Sweden Democrats: Neo-Nazis rebrand and push the whole country to the right
Leader of the Sweden Democrats Jimmie Akesson gives a speech during the party's election watch in Nacka, near Stockholm, Sweden, on Sept. 11, 2022. | Stefan Jerrevång / TT News Agency via AP

Voters across Europe head to the polls June 6 to 9 for elections to the European Parliament. In countries around the continent, the parties of the far right are expected to make major gains.

This article is the second in a series, “Rise of the Right in Europe.” It is a collaborative project of three newspapers, Junge Welt in Germany, Arbejderen in Denmark, and Morning Star in Britain. Each installment in the series will examine the far-right threat in a different country.

In this article, Swedish Communist leader Anders Carlsson discusses how the Sweden Democrats rose from a fringe neo-Nazi group to become the second-biggest political party in one of NATO’s newest member states. It originally appeared in Proletaren magazine.

Read other installments in the series: Rise of the Right in Europe.

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% 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% 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 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 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 characterizes 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 chief ideologist Mattias Karlsson in a Facebook post some years ago. It’s a message clearly showing that SD members’ Nazi sympathies are still lurking in the shadows.

The rise of the SD started slowly in the 1990s. The party received 0.37% of the vote in the general election in 1998. Four years later, its total jumped to 1.4%, and it won 49 seats in municipal parliaments around Sweden. SD electoral support took a sharp upward turn in 2006, with 2.9% of the vote. Its 5.7% total in 2010 finally gained the party entry into the national parliament.

Alongside immigration, always the top item on the SD agenda, two other factors can be identified to help explain its rise. First is the neoliberal system’s shift. From the end of the 1980s onward, Sweden underwent neoliberal shock therapy, facilitated by EU membership in 1995, and driven by Swedish monopoly capital and its political representatives.

The shift brought with it dramatically increased class inequality, cutbacks and privatizations 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.

This economic turn to the right 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.

Second is EU membership. Membership was preceded by a referendum in the autumn of 1994, where the Yes side was represented by the political establishment and business organizations, 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 (Left Party) and Miljopartiet (Green Party), both represented in the Swedish parliament, have successively abandoned their opposition to the EU. This betrayal has given SD the opportunity to appear as an opponent of the EU, combined with criticism of immigration and xenophobia as its main issues.

The SD of today has a cross-class electoral base. Roughly 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 the party’s working-class electorate is overwhelmingly male, 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 formalized by an agreement. That position 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 thus managed to push the entire political field to the right.

However, the adaptation is not one-sided. In order to be accepted as a cooperation partner, SD has been forced to abandon its 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 organization Confederation of Swedish Enterprise, the SD have also abandoned their opposition to profit extraction in the privatized 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 organizing 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 it 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.

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Anders Carlsson
Anders Carlsson

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