Sweden, which was once almost a byword for European social democracy, flirting with the far right evokes a sense of despair.
During the summer, some opinion polls suggested that Sweden Democrats, an organisation with neo-Nazi origins including a co-founder who was a Waffen SS veteran, could win one-fourth of the vote and possibly emerge as the largest party in the Swedish parliament, or Riksdag.
Thankfully, that did not happen when Swedes voted last Sunday. The Social Democrats managed to maintain their century-old tradition of top-scoring at the ballot box, but with only 28.4 per cent of the vote, their least impressive tally since 1917. The mainstream conservative Moderates scored 19.8 per cent, not far ahead of the far-right Sweden Democrats’ 17.6 per cent. The result leaves the broadly left and right alliances, which include a number of smaller parties, with roughly 40 per cent each of seats in the Riksdag, and although both sides have balked at the idea of collaborating with the Sweden Democrats, the possibility of the latter informally backing a right-wing government may well come to pass. The obvious alternative is a centrist coalition transcending the ideological divide.
In several nations in the neighbourhood, meanwhile, conservative forces have been open to collaboration with the far right, and it would be disappointing if Sweden were to go the same way. Like many of their counterparts across Europe, the Sweden Democrats have relied on whipping up angst over the mid-decade influx of refugees. In 2015, the country accepted 163,000 asylum-seekers, which was more generous, per head of population, than any other European nation, including Germany.
The Sweden Democrats have sought to spruce up their image under the leadership of Jimmie Akesson, denying neo-Nazi links and decrying racism, but the white supremacism that underpins their ideas often proves hard to disguise. Inevitably, it often takes the shape of a particular bias against all manner of Muslims. Sweden began losing its reputation for relative egalitarianism some three decades ago, when both sides of politics opted for neoliberal orthodoxy, so it’s hardly surprising that inequality has seeped in. And it’s all too easy for the Social Democrats to blame it primarily on the level of immigration — which, mind you, has dwindled dramatically in the past couple of years.
In Germany, too, the rise of the far right — exemplified by the level of support that enabled Alternative for Germany to become the main opposition party in the Bundestag — has been based on fears over immigration. The eruption in Chemnitz late last month, which incorporated the Nazi salutes mentioned at the outset, came after an Iraqi and a Syrian were accused of stabbing to death a German-Cuban during an altercation. It is believed that the chargesheet against one of the culprits was leaked by the police. Not long afterwards, the head of Germany’s domestic intelligence agency challenged chancellor Angela Merkel’s denunciation of neo-Nazis chasing suspected immigrants down the streets of Chemnitz by decrying it as “deliberate misinformation”. His intervention lends credence to the suspicion of surreptitious collaboration between the far right and elements in the police and other security agencies, as well as within Merkel’s Christian Democrats and some of their allies.
The worst aspects of Europe have for a while been in evidence in what was once the Eastern European bloc, not least in Hungary and Poland, but lately they have been spreading westwards, notably to Italy and France but also to Germany and Sweden.
Although previously totalitarian states have exhibited a greater eagerness to lean towards the far right, the contagion has spread far beyond the former Soviet satellites.
Sweden and Germany are not yet lost causes and may reclaim their better natures, but Europe’s direction cannot be dissociated from the Trump-Putin context.
By arrangement with Dawn