The nationalistic and anti-immigration Sweden Democrats Party has made the international news as it recently drove the Swedish centre-left minority government of Sweden to call for early parliamentary elections in March 2015.
The quick growth in support for the Sweden Democrats, which made this show of force possible, is perhaps not surprising considering developments in many other European countries. But what perhaps is surprising is that the continued success of such a party in Sweden did not come earlier.
The Sweden Democrats Party was founded in the mid-1980s by a mix of neo-Nazi, neo-fascist, racist and ultra nationalistic groups. For a couple of decades, the party lived in the political shadows and scored a few tenths of a percentage point in the general elections. But in 2010 the party, after polishing its act for a considerable time, entered parliament with six percent of the vote. Four years later, the party more than doubled its support to 13 percent.
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The battle over immigration
Parties with similar agendas also exist in other Nordic countries. In Denmark and Norway, they have a history going back to the 1970s.
However, both the Progress Party of Norway – now part of the government – and the Danish People’s Party have profiled themselves mainly as populist anti-establishment parties rather than as xenophobic.
The same goes for the Finns Party in Finland, which entered parliament in 2011 with 19 percent of the vote.
Although these parties on paper have related manifestos, the Sweden Democrats’ extremist roots, as well as its single-track obsession with migration policy, makes it different. A sign of this is the unwillingness of the other Nordic parties mentioned to establish ties with the Sweden Democrats.
The main reason why the Sweden Democrats stand out in this context is probably due to the strong consensus behind the country’s policy on immigration by the other Swedish political parties and the fact that Sweden has a long tradition of viewing immigration favourably.
The former minority centre-right government concluded a major deal with the opposition Green Party on immigration in 2011. The new centre-left government has upheld the deal. As a result of the consensus, none of the parties have even tried to align with its immigration policy or its message to please the supporters, or prospective supporters, of the Sweden Democrats – quite the contrary.
It can be claimed that the 2011 deal made Sweden’s policy on immigration the least restrictive in Europe, if not the world. One important change was making it much easier for non-European citizens to get a residence permit for taking up work in Sweden. Compared to its size, Sweden is also the largest receiver of asylum seekers within the European Union.
As part of the parliamentary election campaign earlier this year, then prime minister and leader of the conservative Moderate Party, Fredrik Reinfeldt, even urged Swedes to “open their hearts” and to “show tolerance” to the increasing number of refugees seeking safety in the country.
In doing this, Reinfeldt was undoubtedly acting differently than many other European mainstream politicians who have strained to accommodate critics of more or less generous immigration policies.
Of course, some commentators believe that the growth of the Sweden Democrats would be quelled if one or more of the other parties played along and broke the consensus. But the experience from other countries doesn’t show that to be a reliable strategy. Often it backfires and just strengthens the xenophobes.
The more likely outlook for Sweden is that the conflict between the strong majority consensus and the disgruntled minority will become fiercer. The balance between the two might also shift somewhat. Few Swedes would be surprised if the Sweden Democrats do even better in the upcoming early elections, perhaps taking as much as one-fifth of the vote.
In the end, however, the overwhelming majority in the new parliament will make sure that the influence of the Sweden Democrats is minimised and that Sweden’s present immigration policy is maintained.
Mattias Bengtsson is an independent policy analyst based in Stockholm. He is the former president of the Swedish think tank Timbro and former deputy political editor of the daily newspaper Svenska Dagbladet.