The far right: on the march
A woman rides her bike next to an election poster of Ebba Busch Thor, leader of the Christian Democrats Party in Stockholm. The general election in Sweden takes place on Sunday. Photograph: Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP/Getty Images
Recent elections across Europe have seen traditional political patterns undergo dramatic changes, if not in exactly the same way in each country.
While in France the beneficiary was the new centrist formation led by Emmanuel Macron, and the biggest loser the once powerful socialists, in Germany and Italy the most noteworthy shift has been to the far right, with the breakthrough of Alternative für Deutschland last year and the success of Matteo Salvini’s Lega in March. In Austria, meanwhile, the far-right has entered coalition with the centre-right after last year’s election, while in Hungary Fidesz, the proudly illiberal national-conservative party of Viktor Orbán, won a landslide victory in April.
In parallel with these developments, Europe’s hard-right parties have established closer links with each other and speak confidently of sweeping away the traditional parties of the centre-left and centre-right across the Continent.
The next domino to fall, according to this scenario, will be Sweden, which goes to the polls on Sunday. A country long associated with egalitarianism and comprehensive social provision, and governed alternately either by social democrats and their allies or a coalition of parties of the centre-right, is now threatening to go the way of so many other European states with the apparently inexorable rise of the populist and virulently anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats (SD), a party with roots in neo-Nazism which has attempted over recent years – with apparent success – to normalise itself in the eyes of the electorate.
The SD has fallen back slightly in recent weeks from much higher poll figures recorded earlier in the summer but, buoyed by hostility to recent immigration and concerns over gang violence, it still stands a good chance of pipping the centre-right moderates to become the country’s second political force. Until now a cordon sanitaire has been erected around the SD by all other political parties but this could change after the election, with the far-right supporting the centre-right from outside government in return for influence on policy towards immigrants. This is indeed the current arrangement in Denmark and it is clear that the SD draws inspiration from its sister organisation, the Danish People’s Party.
There has been a tendency to explain the growth of right-wing populism, from the United States to France or Britain, chiefly in terms of a protest vote by sectors of society “left behind” by globalisation. Germany and Sweden, however, are hugely successful economies and societies, with Swedish unemployment, under the current social democratic government, at its lowest for 10 years. If, in these circumstances there is, as it seems, still growing support for strident, anti-foreigner rhetoric and loud nationalism with a distasteful political pedigree, then this needs to be addressed head on by all democratic forces.