STOCKHOLM – Sweden, the 1990s. “Sieg Heil!” and “Kick out the foreign scum!” The chants echo over a central Stockholm park.
The scenario is always the same, whether they gather on a freezing November evening to honour warrior king Charles XII, or roam the streets during never-ending, alcohol-fuelled summer nights.
Bystanders quickly move away in case the young men with shaved heads and steel-capped boots decide to vent their anger at them. Immigrants are nowhere to be seen, except for a few stray tourists.
Men and women of a darker complexion have learnt to stay inside when the Sweden Democrats (SD) are on the march.
Fast forward to October 2010. The same party is creating a stir just a stone’s throw from their old battle ground – but for a very different reason.
Twenty newly appointed SD parliamentarians smile politely as they pose for the press in front of the Riksdag. They are about to enter the halls of power for the first time, backed by nearly 6 percent of the vote.
This time around, it’s a crowd of anti-racist protesters doing the shouting.
What has happened?
First of all, the European far-right’s success strategy has claimed another victory. Let’s dub it “from boots to suits”, a make-over of everything but their xenophobic agendas. And it hasn’t happened overnight.
Sweden in the 1990s is a cold place in more sense than one. Refugee centres are set on fire across the country. In Stockholm, a serial killer dubbed “The Laser Man” hunts down immigrants with a laser sight rifle.
The skinhead leader of the Sweden Democrats’ youth wing is arrested with a loaded hand grenade at a Left Party rally in 1993.
A new SD leader, elected in 1995, tries to get rid of the most blatantly anti-democratic elements. He is forced to ban uniforms in 1996 as some members tend to don Nazi gear – such is the extent of SD’s radicalism at the time.
Sweden’s tense political climate explodes in 1999.
Over the course of a few months, bank robbers execute two policemen with their own guns, an investigative journalist is targeted with a car bomb (he and his young son narrowly survive), and an anti-racist union man is shot in the head outside his front door – deeds all committed by right-wing extremists.
Swedes unite in fear and outrage. The four major national newspapers make history by deciding to print identical front pages against “the right-wing threat to democracy”.
Just seven years later, in 2006, the Sweden Democrats win seats in almost half of Sweden’s local governing bodies, paving the way for their entry into parliament in 2010.
Strong aversion to the press
Current party leader Jimmie Akesson joined SD as a disgruntled teenager in 1995. In other European political landscapes, this bespectacled small-town guy wouldn’t have stood a chance.
In sombre Sweden, flamboyancy equals ridicule – and for a party trying to journey from outcast status to electability, normalcy was far more desirable than showmanship.
In 2000, Akesson was elected head of SD’s youth wing, becoming party leader five years later at only 26 years of age. But the fascist flame, used as party symbol by extreme right parties across the continent, isn’t discarded and replaced by an innocuous flower until 2006.
The unsavoury history of the SD is more than a blemish on their increasingly polished facade; it is key to understanding their ideology and leading lights.
For this is still no ordinary political party. Despite an old-school, top-down hierarchy in which Akesson reigns supreme with no heirs apparent, racist scandals keep blowing up at least monthly.
Since their founding in 1988, SD has attracted neo-Nazis, conspiracy theorists and even Swedes who fought for Hitler Germany. The neo-Nazis may have hung up their boots, but Swedes with racist views keep flocking to the party.
Despite the leadership’s best efforts, local radicals are difficult to control – especially in a country where practically every adult is active in social media, like Facebook.
Even in the capital, the polished layer runs thin. Like their European sister parties, SD often rely on dog-whistling to get their message across. For example, “Islam” is code for “Muslims”, and “Islamisation” is a classier way of claiming that “foreigners are taking over”.
Except for Akesson himself, many Sweden Democrats – particularly the notorious parliamentarian Kent Ekeroth –don’t bother veiling their xenophobia in fancy terms.
There was temporary outrage as Ekeroth wasn’t kicked out of SD in 2012, when a leaked video showed him and other prominent party members verbally assaulting a Kurdish-Swedish comedian and then arming themselves with iron rods.
Political scientists are at odds to explain why scandals that would destroy any other party don’t affect SD’s ratings, indeed they sometimes even improve them. An uncomfortable answer may be that their voters are aware of the party’s true values by now and actually support them.
History also offers an explanation for the party’s strong aversion to the press. Within the extreme right (regardless of nationality), the media are regarded with as much scorn as ethnic minorities.
Indeed their contempt for the media is sometimes greater, as journalists are seen as traitors of their nation or race by choice rather than by birth. For SD, this hatred hasn’t diminished with the passing of time.
Sweden Democrats and France’s National Front
The early years of the Sweden Democrats are why Akesson is less than keen to ally himself with France’s National Front (FN), currently courting him in the hopes of creating a strong far-right alliance in the European Parliament.
After Marine Le Pen’s clever overhaul, where aggression against foreigners has been traded for “concern”, FN is able to attract the non-radical voters her father Jean-Marie could only dream of.
But as they share the same extreme roots, Akesson’s party would suffer constant unflattering comparisons in the Swedish press. Thus, he prefers the company of parties born out of populist rather than neo-fascist movements.
But SD has co-operated with Front National before. They were both part of the neo-fascist alliance Euro-Nat in the 1990s. SD was also able to participate in the Swedish 1998 election – and win 20,000 votes – with the help of financial support from Le Pen.
The Sweden Democrats continue their journey towards normalcy. Early opinion polls predict they could become Sweden’s third largest party in this autumn’s general election.
It’s difficult to predict how the SD – not yet represented in the European Parliament – will fare in the May EU elections. Early polls give them one seat out of Sweden’s 20, others none.
The party is fiercely anti-EU, leaving their followers with a difficult choice: to ignore the elections, or try to change the union from within.
But a troubling question remains: if a young Akesson was motivated by immigration concerns rather than bigotry, which he claims, why did he join the Sweden Democrats in 1995 – when it was still a stomping ground for militant neo-Nazis?
It’s a question he has never been able to satisfactorily answer.