Sweden Democrats threaten far-right surge in landmark election

Former neo-Nazi party on course to be kingmakers amid fears of outside influence fuelled by Twitter bots

Jimmie Akesson, leader of the Sweden Democrats, campaigns in Sundsvall, Sweden
Jimmie Akesson, leader of the Sweden Democrats, campaigns in Sundsvall, Sweden
(Image credit: Mats Andersson/FP/Getty Image)

Sweden is bracing itself for a surge in support for the far-right in Sunday’s election, which could see a once fringe neo-Nazi party serve as kingmakers in a future government and overturn a century of leftwing orthodoxy.

With four days to go until Swedes go the polls, the anti-immigrant Swedish Democrats are on course to become the country’s largest party, overtaking the Social Democrats, who have dominated politics for the last 100 years.

Established in the late 1980s with roots in neo-Nazi movements, “the Sweden Democrats were a fringe group until the refugee crisis broke out in 2015, when its anti-mass migration message began to gain traction among voters in a country that took in more refugees per capita than any other European country”, says James Rothwell in The Daily Telegraph.

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But it is not just immigration that has dominated the campaign and drawn people to the right. “Welfare is also a big theme,” says Reuters, “despite that fact that Sweden is one of Europe’s richest countries, with strong growth and low unemployment”.

Despite increased public spending, an ageing population means waiting lists for operations have grown and half of health centres have to cover doctor shortages with temporary staff, according to a report by the Swedish Agency for Health and Care Services Analysis.

Inequality, measured by the Gini coefficient, has grown faster in recent years in Sweden than in any other industrialised nation, although the country remains among those where income is most evenly distributed.

Sweden Democrats’ youthful leader Jimmie Akesson, who has embarked on a campaign to detoxify his party and drawn comparisons with France’s Marine Le Pen, has repeatedly sought to link the influx of people from abroad with the country’s eroding welfare state, social fabric and security.

“This partly explains why mainstream parties’ shift to tougher immigration policies after the 2015 crisis has failed to win back disillusioned voters,” says Reuters.

There are also fears the campaign has been targeted by foreign state actors looking to destabilise another European nation.

The Swedish defense research agency has reported that the number of Twitter bots supporting the Sweden Democrats has almost doubled in the past month.

A study of 571,719 tweets sent during March to August showed the number of automated accounts “increased significantly” in recent weeks. The bots were 40% more likely to express support for the Sweden Democrats than genuine accounts, says the agency, while the ruling Social Democrats received the most criticism from the bots.

“In a trend that echoes other recent elections around the world, both the Sweden Democrats and another far-right party, the Alternative for Sweden, received more support both from genuine and automated accounts than the other parties” says CNN.

Regardless of the Sweden Democrats’s success, all of the country’s other mainstream parties have already refused to work with them in government. “This means election day could be just the beginning of a period of major political turmoil in Sweden,” says Rothwell, but one in which the far right holds the balance of power.

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