Cyclists in Stockholm

On a hot June day in the Swedish sub-arctic, the smell of pine combined with dust from the freshly dug soil. Here on the edge of the small city of Umeå, squeezed between a hockey stadium and the end of the airport runway, I met locals and refugees who had come together to grow fruit and vegetables. The project is part of an organisation called Friends in Umeå, a grassroots network of volunteers that organises everything from jogging sessions to gardening and games nights, helping new arrivals adapt to a region where, in the winter, there are just three hours of daylight and temperatures regularly dip below minus ten.

One of the project’s success stories is Samir. Originally from Iraq, he came to Sweden in 2015 and now works at the local Volvo plant. He is also honorary taxi driver to the other volunteers, ferrying people around in his pristine estate car. The north of Sweden is a place of opportunity for those who make their homes here, and in Umeå, Somalians, Iraqis and Syrians are an important part of the small city’s increasingly international outlook.

As they worked on their vegetable patch in 31 degree heat, the refugees did not know it yet, but their situation was about to get worse. Twelve weeks later, when Sweden went to the polls, the far-right party, the Sweden Democrats (SD), would achieve unprecedented power. The biggest party in Sweden’s right-wing group, the far-right upstarts have risen from rank outsiders to become the second biggest party in the country. They are now crucial partners to its ruling Conservative coalition government.

Sweden's political crisis

The rise of the Sweden Democrats has forced Swedes and the rest of Europe to reconsider Sweden’s reputation as a tolerant society and a safe haven for refugees. In a warning to supposedly stable democracies, a country that was long seen as Europe’s progressive beacon has proven itself just as susceptible to the siren calls of far-right populism as any other. With links to Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz movement and Georgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy, the SD have made Islamic migrants scapegoats for Sweden’s growing inequality and spikes in violent crime. Following a record-breaking election in which they got 20 per cent of the vote, they now pull the strings as part of a co-operation agreement with the traditional conservative bloc.

Former refugees like Samir may be safe: with permanent residency and a pathway to citizenship he is beyond the reach of the immigration system. But the Friends in Umeå work with others who are not so lucky. Hussein lives in a modest apartment on the city’s fringe and makes a living mowing lawns and pruning hedges for wealthy Swedes. He is one of thousands of refugees granted asylum but unable to gain permanent residency. “I applied for permanent status in December 2021 and nine months have passed,” he told me. “In March I got a message from the Migration Agency and I contacted them and they just said wait some more, and wait some more.”

Hussein is Hazara, an ethnic group persecuted both in his native Afghanistan and in Pakistan, the country he fled to as a child. His family was killed in bomb attacks targeting Hazaras in the Pakistani city of Quetta. Aged just 14, he fled through the Middle East to Europe, eventually gambling on the long trip north to Sweden. “I came from hell,” he says, pointing to a scar on the back of his head, where shrapnel lodged in the bomb attack.

People like Hussein now face an uncertain future. The new government has made noises about pausing citizenship applications and reviewing the status of those who are legally in the country. The Sweden Democrats have pushed the idea of repatriation hard and want to reduce asylum to the EU’s lowest possible baseline, whilst the government as a whole has promised a tougher regime.

To understand how the far right ended up as a powerful force behind Sweden’s government, we have to look back at the political crisis leading up to the vote in September. Stefan Löfven of the centre-left Social Democrats led the country until November 2021, when he resigned and the finance minister Magdalena Andersson replaced him.

During the 2015 refugee crisis, Löfven had declared that “My Sweden does not build walls”. But the country soon began to follow other EU states in tightening borders and stepping up deportations in response to growing public opposition to migration. Andersson barely had time to move into her official residence before facing one of the most toxic elections Sweden has ever seen.

The election campaign saw the Social Democrats track further to the right to try and head off attacks from their opponents. Desperation to get into power pushed traditional right-wing parties far beyond what was previously acceptable in Swedish political debate, in a potent combination of culture war rhetoric and welfare nationalism.

Channeling Trump in Gotland

In early July, the European heatwave was still baking Sweden and the island of Gotland in the Baltic sea teemed with people. I was on the island to witness the annual gathering of Sweden’s political leaders, followed attentively by lobbyists, diplomats and the press. Everyone was gearing up for the elections.

When Ulf Kristersson, leader of the conservative Moderate party, stepped onto the stage, he had one aim; to paint himself as the tough guy Sweden needed to whip the country back into shape. Just two years earlier, the diminutive politician had staged a carefully choregraphed photo-op with a Holocaust survivor to convince the public of his commitment to human rights and his opposition to far-right politics. In Gotland, however, he cemented his transformation from liberal conservative to populist outrider by explicitly thanking the SD for “daring” to talk about migration.

Afraid of being labelled a fascist-facilitator, Kristersson referred to Sweden’s emerging new right alliance merely as “his side”. But throughout the election campaign, his message was clear, that getting the old centre-left party out of government and getting tough on crime and migration were more important than splitting hairs over who would be in the new administration.

The problem for the Moderate party was that whatever they could do, the Sweden Democrats could do better. The SD’s charismatic and folksy leader Jimmie Åkesson worked the crowd in Gotland flawlessly. Åkesson casts himself as a straight-talking rural boy. He wears his shirt sleeves rolled up and speaks in a well-rehearsed vernacular that cements his image as a “real” Swede far from the political elite. Surrounded by security, he signed off with the promise that the SD would “make Sweden good once again”.

The SD world view is a utopia of white picket fences, low crime and safe small towns where the buildings fly Swedish flags rather than pride flags. The party has tapped into discontent across the political spectrum, building a base featuring everyone from ethnic nationalists to business-minded political climbers. Aided by a formidable network of alternative media and a talent for turning news events into political opportunities, they have cast themselves as the ally of everyone from struggling single mothers to businessmen burdened by high taxes.

Across from where Åkesson spoke, party members sold baseball caps with the letters SD emblazoned on them and T-shirts saying “Stop Socialist Feminism”. The vitriol directed against Magdalena Andersson, Sweden’s first female Prime Minister, recalled the Trumpist obsession with Hilary Clinton. Manning the stall was Rebecka Rapp, resplendent in a white trouser suit and a designer belt, topped off with one of the signature baseball caps. The same age as Hussein and Samir, she told me she joined the SD because they offered a solution to the economic stagnation and crime that the party says is endemic in Swedish cities. She repeated a line that many across the country echoed during the election campaign – the SD is the only party taking gangs, urban segregation and a spike in gangland shootings seriously. “Just this morning there was a stabbing right here in town,” she said. “That shows you how dangerous things have become.”

A few hundred metres away, police had indeed locked down the street after a civil servant who was attending the week of political speeches was stabbed to death in plain sight. But this was not evidence of the wave of migrant-related gang crime that the SD warned of: it later came to light that the killer was a member of radical far-right group the Nordic Resistance Movement. The killer’s ultimate target was Annie Lööf, the leader of Sweden’s liberal Centre party, who has become a hate figure on the nationalist right for her commitment to multiculturalism. The killing of a senior government employee and attempted assassination of a political leader should have caused the country to sit up and think, but this was not a normal election campaign.

The Gang of Four

With one week to go before polling day, the city of Eskilstuna, an hour west of Stockholm, resembled many others across Sweden. In the town square, little huts belonging to each political party housed activists handing out leaflets and badges, whilst voters went from group to group listening to what they had to offer. Eskilstuna used to be a stronghold of the Swedish left, but here too the SD has made huge inroads in the last decade. Their stall was a hive of activity. Party Secretary Richard Jomshof was in town. He is one of the powerful group known as the Gang of Four, a close-knit circle of friends that has steered the SD project from bomber jackets and army boots to golf tops and deck shoes.

Jomshof was flanked by security guards as he stepped on stage in front of the town hall. His speech was devoted entirely to why Islamic culture and migration threatens Sweden’s very existence.

“I have been re-reading the Qur’an,” he told the crowd, “and for me it is clear that Islam is an inherently violent religion.” He rolled through the dog whistles of European cultural nationalism. Muhammad was a warlord who kept sex slaves. Christianity is the basis of European values and the Enlightenment project. Islamic Swedes can never hope to be fully functioning members of society. He finished with a resolute “Go home.” In the crowd of onlookers there were just a few people not applauding.

Also in the square was a woman in a hijab holding a homemade sign saying “No racists in our Streets and Squares”. Someone in the crowd turned and asked what she was doing there. “I’m protesting,” she answered. “I have read your manifesto and I know what you think about Muslims and migrants.” The woman’s name was Babra, a long-term Eskilstuna resident who sees the Sweden Democrats as interlopers in her hometown. “I’ve been here for what seems like a hundred years,” she told me, “and suddenly I’m told that I’m not welcome. These people have no place on our streets.”

Not just the Sweden Democrats

The problem for Sweden’s migrants is that the SD is now everywhere, in every council and every region in the country. Its emergence over the past 15 years has emboldened critics of migration and multiculturalism in other parties, too. The 2022 election campaign saw politicians across the spectrum float ideas such as ethnic quotas for housing, testing immigrant children for ADHD to reduce crime, and mandatory language tests for children as young as two. Even before they gained power, the SD had helped to push Sweden a long way from the country that opened its doors to the world in 2015.

Election night itself was a tense affair, with just one per cent separating the left and right blocs. Late in the evening the right bloc took the lead and scenes of jubilant SD members were broadcast across the country. Ulf Kristersson claimed victory for his right-wing side but his conservative Moderate party ended up losing votes to the far right. It was clear from the jubilant scenes at the SD party, and the newly emboldened far-right glitterati on TV, who the real winners were.

“I can remember the moment it changed,” said Per Kristiansson, a priest with the Church of Sweden. His parish covers the multicultural housing projects of Rosengård in the city of Malmö, one of the areas of deprivation that were front and centre in the election campaign. “I was sat in a radio studio with someone from the border police and they said that there weren’t any safe havens any more.”

Kristiansson was on the frontline when Malmö, Sweden’s third city and the gateway to continental Europe, became the main entry point for those seeking asylum in Sweden during the 2015 crisis. Gradually, the mood changed. People went from welcoming refugees with open arms to blaming them for the city’s social problems.

A story of social exclusion

Crime in Sweden’s poorer multicultural suburbs was a central focus in the election campaign. This was not entirely baseless: the truth remains that too many young people are being drawn into the criminal underworld. Already, this year holds the record for the highest number of shootings ever officially recorded, almost all located in housing projects in major cities. The new right bloc’s proposed solution is tougher policing and sentencing, and suspension of certain civil liberties. But there is no guarantee this approach will work. There is a deeper story of social exclusion here; foreign-born residents are four times as likely to be unemployed as Swedish-born citizens.

Hussein remembers well the experience of pitching up without any knowledge of Swedish society. “There’s a lot of people in Sweden who end up as gangsters because they don’t have other options. If you don’t get your residency permit and go to school or study then you can’t work, not even as a carpenter or a bus or a truck driver. Without a social security number you’re nothing,” he told me. “The problem is, if you do everything right you still don’t always get a good deal. For those of us who worked through high school we can still get rejected. We just want to pay tax, be normal people.”

The new government, which benefited from portraying Sweden as a country in crisis, now has to prove it has the answers to these problems. Kristersson’s victory was accompanied by international headlines comparing Sweden to Hungary and Poland. Though he is no doubt keen to avoid such comparisons, one of the government’s first steps was to nominate SD politicians to influential parliamentary committees. Emboldened right-wing commentators are already calling for radical reform of public service media. Reducing overseas aid is one of many policies being presented as “sensible” and “fiscally responsible” alongside hardline migration and justice reforms.

What is perhaps most alarming is just how easily Swedish conservatives pivoted to working with the far right, finding common ground and united by a shared hatred of the left. By welcoming the SD into power, it is not clear whether Sweden’s new Prime Minister is aware of what he has helped to create, or indeed whether he cares.

Some names have been changed

This piece is from the New Humanist winter 2022 edition. Subscribe here.