“At the airport there’s a yellow line by the baggage carousel and you mustn’t cross it. And no one does. Baggage distribution is a nice orderly process. And that’s the way conversations are organised in this country as well. There’s a yellow line you mustn’t cross. Everyone’s polite, everyone’s well mannered, everyone says what they’re supposed to say. It’s all about avoiding offence.”
“It comes as a shock to read newspaper debates in Norway. What heated discussions they have! That’s inconceivable here.”
“In Sweden they all think the Swedish way is the only one. Any deviations from the Swedish way they regard as flaws and deficiencies. The thought of it is enough to drive you insane.”
– A Man In Love, Karl Ove Knausgård
Fêted on both sides of the Atlantic for overseeing the fastest economic recovery in the Western world, thanks in no small part to the ear-ringed and formerly pony-tailed Anders Borg – hailed by those in the know as the best finance minister on the planet, the ruling centre-right Moderate party have been unceremoniously kicked out of power after eight years by an electorate fed up with a perceived decline in welfare and public services, particularly schools and housing.
The problem is, the Swedish people have failed to throw their electoral weight behind any one alternative. As I write, the Social Democrat leader Stefan Lofven is in the final stages of building a minority government with the Green Party. The centre-left Social Democrats received 30.7% of the vote, an increase of 0.3% on the general election of 2010. The Green Party polled 6.9%, down 0.4% from 2010.
Where did the votes go?
Enter the Sweden Democrats, led by Jimmie Åkesson.
Founded in 1988, the Sweden Democrats (SD) describe themselves as a socially conservative party with a nationalist foundation. They were formed as a successor party to the Sweden Party, formed in 1986 after a merger of the racist organization Bevara Sverige Svenskt (Keep Sweden Swedish) and a faction of the xenophobic and populist Progress Party. The Sweden Party was part of the white supremacy movement, and the party’s first chairman, Anders Klarström, was formerly active in the Nazi Nordiska rikspartiet (Nordic Reich Party).
In line with other far-right movements in Europe at the time, the SD made negligible electoral progress during the next 20 years, barely an afterthought on the Swedish political scene. In 2005, the 26-year-old Åkesson assumed leadership of the party, they donned ties and made respectability their aim. This has not always been easy in the years since, with scandal never far away from the party as Åkesson has fought to uphold his ‘zero tolerance’ stance on the party, weeding out members guilty of racist or xenophobic outbursts, and other inappropriate behaviour.
For non-Swedes, the SD are to the right of UKIP but not openly racist in the manner of the BNP.
Their breakthrough came in the general election of 2010, when they won 5.7% of the vote, entering parliament for the first time as the sixth largest party with 20 seats in the riksdag. The seven ‘established’ parties spent most of the post-election debate guaranteeing that they wouldn’t in any way co-operate with the SD. The leader of the Left party, Lars Ohly refused to have his make-up done at the same time as Åkesson. Reported to have said he cried tears of sadness when learning of the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, Ohly’s two children both go to private school.
The Swedish writer Henning Mankell, a socialist, said at the time: “That was silly. Every time anyone from the SD is shunned like that it can have little effect except to make more people sympathise with them. It is the unemployed, the ill, those who feel themselves marginalised and cast out, who turn in their powerlessness against the established parties and vote for those who reach out to them. The SD becomes the only decency they find in a political landscape where everything else is hypocritical and forsworn. The SD listens to them. In the SD’s programme they find their own thoughts, their own anger, their own fears.”
Anyway, four years passed during which nobody, whether those in parliament or the media, seriously took the argument to the SD. The 340,000 people who voted SD were racists to be vilified. As to why a fringe group of far-right nationalists suddenly had 20 seats in parliament (one more than the Left party under Ohly), well, why bother about that, a racist is a racist and if we shout loudly enough they’ll go away.
Unsurprisingly, the SD were the big (some say only) winners during the general election of September 2014. Even during the weeks leading up to the election, with the SD neck-and-neck with the Green Party in the fight for third-place, the thought that maybe, just maybe it might be worth discussing some of the issues which maybe, just maybe the SD were using to win votes from the other parties – immigration, high taxation of the elderly, lack of faith in the justice system, Sweden’s relationship with the EU – didn’t seem to occur to the media, particularly the newspapers (of whom Dagens Nyheter and Svenska Dagbladet only lifted a ban on SD advertising in 2006, a ban heavily criticised by free speech organizations. Expressen still retains a ban on SD advertising).
Meanwhile, the Green Party talked about closing down Bromma airport, Sweden’s third-largest and most important for business travel. Allegedly, some in the party think Sweden has no need of any airport south of Sundsvall. Anything to avoid talking about the real issues.
Aftonbladet in particular just got more and more ridiculous the closer it got to election day. A comic for social democrats and the non-thinking, Aftonbladet’s editorials and comments section seemed to stray further and further away from the point at hand, and the cries of ‘racism’ became even more shrill as it became clear that the SD were going to make waves at the election.
The contest over the third party wasn’t even close. The SD more than doubled their 2010 election result, taking 13% of the vote. Over 800,000 Swedes (of a population of 9 million) voted SD, giving the party 49 seats in the riksdag to the Greens’ 25. Stefan Lofven has to get a budget through parliament in November. The SD are now big enough and powerful enough to vote it down.
Aftonbladet, unserious as ever, reacted the morning after with the laughable headline: ‘Vi är 87 procent’ (‘We are the 87 per cent’). A bit like the ‘We are the 45 per cent’ campaign after the Scottish independence referendum which, other than reminding everybody that they lost the argument, I never quite got the point of.
The reaction across the rest of liberal Sweden was equally hilarious, yet slightly sinister and unsettling at the same time. “Who are these 800,000 people?” they screamed on Facebook from the comfort of their suburban villas, the newly-washed Volvo estate car (room for three kids) in the driveway. “I feel ill” said others. Still missing the point entirely.
Yes, some of the people who vote SD are racists. This will always be the case. But in my opinion the 13 per cent who did vote for them deserve better than to be further ostracised when the reason they are rejecting the established parties in the first place is that they feel nobody is listening to, let alone addressing, their everyday concerns. Ignore people for long enough and eventually they will start to get pissed off. Sweden does not have 800,000 racists, the notion simply isn’t serious.
What concerned me the most, and provoked me to write this article, was the issue of the 2nd vice-speaker position in the riksdag. Traditionally, this post is filled by a member of the third-largest party in parliament. As the democratically elected third-largest party, the SD nominated their party secretary Björn Söder. Söder recently assumed office but not before two weeks of hand-wringing and teeth-gnashing as the liberal elite, both in parliament and the media, grappled with how to reconcile a hugely undemocratic move – blocking Söder from the position – with their self-vaunted democratic ideals.
To be fair, a handful of senior politicians from the established parties have spoken out in the aftermath of the election about the need to finally take on the SD in debate, having woken up to the fact that unless they do, they’ll be waking up to a 20% SD vote in 2018.
The “fingers in ears, not listening” method doesn’t ever tend to work in politics. Worse, it takes the ordinary men and women on the street for mugs. The word ‘fascist’ is thrown about like confetti when it comes to the SD. Maybe they are, but the tone in the likes of Aftonbladet (vote for Party A: acceptable human being, vote for Party B: unacceptable human being) and in parliament, where the established parties maintain their stance of not co-operating with the SD (I don’t agree with you so I’m not working with you) goes against the most basic fundamentals of democracy and is almost by definition, fascist.
Real issues which affect ordinary working people with families on a daily basis are pushed into the background while the chattering classes fall over each other to see who can shout ‘Look at me, I’m not a racist!’ the loudest. I’m not racist, but then as someone aspiring to be a decent human being, that is a default position which I have absolutely no need to declare. Neither do I vote SD. I remain sceptical of the success of Åkesson’s ‘zero-tolerance’ drive, and am uncomfortable lending my support to any party with a racist element.
But to totally dismiss 800,000 voices as of unequal worth is as troubling as it is ironic in a country desperate to be the most open and liberal of them all.