It has been a difficult spring for the Sweden Democrats (SD). Campaign posters have been defaced and torn down. Postmen have refused to deliver the party’s leaflets. Teenagers have barricaded their schools against it. For every person who has come to listen to the town-square stump speeches of the leader, Jimmie Åkesson, ten have come just to turn their backs. His national workplace photo-opportunities tour turned into a farce, when employees boycotted or sabotaged the events.
SD still expects to win its first seat in the European Parliament this weekend but it has been caught off guard by the strength of a concerted popular campaign against racism. The party, which has its origins in the white-power movement but now describes itself as ‘nationalist’ and ‘social conservative’, is used to hostility. It has even thrived on a sense of persecution. But the extent and organization of the recent protests seems to have surprised it.
The campaign trail
It’s a fine spring morning. On the tiny green island of Långholmen, near central Stockholm, sunshine pours through the treetops into the amphitheatre. Everywhere there are streamers and blue and yellow balloons. The speakers are playing ‘those lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer’. Young women with colourful badges dole out popcorn and ice cream while young men in tight blazers and chinos stride around in search of hands to shake. The hot-dog stand is already doing a brisk trade, not least thanks to the police.
There are a lot of police. Jimmie Åkesson is coming to launch the SD European-election campaign. For now the cops have nothing to worry about. Only twenty or so protesters have arrived and they seem quite congenial. Some are singing; others have brought trumpets, drums and vuvuzuelas. They have set up a band just beyond the cordon on the crest of the hill.
If anything, the wafting music lightens the mood. The audience is mostly male, muscular, thirty-or-forty something and rather shy. Many are sitting on their own, studying leaflets or glancing around, waiting for something to happen. The leaflets, and the banners draped down the back of the stage, say ‘Brussels out of Sweden’, ‘Ordinary people against Brussels’ and ‘No more EU begging in Sweden’.
I speak to a young couple who have been members for a few years. What attracted them to the party? Immigration, they say almost in unison: ‘It’s a matter of safety.’ She does not feel safe walking home at night. She has to call her boyfriend to let him know she’s okay. If he takes her home it will only be worse. The immigrants are always looking for a fight. ‘And then there’s the environment,’ she adds, after a pause—the government is having to cut down forests to build more homes.
SD still expects to win its first seat in the European Parliament this weekend but it has been caught off guard by the strength of a concerted popular campaign against racism
I ask what she thinks about the protesters. Is it fair that people call Sweden Democrats fascists and racists? The boyfriend cuts in. That’s just what newspapers want people to think, he suggests. SD is the least racist of all. We can help more refugees ‘over there’ than we can bring them here. Anyway, it is not against the law to be racist.
A man takes to the stage to announce the party’s new ‘Stop the begging’ campaign. Foreigners who come to Sweden to beg should be deported, he says. ‘Organized begging’ should be a criminal offence. He sees more beggars every day now on the streets of Stockholm than he saw in his entire childhood. The élite have opened up Sweden without thinking of the consequences.
All the morning’s speeches circle around a fixed set of tropes: safety, security, common sense; Brussels, Islam, the élite. A group of the men in blazers want to tell us about the party’s youth league, how it has been building links with nationalist parties elsewhere in Europe, as part of a ‘new wave across the continent’. There is a light-hearted interview with one of the European Parliament candidates. Q: How many trucks go back and forth between Brussels and Strasbourg every week? A: Trick question. The answer is too many.
Next up is a speaker from the SD women’s league. ‘They say that we are a men’s party. Well, I am here, a normal woman, I live in Täby with my husband and three kids, a villa and a Volvo.’ She promises that the party will increase allowances for those who want to stay home longer and look after their children. They will make sure that women can walk the streets without fear of verbal harassment and gang rape. She thinks we should recognize that men and women have similarities and differences – not force everyone to be sexless and identical (applause).
The crowd is becoming restless. She gets a warm reception but by far the biggest cheer is when she says: ‘Thank you, Jimmie, for being such a fantastic leader and doing so much for our beloved Sweden.’
It’s Jimmie we are really here for. The only queue longer than that at the hot-dog stand is for signed copies of his memoir-cum-campaign-diary-cum-testament, Satis Polito. Åkesson says that the title, Latin for ‘polished enough’, is meant to sum up how it feels for a boy from Sölvesborg who used to play truant from school to be taking coffee with the king or debating with the prime minister. It’s also the casting requirement for a leader of today’s populist right: straight-talking and ‘politically incorrect’ on the one hand, all ‘trygghet [security] and tradition’ on the other. The synthesis of these two impulses is the slogan ‘common sense’.
But satis polito could also describe the party he has built. Any trace of imagery or rhetoric that might too strongly evoke the party’s extremist past has been carefully expunged. The old torch emblem, uncomfortably similar to the logo of the former British National Front, has been replaced with an inoffensive blue anemone. The vocabulary of race and ethnicity has been replaced by ‘culture’, white skin by ‘Swedishness’. (Åkesson admits that it is ‘hard to put your finger on’ exactly what Swedishness is but he can rattle off a good list of what it is not – ‘honour killings, gang rape and halal slaughter’, for instance 1. ‘Organized begging’ is a recent addition to the list and there are vaguer shibboleths to watch out for, such as ‘un-Swedish body language’.
His work is never finished. The price of polish is eternal vigilance: every now and then a local party boss has to be expelled for overstepping the mark. And he even had to lose two senior members of parliament in 2012, after they filmed themselves drunkenly chasing the comedian Soran Ismail down the street, armed with iron bars and yelling racial abuse.
This disciplined centralism is another typical feature of populist parties. A handful of hardliners have lost patience and defected to the more extreme Party of the Swedes but everyone else is happy to enjoy the success. In 2010 for the first time SD breached the four per cent threshold to enter the Riksdag. By the end of last year it was touching 10 per cent in the polls and could boast of being Sweden’s third largest party. Åkesson has stewarded it into the mainstream. At the rally I find nobody willing to say a bad word about him. ‘Jimmie has already changed the debate,’ one man tells me. ‘Now the politicians have to talk about immigration.’
'It won’t do to sit at home on the sofa waiting for change. This is the chance to take our country back', Åkesson says
The mood is warming up. People are mingling. The ice cream is running out. Nearby a group of middle-aged men are having an earnest discussion about military policy. They are worried that the government is leaving Sweden undefended against the Russians. It turns out that they have only just met but there is already an air of camaraderie. Another pair behind me are discussing the dearth of classic Swedish movies on television.
Maybe 500 people are here now and the empty benches at the front are suddenly full of men in suits. Over the hill the vuvuzuelas are piping up again: ‘No fascists on our streets.’
A black BMW with tinted windows pulls up by the stage, to a round of applause. The compere makes a rambling welcome, comparing the two big parties to exhausted prize-fighters leaning on each other for support – he looks rather shaky himself. At last Åkesson takes the stage.
There is a brief din from the bushes. The protesters have attempted to break through. A couple are quickly wrestled to the ground and the rest are driven back by loud packs of police dogs and photographers. Åkesson raises his eyebrows but doesn’t skip a beat. He is more than polished enough today; indeed his forehead is quite luminous. He has the same uniform as the young handshaking men – the chinos and blazer – and a headset microphone so he can stride about the stage, pausing only for the odd glance at his iPad.
Since this is an Euro-election event, there is plenty about the ‘superstate’ and ‘national independence’. He warns about uncontrolled immigration from the new EU members – yet again, those Romanian beggars. But we know that the real target is the general election in September and the real enemy is the political establishment at home – in particular, the Social Democrats and the trade unions.
Sweden Democrats is now the real labour movement, Åkesson announces. He has been enthusiastically welcomed in workplaces up and down the country. The protests are the work of ‘extremists’, bullying enemies of free speech, a sign that SD is growing and that the ‘fake labour movement’ feels threatened. The big trade unions waste your subscriptions on perks and fancy conferences, politically correct propaganda and ‘so-called international solidarity’. (SD has established its own, ‘independent’ trade-union federation.) The Social Democratic Party say they care about the unemployed but they let the jobs go to foreigners. They say they care about women but they won’t stand up to Islamists, with their Sharia law and their gender segregation. They are afraid of the tough issues.
To underline the point, Åkesson pulls out a chicken costume he has bought as an Easter present for Stefan Löfven, the Social Democratic Party leader. Do we want to allow the power élite to continue consorting in the corridors of Brussels, out of sight? If not, we have to help him seize the opportunity. It won’t do to sit at home on the sofa waiting for change. This is the chance to take our country back, he says – and the crowd are on their feet.
Adam Bott is a freelance writer based in Stockholm.
- 1 Interview in Sverigedemokraterna, Ett parti som andra? (Expo, 2006)
Crossposted with permission from Open Security.