In Sweden, the wave of solidarity for refugees that spread across Europe in the autumn of 2015 was perceived as a strong stance against the extreme right party Sweden Democrats who had just doubled their votes in the parliament election one year before and managed to become the third largest party (from 6% to 13%). There was a mobilisation of people from all parts of the country, all political parties, and all backgrounds – meeting up refugees at the train stations with warm cloths (its cold here in autumn!) and food, trying to accommodate as many as possible in small, rural municipalities where the population suddenly jumped by up to 100%.
Instead of hatred and racism, local people gladly rejoiced that this meant they could keep the village school open, as well as the local food store, or start a new football team, or just have new people to chat with. At least that was the image media gave us, and these positive images from media actually seemed to work: I remember few, if any, angry protesters from the Sweden Democrats in public; it was as if we had managed to render their party and their one political question redundant by our mere acts of solidarity. There was no left wing movement, or a queer movement, nor even an explicit anti-racist movement, behind this mobilisation: It might sound dangerously nationalist, but the sense was that it was “a Swedish mobilisation”; a Sweden that for once had a possibility to live up to the international image, the dominant idea of Sweden as an egalitarian and peaceful country. This was “our finest hour”.
Then something happened. And it was not the Sweden Democrats that made it happen; it was the Social Democrats. The governing party (though in a minority government) started to talk about costs, not mobilisation and solidarity. They also started to talk about feelings and repeated the mantra that “Swedes are worried about the economy and if we can afford to take in more immigrants”. That could have been a legitimate worry if the economy was already going down, but the Swedish economy was, and still is, one of the strongest in Europe and the world. There was no crisis, other than the one assumed to be perceived by the population.
Of course, the increase in immigrants caused a bureaucratic over-load, and the problems with accommodation were real, but these were all temporary costs; but as both economists and demographers know, an input of young people (many with a good education) is worth so much more in the long run for any nation with an aging population. It takes an average of around eight years for an immigrant to get a job and start paying taxes; it takes an average of over 20 years for any one born in Sweden (and the first 18 years they are only costs…). However, nothing of this was said; it was all about perceived threats, imagined fears, and no efforts from our leaders to calm us down by explaining how an increase in a population leads to economic growth in the long run.
In the beginning of the 1990s, Sweden was in a real economic crisis. As were most parts of the world. At this time, Sweden welcomed more refugees from the war in Bosnia than any other country. No one talked about them as causing the economic crisis. Making a connection between the economy and refugees is not necessary; it is also clear that such a connection only gets made when there is a right wing extremist party in parliament to which other parties fear losing voters. How can this be avoided?
In the very recent election (September 9 2018), we saw an election campaign that resembled a referendum on refugees (where “yes” or “no” were the only options). Almost all political questions were directed toward refugees and the one question all party leaders were asked was if they could consider inviting the Sweden Democrats to form a government. Most of them tried to avoid answering this key question. The common strategy in the Swedish parliament has, so far, been to not invite them in any governmental positions or let them have any influence on the budget. They tried in 2014 and caused a governmental crisis, forcing the moderate right wing parties to enter an agreement with the governing parties, the Social Democrats and the Green Party, to not vote down their budget proposal. This so-called December Agreement, has partially made it possible for Sweden Democrats to claim the anti-establishment position and gain “victim-voters”; but more importantly, it has kept them out of power and influence and none of their racist and anti-feminist reforms have been realized. At least not by the Sweden Democrats themselves.
The autumn of 2015 ended with a closed border-bridge between Denmark and Sweden, a stop for immigrants to enter the country and seek asylum, and the introduction of a so-called temporary permit of residence (this last reform doubled the bureaucratic workload, making it obvious that it was not about overload in the first place). These were “panpartisan” reforms, all parties agreed on them except the Left Party. Sweden Democrats were not against them, they were just not invited to the executive meeting. Meanwhile, right-wing extremists started burning down asylum housings and the media refused to call it terrorism.
This autumn, everyone thought the Sweden Democrats would double their support again and become the second largest party. They “only” received 17% of the votes and were visibly disappointed and frustrated. Some of their supporters claimed electoral fraud and their group-leader in parliament started rambling on Facebook about Sweden as a frequently occupied nation (he had to use examples from the Middle Ages for that claim) and how it is the Sweden Democrats’ destiny to be the resistance in an “existential struggle for the survival of our culture and our nation” with only two alternatives: “victory or death”. None of this, of course, is discourse that makes sense in a country with the most secure electoral system and no invasion by foreign powers since 1809 (and that was Russia, so Sweden Democrats could not very well use that example when the enemy is imagined to be “Cultural Marxists” and “Europeans”).
The election result was a close draw between the left bloc (Left Party, Social Democrats, Green Party) and the right bloc (the Center, Liberals, Moderates, and Christian Democrats). With one (or possible two) mandates more, the left block needs the support of at least one of the right wing parties (most likely the Center), or a renewal of the December Agreement, to be able to form a government and pass the budget proposal. Because Sweden Democrats will vote against them no matter what. However, both Moderates and Christian Democrats have been very clear that they do not want a new December Agreement – they rather want to form a government on their own. At the moment, it is unclear if they will invite the Sweden Democrats to support them for government. In this limbo, that will go on until end of September when parliament votes for a Prime Minister and hence must have reached an agreement, it has become clear how dependent we are on middle parties (and that includes the Social Democrats) that stand up against racist politics. It is on their backs the future of Swedish, and possibly European, democracy lays.
Instead of making Sweden Democrats redundant, these middle parties have managed to make the Sweden Democrats count way too much; at the same time, the Left strategy cannot be to barricade itself on the left flank, and also start talking about “victory or death” even though that may be an initial feeling after an election. It is not possible to convince the rest of the population that the leftist way of thinking and living is the only right way of thinking and living. It is very difficult to mobilize more people by referring to our underdog position – no matter how true it is that members of the left are in danger and live with constant threats from racists and anti-feminists.
It does not matter how correct the Left analysis is, we will not be able to turn everyone into a Leftist. In the same way it does not matter what rhetoric the Sweden Democrats are using, it is the other parties that need to change their rhetoric: a right-winger must be able to believe in lowering taxes without having to relate that belief to a more restrictive migration politics. A leftist will of course see many problems arising from lowering taxes, but that should be something the right-winger and the leftist can discuss without having to relate to refugees or migration politics. And each time a right-wing extremist start yelling “refugees cost money!”, all politicians on the left-right scale should turn towards the extremist and explain how economic growth and increased population work together.
Even when it is obvious that an alarming amount of voters do not care if the right-wing parties will collaborate with the Sweden Democrats, or not, hence making them possible “partners in racism”, the answer to that is not necessarily to call them just that; rather we must try to look to the fall 2015 and ask what made that solidarity possible. In acts and words, we showed what immigration politics ought to be about: to help people in need and give everyone a possibility to live in a peaceful society, and, most importantly, that these acts and words have very, very little to do with other areas of politics. So little, actually, that for a short moment a one-question party such as the Sweden Democrats was made redundant by all of us. This is probably the only way that we all – leftist and right-winger together – can reclaim democracy and start being political for real. My hope is that next election we will talk about nothing but taxes. Then we will have succeeded.
Sara Edenheim is Associate Professor in History and Senior Lecturer at Umeå Centre for Gender Studies.