FOR MANY AROUND THE WORLD Sweden remains a bastion of strong trade unions, superior working conditions, and a generous welfare state, not to mention the murdered Social Democratic Prime Minister Olof Palme, a global voice for peace and democracy. In the last 30 years, this bright image of Sweden has surely faded. Indeed, since the late 1980s, the country has endured numerous neo-liberal policies including the overt privatisation of schools, health and social care, resulting in poorer quality and increasing class differences.
Sweden had its share of Nazi followers during World War II, but they never posed a real threat to democracy. The workers’ movement treated Nazi ideology with appropriate disdain. However, in some parts of Sweden there is a tradition of nationalist extremism. The wider resurgence of the far right came following the election of a mainstream right wing government in 2006, which ushered in the effective dismantling of the welfare state. Four years later the ironically named Swedish Democrats entered the Stockholm Parliament and, by 2014, this party with Nazi roots had nearly doubled its share of the national vote. In the last decade racism and xenophobia have become normalised in society. This is the background to the events of 30th September this year which generated international headlines: “Nazis march in Sweden's second largest city, Gothenburg!”
The Nordic Resistance Movement (NMR in Swedish) is an avowedly Nazi party. Its core consists of some 200 members, but they are both highly disciplined and extremely violent. They see themselves as soldiers in an ongoing conflict and a latter day reincarnation of Nazi stormtroopers. The NMR gained permission to march through central Gothenburg on the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur. There was widespread disbelief at the prospect of NMR supporters passing by the city’s synagogue. The fascist demonstration was also timed to coincide with the annual Swedish Book Fair.
To the surprise of many, police officials allowed the NMR march to proceed despite a top flight football match that afternoon. The stage seemed set for complete chaos in the city, where the previous weekend the police had protected an unauthorised NMR march from the anger of many Gothenburg residents.
On 30th September Nazis gathered from the Nordic countries and also Germany in order to join the demonstration that NMR had promised would be Sweden’s largest fascist march since the 1940s. Estimates vary, but most say around 500 marched behind the NMR’s flags. At least 1,000 riot police escorted them along a route curtailed by a court order. Thankfully, they were also met by between 10,000 and 20,000 from around Sweden, who joined forces with Gothenburgers in hosting several counter-demonstrations. To the NMR's disappointment, it was blocked from staging a full-scale Nazi provocation.
When the fascists tried to break through police barriers there were several arrests including of the NMR’s leader, Simon Lindberg. The attempt to march against the synagogue and try to reach King Gustav Adolf Square was halted by police. The police response almost certainly reflected the impact of the large and vibrant, but peaceful, anti-Nazi counter-demonstration.
But the NMR is not the real threat to democracy. That threat comes from the Swedish Democrats (SD), a party with some similarities to UKIP and the Party Moderaterna (so-called moderates but roughly equivalent to Britain’s Tories). The Christian Democrats remain unclear as to whether they would be prepared to sit in coalition with the SD in government after the 2018 general election. Sweden’s Social Democrats, for generations the party of government, are vulnerable, having gained nothing from their attempt to be a Scandinavian version of New Labour.
As elsewhere in Europe, there is a general dissatisfaction with, and increased contempt for, politicians. Many are looking for an alternative. The Social Democrats’ embrace of neo-liberalism has alienated many traditional supporters and left others as easy prey for the SD’s populist rhetoric.
While it would be too simplistic to brand all SD voters as racist, the SD does little to disguise its appeal to xenophobia and racial hatred. A number of SD politicians have strong links with NMR, which stands for the repatriation of virtually all migrants from outside northern Europe. The SD might well emerge as the second largest party in terms of popular vote and there is a real possibility that the mainstream right parties agree a co-operation pact, if not a formal coalition, with the SD, which would pose a fundamental threat to parliamentary democracy in Sweden. The solution lies with solidarity and socialism. We must aim to revive and renew the Swedish model even as we oppose the scapegoating of refugees and other migrants.