Sweden’s far right must be challenged

September 25, 2018

Jeff Skinner reports on national elections in which the far right won significant gains—and argues that the country’s left needs to offer a radical alternative.

EARLIER THIS month, Sweden became the latest European country to see a far-right party make major parliamentary gains. In the September 9 elections, the anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats won 62 seats — their greatest success since they first entered Sweden’s parliament (the Riksdag) in 2010.

Stopping these racists in elections and on the streets will be one of the key tasks for the country’s radical left in the coming years.

Among the mainstream parties, the result of the election was one of the closest of the modern era.

The ruling “Red-Green” coalition of the Social Democrats and Green Party, actively supported by the Left Party, won 144 seats in the Riksdag — just one more than the 143 for the center-right Alliance composed of the Moderates, Christian Democrats, Centre Party and Liberal People’s Party.

Neither coalition has enough seats to form a majority government on its own. The Swedish media is rife with speculation regarding which combination of parties from both coalitions is the most likely to govern the country for the next four years.

A demonstration of the far-right Sweden Democrats
A demonstration of the far-right Sweden Democrats

While none of the potential groupings could form a majority government, all the parties have so far been clear that they will not consider forming a government with the far right.

This will not, however, decrease the Sweden Democrats’ influence at the national level. If its representatives vote unanimously against the budget proposed by whatever governing coalition emerges, they could force a new election by the end of the year.

The “December compromise” of 2010, which allowed the minority Social Democratic budget to pass in return for compromises on several key issues, including immigration, may not be an option again. The Alliance seems determined to form a government by any means necessary, ncluding demands that the seats won by the Left Party not be included in the count for the Red-Green alliance.

A comparison of the 2018 results with those of 2014 shows that the two major parties in Swedish politics — the Social Democrats and the Moderates — fared worse this election, with the Social Democrats getting their lowest share of votes since 1908.

Meanwhile, the Sweden Democrats, which has roots in the fascist movement, had the largest gain of any party represented in the Riksdag.

It’s urgent to understand how the economic situation that has developed in Sweden over the last 30 to 40 years has provided an opening for a wide swath of the Swedish voting populace to vote for a party with openly xenophobic and racist ideas.

AS IN many parts of the world, the profitability of Sweden’s economy dropped sharply in the decades following the 1960s. The country was plagued by a credit bust, a major banking crisis and a severe collapse in the manufacturing industry.

Both the Social Democrats and the Moderates turned to neoliberal policies of free markets, lowering taxes on top incomes and corporate revenue, and slashing expenditures on numerous welfare programs.

As a result, real wages have declined for the majority of Swedes, inequalities in disposable income have increased markedly, and most of the services once provided by the Swedish state are now in the hands of private corporations (often subsidized by the government) — whose interests lie more in generating profit for their directors than in providing necessary social services with an acceptable level of quality.

Sweden’s standard of living, while still perhaps better than that in most European countries and the U.S., has declined across the board as a result of these spending cuts.

Jobs have become more precarious, with worse pay and fewer benefits, and the number of people in line for municipal housing — or what remains of it after most was sold off to property management companies — has more than quintupled since 2000.

Personal wealth, on the other hand, has steadily flowed upward to Sweden’s 1 percent, leaving the rest of the population dependent on an underfunded system that is increasingly incapable of providing for them outside of whatever wages they are able to earn.

Into this society of increasing inequality and a weakening social safety net have entered large number of immigrants and refugees fleeing the crises caused in major part by U.S. wars in the Middle East and the Syrian counterrevolution.

An estimated 600,000 people have immigrated to Sweden in the past five years — equivalent to about 6 percent of the population and the highest number of immigrants per capita of any European economy.

The Sweden Democrats have been able to step in as a party of dissatisfaction with “the establishment,” combining right-wing populism (having toned down the explicit racism of their earlier days) with a look backwards to a better time when Sweden’s welfare programs took care of its citizenry — which they portray, of course, as much whiter, with a certain set of “Swedish” values.

THE POLITICS of xenophobic reaction have made headway in the Swedish working class.

According to reports from Swedish National Television, support for the Sweden Democrats among members of the Swedish Trade Union Confederation (LO in Swedish) — a confederation of 14 unions largely in the manufacturing and construction trades — reached 24 percent in the election, while support for the Social Democrats was 41 percent, down 12 points from 2014.

The same report indicated similar levels of support for the Sweden Democrats among the unemployed and those receiving sickness benefits or activity compensation — benefits for young people unable to work full time owing to sickness or injury.

In other words, the far right is gaining among the sections of the native-born population that have suffered most from the cutbacks imposed by the ruling parties since the 1990s.

A striking example is the municipality of Bjuv, a small town in the south that saw the largest increase in support for the Sweden Democrats of anywhere in the country. Bjuv was the location of Findus, a frozen food company that was the main source of employment until the plant closed down last year, leaving 450 residents out of work.

Officially, 300 of them have found work since then, but as one former Findus employee noted:

There really aren’t that many who have permanent jobs, and nearly all of them have to commute. They’re in the same situation we are, with temp agencies and temporary jobs extended a month at a time. Everything feels uncertain, it’s hard not knowing whether you’ll have a job in a few weeks or if you’ll get vacation time this summer.

Votes in Bjuv for the Social Democrats fell 9 percent from the previous election, leaving them with 11 seats on the municipal council — the same number as the Sweden Democrats now have.

This palpable sense of crisis among the native-born working class in Sweden, and the dissatisfaction with the ruling parties that lie behind it, is fertile ground for any party that claims to represent a challenge to the status quo.

Without any sort of opposition, this can allow for the spread of other, far more dangerous ideas held by reactionary forces like the Sweden Democrats.

FORTUNATELY, THERE is an opposition in Sweden.

The Left Party was the only party to the left of center to make any sort of gain in the last election.

With roots in the revolutionary socialist movement of a century ago, it can represent a radical pole of attraction for these same workers now being drawn to the Sweden Democrats — if it chooses to take a path of opposition to the policies coming out of the Riksdag and promote its own vision and solutions for change, as some are now calling for it to do.

There is also popular opposition sprouting organically from organizations and activists on the ground in response not only to the Sweden Democrats, but the advances of openly fascist organizations such as the Nordic Resistance Movement (NMR in Swedish).

Earlier this month, a rally of 200 neo-Nazis from the NMR were forced to call off their march through downtown Stockholm and remain where they stood after some 1,000 anti-fascist activists staged counterdemonstrations at several points along the route.

In the municipality of Ludvika, considered the stronghold of the NMR, some 50 activists surrounded the fascists’ campaign tent on the day of the election, blocking them off until the activists were escorted away by police.

It should also be noted that the NMR stood in the municipal election for Ludvika, but received no mandates; the Communist Party of Sweden, on the other hand, gained a seat on the council.

The situation in Sweden is no doubt a sobering one, but it is not hopeless.

It would be a mistake to think that the Sweden Democrats will be placed in permanent quarantine in the Riksdag. The left in Sweden needs to work on building resistance, not only to the racism and xenophobia of the Sweden Democrats, but to the policies of austerity of the Social Democrats and the Alliance that laid the foundation for the far right.

The Left Party needs to become a parliamentary tribune for radical change from below, while the countless activists and grassroots groups committed to social and economic justice organize Swedish workers of all backgrounds to fight for that change.

Together, they have the potential to rise to the challenge of the very real dangers on the horizon.

Further Reading

From the archives