The Sweden Democrats (SD) have become the latest far right party to make significant gains in a European election, scoring 18% in the recent vote that has seen the country’s two main coalitions fall short of a majority.
‘Either we stay with a decent democracy or we choose another path’ said Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lovren, as the anti-immigrant SD preyed on the electorate’s fears of a rapidly changing society.
From one of the most homogeneous nations, Sweden’s generous immigration policies, high acceptance of asylum seekers, and low indigenous birth rate have changed the ethnic and religious make-up of the country.
Since the late 1970s, in particular, refugee immigration from war zones and impoverished states abroad has rocketed. This once fit in nicely with Sweden’s political image, often held-up as the epitome of Social Democracy operating at its finest.
Yet the reality now is that about 15% of Sweden’s population was born overseas and another 10% have foreign born parents. Understandably, this radical demographic change has unsettled some of the natives.
But whilst the SD has to an extent capitalised on these fears, its prospects for altering the political landscape appear slim. For a start, neither coalition – one centre-right and the other centre-left – is willing to include the SD in government. Then there is the small matter of Sweden’s history.
Whilst the SD has its roots in fascism and white supremacism, it is not a neo-Nazi movement and Sweden has typically been free of extremist political groups. At least, none have caused much of a political tremor.
More disturbing, and perhaps something that remains ingrained in the minds of some Swedes, is the government’s tacit support of the Nazis during World War Two (WWII).
Technically neutral during the conflict, it is not an overstatement to say that the Swedes were a substantial contributor to the German war effort. Hitler’s regime was reliant on Sweden for a huge proportion of its iron ore, which arrived at German ports in Swedish ships. Swedish miners were even exempted from the draft so that production for the Nazis would face minimal disruption (Judt, 2005, p.84). Simultaneously, Wehrmacht troops were given free transit through Sweden during their forays into Norway.
The Swiss have received considerable scorn for their role in playing financiers to the Nazis, their unscrupulous banking system siphoning the ill-gotten gains from persecuted Jews and re-directing them to Hitler’s ministries. For the Swedes, criticism has been rather muted.
Of course, the alternative for the Stockholm government was hardly appealing. Risk war with the Nazis? Cosy up to the Soviets after their invasion of Finland? Acquiescence is understandable, although a certain complicity is undeniable.
Perhaps a collective guilt has prevented its people from dabbling in right-wing politics in the past? Is this now changing through a younger generation with no memories of the war in their immediate families?
Tough questions and even tougher decisions undoubtedly lie ahead for the Swedes, as they do for the rest of Europe. With continental economies still not fully recovered from the Great Recession, and rapid demographic change proving an insurmountable challenge for some governments, citizens are necessarily concerned.
It often needs a rising tide of populism to prompt decisive action. How will Sweden’s politicians – oft lauded for their progressive and fair social and economic agendas – decide to respond?
Embrace the legitimate concerns of the SD voters? Or band together and carry on as before in the hope that the far right quickly fades away?
Needless to say, the ‘good old days’ will take some recapturing.
Judt, T. Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 (2005)