Swedish Center-Right Adapts to Rise of Far Right

The Moderates break a cordon sanitaire that has failed to rein in the Sweden Democrats.

Ulf Kristersson Gabrielius Landsbergis
Swedish Moderate Party leader Ulf Kristersson listens to Gabrielius Landsbergis of the Lithuanian Homeland Union during a meeting of European conservative party leaders in Brussels, June 20 (EPP)

Sweden’s center-right Moderates have broken ranks with other mainstream parties by holding talks with the far-right Sweden Democrats.

The Moderates, who most recently governed Sweden from 2006 to 2014, had until now backed a cordon sanitaire around the Sweden Democrats, who are still seen as beyond by pale by centrists and leftists.

But years of political isolation haven’t made the Sweden Democrats less popular. On the contrary. They have risen from 13 percent support in last year’s election to 25 percent in opinion polls, tying with the ruling Social Democrats and ahead of the Moderates, who are at 17-19 percent.

Hard line

The boost in the Sweden Democrats’ popularity has come at the expense of both the mainstream left and mainstream right and appears to be driven by a wave of hand grenade attacks and shootings in Sweden’s major cities.

Concerns about immigration, linked to the rise in crime, also persist. Yearly immigration into Sweden nearly doubled between 2006 and 2016.

The Sweden Democrats take a hard line on immigration, but so increasingly do the other parties. Meanwhile, the Sweden Democrats have dropped their support for an exit from the EU. The net result is that they are now closer to the center.

That has made them palatable to Moderate Party leader Ulf Kristersson, who believes the two parties may be able to find common ground on issues like energy, immigration and security.

Bloc politics

A deal with the Sweden Democrats may be the only way for Kristersson’s party to return to power. The rise of the far right has made it impossible for either the left- or the right-wing bloc to win a majority on its own.

The Social Democrats won the most recent election by cannibalizing smaller parties on the left. It needed the support of the Center Party and Liberals to remain in power, who had supported the Moderates in the election.

It took an unusually long four months for the parties to do a deal. Johan Wahlström told me at the time that Sweden’s parties had to relearn forming coalitions across blocs. Kristersson’s outreach to the Sweden Democrats is a sign that they are.

Dealing with nativists

Another lesson is that ignoring nativists doesn’t work.

Belgium’s mainstream parties pioneered the cordon sanitaire, but it didn’t blunt the popularity of the far-right Vlaams Belang (formerly Vlaams Blok). What ultimately did was the emergence of a respectable Flemish nationalist party, the New Flemish Alliance.

German parties vilified the far-right Alternative, yet it placed third in the 2017 election with 13 percent support. It has been stable in the polls since.

One alternative is normalizing the far right. Center-right parties in Denmark, Finland and the Netherlands did. Pulling the Danish People’s Party and Finns Party (formerly True Finns) into government had a moderating effect on them. In the case of the Dutch Freedom Party, it exposed populist leader Geert Wilders as being unwilling to take responsibility.

The other alternative is taking the far right head on. France’s Emmanuel Macron did with the National Front. The Netherlands’ Mark Rutte did after Wilders betrayed him. Both won.

A middle road — isolating far-right parties but quietly adopting some their policies — is less effective. Most voters won’t notice. The ones that do will think you’re a hypocrite.

Aping the far right while opening the door to a coalition is the worst option. Ask Spain’s conservatives. They shifted to the right on everything from abortion to immigration to Catalan independence in an attempt to outflank Vox, but Vox was always willing to go a step further. The mainstream Spanish right normalized the far right and still ended up looking like the weaker option.