The far-right Sweden Democrats seized on social tensions caused by welfare cuts – that's why they'll win big in the Swedish election

A recent study by Swedish researchers suggests the party’s success ahead of the election stems from fallout from the global financial crisis in 2008

Right-wing group protests in Sweden

Sweden is famous the world over for its pioneering work on gay rights, the environment, peace building, gender equality and humanitarian work. The far-right Sweden Democrats (SD) party, on the other hand, represent the polar opposite. Sceptical about climate change, pushing traditional gender roles and with a vision of zero immigration or refugees, it looks set to be kingmaker after this Sunday’s Swedish election.

Ulf Kristersson, the likely prime minister in waiting from the conservative Moderate Party, is in a weak position. With his party risking eclipse by SD, he will likely end up being a fig leaf for the far-right upstarts, reliant on their support to keep him in power due to his own ideological dislike of the Social Democrats.

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The politically vulnerable Kristersson has tried to cast himself as a maverick in the campaign who can grab Sweden by the scruff of the neck and sort out its problems, but this has failed to stop his party haemorrhaging votes to SD, which is expected to take home about 18 per cent of the vote. Behind his photoshopped election posters though, there are precious few concrete proposals to solve Sweden’s longstanding problems, and relying on the far-right is unlikely to change that.

SD was founded in the late 1980s as one of several fringe fascist parties competing for a handful of votes. Since the turn of the millennium, it has steadily grown and rebranded itself, changing its logo from a fascist flaming torch to a more conventional flower and playing on charismatic head Jimmie Akesson’s restrained leadership, supported by three ultra-loyal friends from his time at university, together dubbed the “gang of four”. Under their guidance, the party has gone from laughable outsiders marching in uniforms, to a polished political operation that has made inroads into the Swedish electoral system and emboldened Islamophobic and far-right voices across the country.

This week, the Swedish newspaper Expressen revealed that active and former neo-Nazis were standing as candidates for SD, despite the party claiming to have purged itself of any Nazi sympathisers. One of the other members of the gang of four, deputy parliamentary speaker Bjorn Soder, said as recently as this summer that he did not believe Jews or people with indigenous Arctic Sami heritage could be Swedish. Akesson has also previously hosted Nigel Farage and several ethno-nationalist leaders from eastern Europe at an “alternative Nobel Prize” ceremony where guests sipped champagne at Stockholm’s elite Grand Hotel.

For the past four years Sweden has had a weak but ambitious coalition between the Social Democrats and the Green Party, negotiating with the socialist Left Party and the Moderates and other two liberal parties to reach deals. The problem now is that even if the current leftist government increases its vote, the SD will likely only vote for a Moderate-led government because it realises Kristersson will be a weak prime minister who they can easily influence. This is compounded by historical antipathy towards the left by Sweden’s centrist parties, who would find it difficult to work with the Social Democrats and have their eye on lucrative ministerial posts in any deal.

Much has also been made of the Social Democrats – once the undeniable kings of Swedish politics – sinking to 25 per cent in the polls. This is compensated for to an extent by a resurgent Left party that is hoovering up young voters and has actually increased in popularity more than SD over the past four years. SD voters do not necessarily see the world in the same terms as the party leaders either.

A recent study by Swedish researchers has suggested its success stems from fallout from the global financial crisis in 2008 and the long term impact of the last conservative government’s welfare reform programme that left large parts of the population in a precarious state. Sweden has not suddenly got more racist, but a carefully executed SD plan has succeeded in carving out territory in the vacuum left by welfare cuts and social alienation.

A glimpse of what could happen in the next few years comes from neighbouring Denmark, where an almost identical situation has led to a conservative government propped up by the nationalist Danish People’s Party. Under its influence Denmark has just slashed funding for public service journalism and introduced draconian immigration rules alongside increased Euroscepticism and tax cuts for the wealthy.

Kristersson may well end up as Sweden’s next prime minister, but behind him, Akesson and his gang of four would be the ones pulling the strings. For the progressive and tolerant Sweden the world has come to know, it would represent the end of an era, and the fall of what to Swedes and foreigners alike has often seemed an impregnable bastion of European progress.

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