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The far right Sweden Democrats didn’t do as well as commentators anticipated, but the fascist threat must be confronted across Europe, argues Vladimir Unkovski-Korica

Ever since Donald Trump’s election victory in November 2016, the right has felt emboldened internationally. The latest headline to hit Europe has been the rise of the Swedish Democrats.

Their showing in the elections of 9 September was not as strong as expected but they still saw the largest rise in the vote of any of the participating parties.

The anti-immigrant party, which has its origins in the neo-Nazi movement of the 1980s, won 17.6 percent of the vote. This was up five points, representing a gain of 13 parliamentary seats. 

But the Sweden Democrats did better in rural areas than in the cities, and the Left Party also saw a rise in its vote.

The story is not simply one of the rise of the far right, but of the polarisation of politics. Nonetheless, the Sweden Democrats are now the third largest single party in the Swedish parliament. This represents a danger.

Parliamentary arithmetic

Their result is certainly significant in parliamentary terms. Neither traditional coalition of the centre-left nor the centre-right will be able to form distinct ruling coalitions. The former gained 40.6 and the latter 40.3 percent.

It is also significant because a deeper analysis of the results suggests that the traditional parties of rule are continuing to shed votes to challengers within their own blocs.

On the centre-left, the long-ruling Social Democrats had their worst result in a century at 28.4 percent and 101 seats, losing 12 seats. Their preferred coalition partners, the Greens, also lost votes and 10 seats, leaving them with 15. By contrast, the ex-Communist Left Party gained over two percent and seven seats, at a total of 28.

On the centre-right, the Moderate Party fell to less than a fifth of the vote and 70 seats, losing 14 seats. The liberals remained at 19 seats, while the Christian Democrats gained 7 to reach 23. The Centre Party also gained 9 seats to reach 31. That leaves the centre-right just one seat behind the Red Green bloc, at 143 to 144.

Trends behind the parliamentary arithmetic

The mainstream press explains this result as the public’s response to a short-term problem. The story goes something like this: the Swedish economy is doing well, but its famous welfare system is under pressure, following a migrant influx since 2015.

A nation of just over 10 million people, Sweden did take in 163,000 migrants, which was the largest intake in Europe per head of population. But this did not need to become a problem for a booming economy in Sweden or anywhere else in Europe.

The truth of the matter is that Sweden has been on a slow road to neoliberalism since the 1990s. Following a banking crisis for non-performing loans in the early 1990s, the Social Democrats returned to office after a single term in opposition.

They ruled from 1994 to 2006, and implemented strict budgets to fix Sweden’s banking sector. They returned to power in 2014, after a centre-right coalition succeeded them and drove through major neoliberal reforms, including the largest privatisation programme in Swedish history.

Such economic policies over the last several decades have predictably had a slow-burning negative effect on Sweden. Inequality in the country has risen since 1980 by a third. People feel less secure about the future. 

Polarisation in Sweden

It is only against this background that we can understand why parties propping up the status quo have been losing ground, and why those presenting themselves as intransigent opponents of the current state of affairs have progressively gained ground.

That is only likely to continue if a ‘grand coalition’ on the German model takes over, with a power-sharing agreement between various centre-left and centre-right parties. The right could also gain if it is faced by a minority centre-right government that is forced at times to rely on it.

The triumph of the far right is not inevitable. The anti-fascist movement in Sweden has in recent years mobilised impressive numbers. Tens of thousands took to the streets in various Swedish cities in 2013, 2014 and 2017, dwarfing neo-Nazi marches.

But the situation is worrying. Though there has been a growth in the vote of the Left Party, the election result of the Swedish Democrats was more dramatic and will embolden the far right and encourage its members to take to the streets. 

Sweden in European context

Moreover, this comes on the back of the significant rise of the far right in many countries of Europe. These advances and breakthroughs are bound to have knock-on effects, encouraging the far right in other places and strengthening their resolve to move towards creating mass street movements.

We have seen this recently in Germany, where the far right is increasing its presence across the country. The Alternative for Germany (AfD), founded in 2014, won 13 percent of the vote last year. It is a far right party with links to neo-Nazi groups.

The situation took a dramatic turn in late August in Chemnitz, a city of 240,000 in Saxony, in the east of Germany. 

Following a moral panic with accusations that foreign migrants had killed locals, the far right organised protests and riots drawing thousands on to the streets. These marches included the AfD and the Islamophobic street movement Pegida. Multiple mob attacks were reported on Muslims and East Europeans. In a return to classical far right themes, there was a recent Nazi attack on a Jewish restaurant.

Despite left-led counter-protests, more far right marches drawing thousands have occurred in recent days – this time in Koethen, another city in the east of Germany. Police fear that the situation could once again get out of hand.

More widely, right wing parties hold or share power in other European states: Austria, Hungary, Italy and Poland are examples. In all of them, governments have instituted a wide array of policies which are detrimental to workers, women, minorities and migrants. 

The elections for the European Parliament next year provide a focus for right wing and far right forces. Trump’s former advisor Steve Bannon has given major support for such an initiative, suggesting major levels of trans-Atlantic right wing cooperation. 

We need to step up the fight

Moreover, the problem of the far right will not go away with the mid-term elections in America in November, which may see the Republicans lose ground against the Democrats.

The deeper underlying trends hollowing out the political centre are unlikely to change in the short term, and polarisation is therefore likely to continue.

The forces of the far right have made major gains in the last two years, and are also beginning to be felt in the United Kingdom. Since quitting the cabinet two months ago, Boris Johnson has increasingly attacked Theresa May’s government, not just over Brexit, but relying on a plethora of right wing causes, like Islamophobia and low taxes.

Johnson is therefore providing cover for even more radical forces outside the Conservative Party. There are moves afoot in UKIP to allow far right activist Tommy Robinson to join it, which would unify the right’s electoral machine of the last decade with the Football Lads Alliance, the new far right street movement which has managed to mobilise thousands in recent months.

There is no time for complacency, but we should also draw strength from the knowledge that forces of the left still outnumber the far right. The left forces in Sweden outpolled the far right in Sweden, the German left is collectively still bigger than the far right in Germany, and in Britain hundreds of thousands joined the Labour Party to support the radical left policies of Jeremy Corbyn and similar numbers mobilised to protest Donald Trump’s visit on a weekday in the capital.

Overcoming inertia: mobilsing a united fightback

The struggle is to unify those left forces in such a way as to show that we are both bigger and ready to collectively confront the far right. 

This will not be easy. Some on the left do not appear to see the danger from the right. Perhaps the most obvious example is the Blairites in the British Labour Party, who spend more time attacking a life-long anti-racist like Jeremy Corbyn than the institutionally racist Tory government. 

We also cannot rely just on the leadership of the Labour left, who at times appear paralysed by their desire to maintain Labour Party unity, as we saw over their failure to vocally defend Corbyn against antisemitism smears in recent months.

The national demonstration against racism and fascism called for 17th November can begin to build the wide and radical coalition we need to stop the right. It can give others the courage to fight back and raise the politics of hope above both the politics of the old consensus and the politics of fear that the right are trying to offer. We can defeat the right – and we must.

Vladimir Unkovski-Korica

Vladimir Unkovski-Korica is a member of Marks21 in Serbia and a supporter of Counterfire. He is on the editorial board of LeftEast and teaches at the University of Glasgow.