a country as left-of-centre as Sweden, this could be only the beginning of a pan-European resurgence for the far right.