Sweden is commonly touted as one of the strongest democracies in the world; in Freedom House’s democratic assessment, they boast a 100 out of 100 score in a holistic assessment of democracy through the lens of political rights and civil liberties. The recent rise of a neo-Nazi party in Sweden’s Riksdag (or parliament), however, should certainly have people skeptical of their ability to maintain this perfect score. As political scientist and author Daniel Ziblatt noted in a virtual roundtable on the 2020 United States Election, “Radicalized conservatives are a ticking time bomb for democracy – totally destructive”. He makes this claim based on evidence that far-right parties have higher tendencies to endorse violence and reject the legitimacy of the opposition and media, which are all causes of democratic erosion.This nationalist, far-right party is known as the Sweden Democrats, which is a group that rose out of the Bevara Sverige Svenskt (“Keep Sweden Swedish”) movement of the 1980s. The Sweden Democrats party is rife with racism and crime; in 2018, one-fifth of the politicians had criminal records, and they have had to remove multiple politicians from the party for racist comments..
In Sweden’s 2018 election, the Sweden Democrats won 62 seats out of the parliament’s 349. Their success complicated the function of the usual coalitions – a left and right coalition, both of which are comprised of four parties. In this election, the center-left coalition managed 40.6% of the vote, while the center-right received 40.2%, leaving both coalitions without the coveted majority. To maintain his position, the incumbent progressive Prime Minister, Stefan Lofven, needs a majority not to vote against him. Therefore, the politics of majority control are incredibly important in the parliament. Despite the fact that the combination of right parties would have received a majority of votes in the most recent election, two center-right parties worked together with the center-left coalition to exclude the Sweden Democrats from having power in the nomination and election process. Throughout the 133 days spent working to negotiate the new coalition, Lofven refused to step down and encouraged his party, a center-left party known as the Social Democrats, to find a way to maintain leadership through compromise with center-right parties. The compromise did not come easily. In order to achieve the cooperation of the two center-right parties, the center-left coalition agreed to sacrifice influence from the farthest left member of their coalition and sign onto a 73-point agreement outlining conservative policy agenda points that they would pursue. For the time being, the robustness of their multi-party system allowed them to prevent infringement on the democratic order that Sweden has long prided itself on. That they had to manipulate the coalitions to do so, however, should be a worrying sign that the Sweden Democrats.
Notably, this election was the first since the 2015 refugee crisis in Europe, in which Sweden allowed more per capita migrants across their boarders than any other country. Additionally, Sweden offers permanent residency to all Syrians seeking refuge from the war. Given such a high number of refugees, the success of the Sweden Democrats party should come as no surprise. The Sweden Democrats are the only party that opposes the country’s liberal immigration policies. The phenomenon of rising popularity of a far-right party in a post-refugee crisis era is quite common. In political scientists Robert Ford and Will Jennings’ paper “The Changing Cleavage Politics of Western Europe”, they argue that “The radical right has capitalized on the threat [uneducated white Swedes] perceive from the rise of immigration and ethnic diversity, and the alienation produced by their demographic decline and political marginalization, to mobilize them into the basis of a new, identity- and values-driven alignment”. They go on to claim that immigration has been one of the primary political cleavages among Western European parties. As portrayed with the phrase “Keep Sweden Swedish,” success of the Sweden Democrats is clearly, at least in part, a result of this cleavage on the topic of immigration. Ultimately, however, their platform has radicalized on more fronts than immigration, many of which comport with the signs of democratic erosion that Ziblatt warns of.
For the time being, Swedish democratic institutions have proven themselves to be strong in working against a far-right party posing the threat of democratic erosion. The functioning of these institutions, however, should not inspire complacency. The Sweden Democrats were not able to enter parliament until 2010, and only eight years later have managed to become the country’s third largest party. In comparison, the Social Democrats have held power over government since 1920. The trend in Swedish government is not dissimilar from other European governments. For example, in political scientist Hannah Alarian’s analysis of anti-immigrant sentiment and support for far-right parties in Germany, she found that the election of far-right politicians to parliament legitimized citizens’ anti-immigration ideals, creating a positive-feedback loop of support for these parties. She found that this occurred even despite formal exclusion from government, just as the Sweden Democrats were excluded. Given her research, we certainly have reason to fear that the Sweden Democrats are not just an unfortunate anomaly, but a glaring warning of a far-right movement that will continue to sweep the nation. As their support continues to rise, how long will it take before the traditional coalitions decide they need the support of the Sweden Democrats? It appears that the dam could be fragile. In reporter Uri Friedman’s interview with Ziblatt, Ziblatt notes that, across the map, the health of the center-right parties and their ability to resist the pull of the far-right works as the “hinge of history.” If far-right parties act as the inception of democratic erosion that Ziblatt claims they do, Swedes most certainly have reason to fear for the health and endurance of their democratic institutions. Perhaps the moment has come to reconsider the narrative of Sweden as the democratic powerhouse that the rest of the world holds it up to be.
 Ziblatt, Daniel remarks during “Virtual Roundtable on the 2020 US Election” Watson Institute Brown University. November 13, 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZAWL6jxA834.
 Henley, Jon. “Sweden election: far right makes gains as main blocs deadlocked,” The Guardian, September 10, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/sep/09/swedish-election-far-right-on-course-for-sizeable-gains-in-vote.
 Anderson, Christina, “Sweden Forms a Government After 133 Days, but It’s a Shaky One,” The New York Times, January 18, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/18/world/europe/sweden-government.html.
 Bevanger, Lars, “Sweden election: Social Democrats rule out far-right pact,” BBC News, September 15, 2014, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-29195683.
 Ford, Robert and Will Jennings, “The Changing Cleavage Politics of Western Europe,” Annual Review of Political Science, Vol. 23: 295-314 (2020), https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-polisci-052217-104957.
 Bevanger, “Sweden election: Social Democrats rule out far-right pact”.
 Alarian, Hannah M., “Cause or Consequence?: The Alternative for Germany and Attitudes toward Migration Policy,” German Politics and Society, Vol. 38, Issue 2: 59-89 (2017), https://doi.org/10.3167/gps.2020.380203
It is very interesting to see that a country ranked so highly on the democratic scale faces such an existential problem. It is also interesting to see that the situation in Sweden is contrary to some literature that suggests a robust welfare state decreases immigration hostilities, given the success of the Sweden Democrats.
I think another reason for the rise of the far right is the prominence of social media culture. Many times the legitimization you talk about when far right figures are elected can be mirrored on social media. When a radical right winger has hundreds of thousands of followers on a social media platform, it tends to legitimize their ideas, and bring followers to their platform. In this way I can only imagine that this spread of the far right will get worse.
Additionally, with the spread of global news, I fear that Swedish far right parties do not even have to get elected for far right ideas to be legitimized. If neighboring European countries elect populist right wing parties into their government, it would only make sense that it would be seen as legitimizing those ideas throughout Europe.
Lauren, this is a great article on the extreme threat to democracy that far right radicalization poses, and I enjoyed reading it. While reading your article, I couldn’t help but draw numerous similarities to Iceland, who had many protests in 2019 against nazism after the neo-nazi group, Nordic Resistance Movement, made prominent demonstrations in Iceland’s capital.
In the past, Iceland’s government has been controlled by majority far right parties as well, and their government as fallen into numerous scandals, as well as rising issue of hate crimes. Much like Sweden, Iceland also has an incredibly high score (97) in Freedom House, but clearly for these Nordic countries, much more controversy lies under the surface. Iceland has become especially susceptible to these sorts of extremest groups because Iceland has no laws against hate speech or even hate crimes. The fact that there are no laws against these groups legitimizes them, and makes them feel as though they have actually political standing.
Much like Sweden, Iceland should fear for their democracy too if these far-right groups continue to gain political standing. This can be seen in the US as well, where most “terrorist” attacks are actually carried out by far-right groups. Not only have they become violent in the United States, but President Trump has legitimized these far-right groups and given them a place in the U.S. where they are not being prosecuted for their hate crimes.
All in all, I very much agree with you that the far-right poses an extreme threat in not only Sweden, but in many countries all over the world. It is very scary to think that such a threat to democracy lives among us, and has very legitimate standing in many countries.
I really enjoyed reading your work! Great job!!