The Rise and Risks of the Sweden Demokrats

It has been a tumultuous end to 2014 and an equally shaky beginning of 2015 for Swedish politics. In brief, the general election in September was a disappointment to anyone who did not vote for the xenophobic Sweden Demokrats (SD). The right-liberal coalition government (the Alliance) lost after eight years in power. Although the Social Democrats won the election, their partnership with the Green Party only adds up to just under 40 per cent of the vote, resulting in a very weak minority government. With the SD now the third largest party, Sweden finds itself in a difficult parliamentary situation. As a result, political commentators argue that the other major parties must change their tactics and ‘talk about it’. However, this kind of speech is highly problematic and only serves to justify the rhetoric of the SD, ultimately contributing to an increasingly xenophobic national debate in Sweden.

Image Courtesy of News Oresund © 2013, some rights reserved
Image Courtesy of News Oresund © 2013, some rights reserved

Whilst the Swedish self-image as a ‘moral superpower; does not sit well with historical records of the states‘ involvement in international affairs, Sweden has a track record of pursuing a considerably more liberal immigration policy than its EU and Scandinavian neighbours. For instance, in 2013, the Swedish migration board decided to grant all Syrian refugees permanent residency. Moreover, Sweden granted a total of 24015 asylum applications in 2013. This can be compared to Norway, which in the same year granted 5770 asylum applications.

Despite a track record of a relatively liberal migration politics, it is false to assume that Sweden has not seen an increasingly hostile debate around issues of migration. Indeed, Sweden now has its own xenophobic and populist party – the SD – a party that sprang from the national neo-Nazi movement and whose history is full of racist, anti-Semitic and Islamophobic rhetoric. Since the SD was first voted into parliament in 2010, the issue of migration has become increasingly high profile. Whilst the initial reaction by established parties was to deal with the SD by critiquing its racist and xenophobic approach to migration, an increasing number of political voices have begun to shift their opinions closer to SD rhetoric, which they argue – whilst being problematic – indicated a need for other parties to ‘talk about the problems caused by migration’. Telling of the increasingly migration-hostile discourse emerging post-2010 was the political debate ‘How many migrants can Sweden handle’, which was broadcasted on Swedish national television in 2012.

In addition to this increasingly xenophobic national debate about migration, Sweden now faces a difficult parliamentary situation where the SD was able to fail the first budget proposed by the new Green-Social Democratic government in December of last year. The result was the December Agreement (DA). Put simply, the DA is a democratically dubious consensus between the government and the Alliance where each coalition has promised to change voting praxis in order to let budgets proposed by the weak minority governments pass so as to keep the SD from influencing the budget drafting process. Whilst the effects of increased SD influence in Swedish politics have been temporarily avoided by the DA, some members of the Swedish public have argued that Swedish politicians have to take the concerns of SD constituents seriously and ‘talk about the problems with migration’.

Although it might seem like a good tactic to appeal to the voters of SD in order to halt the party’s growth, looking across the border to our Scandinavian neighbour Norway teaches us a valuable lesson. No good can come from accommodating the principles or political policies to xenophobic parties. Rather than halting the growth of the SD, it will only help to legitimise its rhetoric, make xenophobic and islamophobic sentiments seem mainstream and ultimately aid the growth of the SD.

In Norway the populist and xenophobic Fremskrittspartiet first entered parliament in 1989. After the election in 1989, the other established political parties in Norway sought to prevent further growth of Fremskrittspartiet by utilising some of its rhetoric and implementing more restrictive immigration policies. As a result, Norway has witnessed an increasingly hostile migration debate as well as harsher regulation towards asylum seekers since 1990. Whilst Fremskrittspartiet’s second party leader Carl I. Hagen’s often extreme and unpredictable political approach long prevented collaboration between Fremskrittspartiet and other political parties, the change of party leader in 2006 to Siv Jensen opened up the door for collaboration with the moderate party Höyres. Indeed, Fremskrittspartiet now sits in a ruling coalition together with Höyres since the 2013 election. Even though many argue that Fremskrittspartiet has changed much since 1989, one cannot ignore how the Norwegian political climate has become increasingly hostile towards migrants. For instance, one of Fremskrittspartiet main promises during the election campaign in 2013 was to make asylum legislation more restrictive. Further, several prominent politicians within the party continue to argue that migrants pose a substantial threat to Norwegian culture and Siv Jensen herself has become famous for arguing that there is an ongoing secret Islamisation in Norway.

As the influence of the SD continues to grow, an increasing amount of people argue that other Swedish political parties must begin to take the voters of SD seriously and start ‘talking about the problems with Swedish migration politics’. Although this might seems as good advice, the lesson from Norway clearly shows that such responses will legitimise xenophobic rhetoric and aid the further growth of such parties. Whilst there is much that can be done in order to make Swedish integration politics work better, it is naïve to think that accepting Islamophobic and migration-hostile policies will do anything else but legitimize them, take a xenophobic debate mainstream, increasing the support for such parties in the future.

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