The rise of the Sweden Democrats — electoral successes and diverging paths

By Maria Tyr­berg.

Unlike its fel­low Nordic neigh­bours, Swe­den was for long an excep­tion to the elec­toral sup­port of rad­i­cal right-wing par­ties. Apart from the short-lived appear­ance of New Democ­ra­cy in the ear­ly 1990s, the coun­try ini­tial­ly did not fol­low the trend of increased pres­ence of rad­i­cal right-wing par­ties as in oth­er Euro­pean par­lia­ments. How­ev­er, in 2010 the Swe­den Democ­rats – the biggest rad­i­cal right-wing par­ty in Swe­den today – gained par­lia­men­tary rep­re­sen­ta­tion, thus bring­ing Swe­den a step clos­er to a sim­i­lar devel­op­ment as under­way in the rest of West­ern Europe. The pros­per­i­ty of the Swe­den Democ­rats con­tin­ues, and with almost 13 per cent of the vote share they are now the third biggest par­ty in the nation­al par­lia­ment, with rep­re­sen­ta­tion also in the major­i­ty of the local gov­ern­ments hold­ing rough­ly ten per cent of the total seats nationwide.

Turn­ing to the ori­gin of the par­ty, the Swe­den Democ­rats (SD) emerged from neo-fas­cist and neo-Nazi sub­cul­tures in the late 1980s. This back­ground has caused the estab­lished par­ties in Swe­den to treat SD as pari­ah, and since the mid-1990s the par­ty has active­ly worked to present a more legit­i­mate ide­o­log­i­cal pro­file, but they still strug­gle with con­tro­ver­sies.[1] The so-called ‘iron pipe scan­dal’ received wide atten­tion in 2012, when a film leaked show­ing lead­ing politi­cians from SD using racist terms of abuse towards a Swedish come­di­an, and lat­er arm­ing them­selves with iron pipes. The work towards a more legit­i­mate pro­file hence con­tin­ues still today. As part of the strat­e­gy they have intro­duced a zero-tol­er­ance pol­i­cy towards extrem­ism and racism, which has led to the exclu­sion of sev­er­al par­ty members.

The aspi­ra­tion to erect a more respectable image is an attempt to resem­ble oth­er suc­cess­ful Euro­pean rad­i­cal right-wing par­ties, such as the Dan­ish People’s Par­ty, whose progress to devel­op into an accept­ed par­ty in Den­mark has been an inspi­ra­tion for SD. As a con­se­quence, SD has gone from focus­ing on nation­al­ism to social con­ser­vatism as their core ide­ol­o­gy in their par­ty pro­gram [2], but nation­al­ism is still cen­tral in their polit­i­cal speech­es. As opposed to oth­er rad­i­cal right-wing par­ties in Europe with an author­i­tar­i­an approach, SD could rather be con­sid­ered to high­light more democ­ra­cy and less state inter­ven­tion.[3]

These strate­gic choic­es have proven elec­toral­ly appeal­ing; in 2014 SD near­ly tripled their vote share in the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment elec­tion, gain­ing two seats for their par­ty rep­re­sen­ta­tives. Togeth­er with oth­er rad­i­cal right-wing par­ties — such as the British UKIP and the Lithuan­ian Order and Jus­tice — they are now mem­bers of the par­ty group Europe of Free­dom and Democ­ra­cy (EFDD), which focus­es on EU crit­i­cism as the com­mon denom­i­na­tor. While EU oppo­si­tion has become more promi­nent in SD’s rhetoric, it is unclear whether this has trans­lat­ed into action. Accord­ing to a report by the EU-crit­i­cal think tank OIEC, SD — among oth­er Euroscep­tic par­ties — has so far pri­or­i­tized oth­er issues over that of EU crit­i­cism.[4]

On the nation­al are­na, SD recent­ly announced they want to lim­it their MPs appear­ance in the par­lia­ment in order to focus on cam­paign­ing and agen­da-set­ting. This is an approach that some­what resem­bles and is influ­enced by that of the Dan­ish People’s Par­ty, but it is also a step away from the attempt to appear more states­man­like. Mea­sures tak­en so far include rais­ing the issue of arrang­ing a nation­al ref­er­en­dum regard­ing immi­grant recep­tion, and hand­ing out leaflets to refugees in Greece in an attempt to warn them to trav­el to Swe­den, argu­ing there is no room left in the coun­try for them.

Some argue this dis­per­sion of strate­gic choic­es is symp­to­matic for the posi­tion of SD today, and it is unclear what the party’s next step will be. On the one hand, although the estab­lished par­ties in the par­lia­ment are still unwill­ing to open­ly coop­er­ate with SD, the par­ty has been some­what (but def­i­nite­ly not ful­ly) nor­mal­ized and legit­imized in the Swedish par­ty con­text, which is a goal it has aspired for. On the oth­er hand, sup­port in pub­lic opin­ion is declin­ing, and with the lat­est increase of refugees in Swe­den SD is no longer the only par­ty with a clear­ly restric­tive approach towards immi­gra­tion.[5] Accord­ing to a recent sur­vey,[6] some of the pre­vi­ous vot­ers of SD have now returned to the estab­lished par­ties. Hence, there seems to be a dif­fi­cul­ty of attain­ing a respectable approach while gain­ing sup­port. The future of SD is thus depen­dent on both the strate­gic choic­es of the par­ty itself, as well as the estab­lished par­ties’ han­dling of the immi­gra­tion issue.

Maria Tyr­berg is a research assis­tant at the Depart­ment of Polit­i­cal Sci­ence at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Gothen­burg, and the Depart­ment of Soci­ol­o­gy at Stock­holm Uni­ver­si­ty. She is cur­rent­ly work­ing in projects focus­ing on the Swe­den Democ­rats and the polit­i­cal impact of anti-immi­grant par­ties in Europe.


The views and opin­ions expressed in this arti­cle are those of the author.

[1] Erlings­son, Gis­sur Ó, Kåre Vern­by & Richard Öhrvall (2014). “The singe-issue par­ty the­sis and the Swe­den Democ­rats”, Acta Polit­i­ca, Vol. 49, 2.

[2] Ryd­gren, Jens & Patrick Ruth (2011). ‘Vot­ing for the rad­i­cal right in Swedish munic­i­pal­i­ties: social mar­gin­al­i­ty and eth­nic com­pe­ti­tion? Scan­di­na­vian Polit­i­cal Stud­ies, vol. 34, no. 3, pp. 202–225 & Erlings­son et al (2014).

[3] Carter, Elis­a­beth (2005). The extreme right in West­ern Europe. Suc­cess or fail­ure?. Man­ches­ter: Man­ches­ter Uni­ver­si­ty Press.

[4] OEIC (2015). “Europe Deserves Bet­ter. Bro­ken Promis­es – The Swe­den Democ­rats first year in the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment”, avail­able at

[5] Nils­son, Tor­b­jörn (2016). “Vilse I samti­den”, in Fokus, issue 10, avail­able at

[6] Kär­rman, Jens (2016). “Regerin­gens fly­k­t­ing­poli­tik lockar SD-väl­jare”, Dagens Nyheter, avail­able at

Pic­ture: News Øre­sund — Johan Wess­man, Swe­den Democ­rats in Almedalen, 2013, Cre­ative Com­mons via Flickr

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