When the leader of the Moderates, Anna Kinberg Batra, recently announced that her party would be open to negotiating with the Sweden Democrats, it sent shockwaves through the establishment.
Many accused Kinberg Batra of ripping up the cordon sanitaire which has prevented far-right populists in Sweden from winning the kind of influence they have achieved in neighboring Denmark and Norway, and elsewhere on the Continent.
“You will be sitting and negotiating with a party that you yourself say is racist and pro-Russia,” Prime Minister Stefan Löfven said in response to the news, arguing that his opponent had ”lost her political compass.”
Even the Moderates’ allies in the centre-right Alliance bloc were unhappy, with Liberal leader Jan Björkland calling the move an “unfortunate gambit.” Both he and Centre Party leader Annie Lööf have said they would never be part of a government formed with the active support of the Sweden Democrats.
But the Sweden Democrats — which have been surging in the polls — will likely be in a position to wield real power after next year’s election. And the blessing by the Moderate leadership to allow MPs and local councilors to start talks with the SD is clearly helping sanitize a party that, until now, has been cut out of mainstream politics over links to neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups.
In Hässleholm, a town in northern Skåne, a stronghold for the Sweden Democrats, Ulf Erlandsson, the local SD leader, looks every inch the maverick in black jeans, trainers and a floral shirt. At the end of this month, he intends to join forces with the centre-right Moderates to oust the ruling Social Democrats, whose budget the two parties have blocked from being voted through.
He hopes the Social Democrat council chairman will resign at a meeting on February 27 and, in exchange for supporting the Moderates’ appointee to replace her, expects to be made his deputy.
The collaboration between SD and the Moderates in this area will be the first of its kind in Sweden and if he gets made vice chairman, Erlandsson will be the first Sweden Democrat to take such a position in Sweden, “so it’s nice,” he said. “But I think it will soon be happening all over the country.”
Indeed, Erlandsson believes the winds of change blowing through Skåne are the same ones that have brought Brexit and Trump and have upset the upcoming elections in France and Germany.
In November, he made a speech in the council chamber, celebrating the election of U.S. President Donald Trump. “I said that those people who wanted to see a woman president … just have to wait for it to happen in France,” he said.
His party’s support has soared in recent years on the back of growing disquiet over migration. Last year, Sweden, a country of 9.5 million people, granted residency to a record 150,000 immigrants. As the number of asylum seekers has dipped, the party has turned its focus to law and order concerns in areas with large immigrant populations.
But despite leader Jimmie Åkesson’s moves to soften the party’s image, it continues to be dogged by scandals involving racism.
An MP was sacked last year for proposing that the Bonniers newspaper group, whose family owners are Jewish, be broken up because no “ethnic group” should be allowed to “control more than five percent of the media.”
At the height of the refugee crisis in 2015, party activists posted a map listing the addresses of all asylum centers in and around the city of Lund, a move criticized as inviting anti-immigrant activists to commit arson attacks.
A big deal
Last week, Moderate party officials held their first official meeting with their Sweden Democrat counterparts on cooperation in the Riksdag, Sweden’s parliament.
“It’s a really big deal [although] it was very probably a matter of time,” said Nicholas Aylott, associate professor at Södertorn University, who sees the shift as part of a necessary realignment of the party system since the growth of the Sweden Democrats deprived alliances on the left and on the right of the chance of a majority.
“I still think we’ve got a long way before the Sweden Democrats get anywhere near ministerial positions,” he said. “What’s more likely is some understanding where SD would passively support a centre-right government.”
Kinberg Batra, who has repeatedly described Sweden Democrats as “racist in its actions,” put a stop to her party’s backroom negotiations with the SD in Hässleholm as recently as December, saying: “I do not want us Moderates to enter into cooperation with the Sweden Democrats on any level.”
Her sudden shift has left Moderate MPs grumbling, mostly off-the-record, that they were never consulted. And at least three former Moderate ministers have criticized the move publicly.
Mikael Odenberg, defense minister in the last Moderate government, wrote an article on Monday, calling for a grand coalition with the Social Democrats rather than negotiations with a party whose policies on most issues, he said, are “a total joke.”
“Is limited cooperation with SD possible?” asked Sten Tolgfors, a former trade minister, on Facebook. “Is it desirable? Will you influence one another through cooperation? Will the political climate be affected by it?”
In Hässleholm, Douglas Roth, who hopes to be appointed chairman of the council this month if all goes to plan, argued the move was a return to sanity. The last Moderate government’s “open hearts” in terms of immigration and its refusal to put in place tougher policies proposed by then-immigration minister Tobias Billström, was the reason his party came third in the municipality, he said.
“We saw that people were horrified by the immigration politics we were driving forward,” he said. “If we had brought in the politics that Billström wanted, we wouldn’t have had the Sweden Democrats with 16 percent of the votes.”
He is not alone. A poll by Inizio found that 82 percent of Moderate voters supported Kinberg Batra’s move while a clear majority of Moderate local councilors, approached by the Dagens Nyheter newspaper, welcomed the possible collaboration.
Roth admits that talks have already taken place in Hässleholm, contradicting the claims of Pär Palmgren, the local party leader, that there is no cooperation.
For Roth, it comes down to arithmetic. The Social Democrats have 20 seats in Hässleholm and, with their allies, hold 30 seats on the council, leaving them one crucial vote short of a majority. The Moderates, with just eight seats, are far short of a majority, even with all of their Alliance partners, unless they get the support of the Sweden Democrats and the local Folkets Väl party, which would earn them 31 votes.
The maths looks similar across Sweden. In Gävle municipality, half-way up the Baltic coast, the Moderates at the start of last year ended more than a hundred years of Social Democrat rule, again with the passive support of the Sweden Democrats. Kinberg Batra’s move opens the way for more to do so.
The Moderates are already moving to detoxify the Sweden Democrats’ image among voters.
Kinberg Batra’s latest line is that her party would neither form a government with the Sweden Democrats nor with the Left Party as “both have authoritarian roots.”
The underlying message is that ruling with the passive support of a party whose founders had links to the neo-Nazi movement is no different from the way the Social Democrats often have done with the former Communist party, whose previous leaders supported Joseph Stalin.
“It’s wrong to call SD such a terrible and disgusting party,” Roth said. “The Social Democrats want you to see them like that because they want to be able to stay in power. Half of SD’s members are old Moderates.”
In Hässleholm, Erlandsson can’t wait to move into his council office. “I don’t have a key, but I will next month!” he said with a laugh. “I will have a big office on the second floor. It feels very good.”