Something is stirring in northern Europe. Populist Nordic parties are pushing into the political mainstream wearing moderate robes they have snatched from both the centre-right and centre-left in Norway, Sweden and Finland.
Denmark was the latest to join the trend last week when the Danish People's Party (DF) almost doubled its vote to 21 per cent, a remarkable transformation for a 20-year-old party once viewed as a hotbed of xenophobic extremists.
Like its Nordic allies, the DF has successfully tapped the continental zeitgeist: fatalistic fatigue over the crisis-wracked EU, uncertainty over globalisation, the refugee crisis – and their knock-on effects on the welfare state.
Now in coalition talks, Kristian Thulesen Dahl, the soft-spoken DF leader, faces a luxurious if existential question: whether or not to enter government.
In the past, the DF backed minority centre-right governments in Copenhagen from the opposition benches. That allowed it to take credit for key policies without accepting blame for compromises elsewhere. But can the DF realistically keep out of office now that it is the second largest party in Denmark? Dahl says he seeks political “influence” rather than “power” and is already studying the lessons of similar parties who took the plunge in neighbouring countries.
Norway’s populist Progress Party was first to join a conservative coalition, in 2013, but has since come under attack for agreeing an immigration policy seen as a sell-out by party veterans and grassroots. Its support has dropped five points since 2013 to 11 per cent, though it is now stable, and the jury is out on whether government has changed Progress, or vice versa.
Following Norway, the populist Finns party entered office for the first time last month in Helsinki after finishing second in the general election. They followed a strategy common to populist parties: after coarsening the domestic debate on EU and immigration, the amiable Finns leader,
, softened his own rhetoric and banished xenophobic party voices to the fringes.
Now the foreign minister, Soini is enjoying his mainstream makeover, though the other face of his party still makes its presence felt. For example, the Finns councillor in Helsinki who suggested on Facebook last month that African men should be sterilised because they have too many children. Or the Finns MP who last week posted a picture of himself with a self-styled "national socialist" resistance group. In both cases, the party dismissed the men as radical lone voices and no disciplinary action was taken. So will power unite or divide the Finns?
"Timo Soini didn't have to take office after the election, he did it because he wanted to govern," said Prof Kimmo Grönlund, director of research at Finland's Social Science Research Institute. "I am not sure if it's good for the party in the long run. They could yet disappoint their core voters, in particular the hardline racist camp."
The rise of a mainstream political populism has not bypassed Sweden either, where the far-right Sweden Democrats finished last September’s election with almost 13 per cent, double its previous showing. As with sister Nordic parties, the SD toned down its anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim rhetoric – if not its politics – and is on course to be Sweden’s second largest party. But Sweden shows that, to beat populist parties on hot-button issues like migration, the political mainstream is not obliged to join them.
"We still don't see much co-operation here between the established parties and the SD," said Dr Andrej Kokkonen, political scientist at the University of Göteborg. "The cordon sanitaire they created between themselves and the SD is holding, for now anyway."
Despite their different histories and political systems, all populist parties have used the same approach to push into the mainstream, adopting a hybrid identity that marries right-wing law-and-order promises with a left-wing defence of the welfare state. Also in common is how they soften their hardline rhetoric to broaden their voter appeal, just as the debate they drove over immigration and globalisation reaches a tipping point.
The Nordic populist push is one the EU should watch closely. The Finns’ price for joining a centre-right coalition, for instance, was a tighter immigration regime. On Monday, Helsinki announced it would reduce by a quarter its UN refugee quota of 1,000, something that bodes ill for EU refugee quota talks. In Denmark, meanwhile, the DF has demanded a revival of stricter border controls. A similar measure in 2011 brought condemnation from Brussels for calling into question the principle of free movement.
For outsiders who view the Nordics as a prosperous and outward-looking region, the success of parties with nationalistic, inward-looking, even defensive, policies appears puzzling. It is also a warning: a vote of no-confidence in the political mainstream, in particular centrist social democracy, from voters who feel their concerns on jobs, migration and the welfare state have been ignored.