Extreme Rechte Schweden
Augustin Le Gall/HAYTHAM-REA/laif

Lessons from Scandinavia

The established parties and the challenge from the right
Sanna Salo

Far-right ideas are gaining ground in many places, as are far-right parties. Political forces in the center are faced with the challenge of shaping their policies in such a way that they can put a stop to this trend. Our guest researcher Sanna Salo has studied developments in Finland and Sweden and derives recommendations for the German situation.

There is by now abundant academic literature dealing with the question on how established parties can react to the challenge from the right: General observations or studies focusing on center-left parties and center-right parties. There is no silver bullet or easy answer that would stem the rise of the far-right. The far-right parties are different, for example on the range of how extreme they are or the political contexts and cultures they reside in.

By this article, I want to bring some potentially useful observations from the Nordic country of Sweden into the German debate. Germany and Sweden both now feature a radical right-wing party polling around 20-25 percent at the national level: the Alternative for Germany (AfD), the Sweden Democrats (SD) respectively. Yet in Sweden the rise of the SD happened somewhat earlier than in Germany, where the AfD has only in the past few years risen in the polls in a significant way. Currently polling at 18 percent at the national level but close to or over 30 percent in some Eastern states, the AfD may be able to make life extremely difficult for the established German parties soon. Centrist parties consequently need to make strategic decisions on how to respond to the AfD now. Ignoring the party – which may have been an option a few years ago – is no longer a tenable strategy.

What to do then? The first thing to do is to establish whether to engage with the challenging party. The political center has to decide whether to accept the newcomer as a party among others. In the case of Sweden, for example, the Sweden Democrats entered parliament in the 2010 general election with 5.7 percent of the vote. The party had been growing in a way that worried the political mainstream for some years before that, but the strategy chosen by the centrist parties was one of dismissal. Not only were political negotiations and cooperation with the SD ruled out, the mainstream parties would not even talk about the SD in a political sense, but rather as an illiberal threat whose access to the party system should be prevented in the first place. In the words of Stefan Löfven, a future Social Democratic Prime Minister, the mainstream parties hoped that the Sweden Democrats would remain an “inconvenient parenthesis”.

What made such a strategy of disengagement potentially hazardous in the longer term was that it arguably entailed also a dismissal of the issues that were driving the SD’s surge. That is: when the focus of criticism was on the Sweden Democrats as a party and denying them entry, the problems related to, for example, immigration and integration were overlooked. This is because the Swedish mainstream parties long defined the “problem” as one of individual attitudes gone wrong, misinformed xenophobia especially among manual workers. As has since become apparent, this analysis was at least partially false, and problems were brewing in the migrant-dense suburbs of Stockholm, Gothenburg and Malmö. The main lesson for the German case would be: ignore the AfD, if you think that is strategically wise, but do not ignore the voters or their grievances. Ignoring the issues will only give a free pass for the far-right to formulate the debate.

After deciding whether to engage politically, there are three broad categories of responses available for the mainstream parties: oppose, accommodate, or defuse. In my view, the greatest potential for effective mainstream party responses lies in defusing, i.e. in attempting to reframe the political agenda in a way that disadvantages the far-right and advantages the centrist party. As we know that voters vote for the far-right mainly on the basis of anti-immigration attitudes, particularly when the saliency of immigration in the party system is high, an effective defuse strategy would be to reduce the saliency of immigration and advocate the saliency of issues “owned” by the center, such as the economy. In addition, it would be useful to frame these issues in a non-cultural way, rather moving the debate onto the left-right political axis where the center-left and -right parties are usually strong. That is, instead of framing societal conflicts in ethno-nationalist terms (between nationalist insiders and foreign outsiders), centrist parties could benefit from addressing issues from an alternative perspective, such as social policy or economy. The only way to counter the far-right’s electoral success would appear to produce concrete but progressive solutions and visions for the future.

Swedish policymakers engaged in a defuse strategy around 2012-2014, when the SD’s electoral rise made it clear that the party was not going to disappear. It got 12.9 percent in the 2014 election, leading to the mainstream parties collectively deciding to erect a “cordon sanitaire” around the party. The response was thus a combination of isolation in parliamentary life and defusing the debate by advocating alternatives to the SD’s framing of societal problems in public debate. In our research we observed these strategies in action, in the case of the Swedish Social Democrats and the trade union confederation LO. Their defuse strategy took the form of educational campaigns, e.g., the trade union confederation LO published a pamphlet where it criticized the SD’s ethno-nationalist framing of societal debate and attempted to re-instate the class conflict as the main societal cleavage line. The response was a direct consequence of how the Social Democrats and the LO had understood the problem: one of individual attitudes, not policy failures.

Unfortunately for the defuse strategy, the pan-European “refugee crisis” of 2015-2016 helped lift immigration, integration, and law and order issues, all favored policy areas of the SD, to the top of the political agenda. This meant that the mainstream parties had to compete with the SD in its own strong terrain. Furthermore, the advantage given to the SD by the high “party system saliency” of immigration was coupled with increasing polarization of public attitudes on the issue. Immigration had been of low salience in Sweden for decades, and it had been easy for the mainstream left- and right-wing parties to maintain a tacit consensus on regulated labor migration and liberal asylum policies (ibid.). The politicization of the issue, together with the perception of a growing pool of skeptical voters, pushed the mainstream parties towards an accommodative strategy to the SD. Gradually, the centrist parties revised their immigration policy positions to a more restrictive direction. Notably, the then-incumbent Social Democrats led the way to a “paradigm shift” in Swedish migration policy, as the Löfven government introduced drastic reforms in 2015-2016 to curb the influx of asylum seekers. From this point, it became clear that a normalization of views previously held only by the SD was underway, as mainstream parties across the ideological isle adopted more conservative positions on the issues favored by the SD.

The formal isolation of the Sweden Democrats in political and parliamentary life continued until the 2022 election, but in practice, the normalization of the SD as part of the Swedish party system has been a gradual process unfolding over time, particularly after the 2018 elections. Several studies have pointed to the pivotal role of the center-right in enabling such normalization. The center-right conservative party, the Moderates (M), was also key in breaking the “firewall” against the SD. The result of the 2018 election was a tie between the left- and right-wing party “blocs”, which had alternated in forming majority governments in the past few decades. Now neither could form a majority, and leaning on the support of the Sweden Democrats, who had been isolated as a “third bloc” outside parliamentary cooperation, was considered off-limits. After long negotiations, two small bourgeois parties jumped ship and agreed to support a center-left minority government (Social Democrats and Greens). Such cross-bloc cooperation was extremely rare in Sweden and was only done to keep the SD from power. Yet the ideologically disparate coalition essentially fell apart even before the 2022 parliamentary elections, with the bourgeois Center Party (C) and the Liberals (L) withdrawing their support from the government. After the 2022 elections, as the Sweden Democrats grew further and finished as the largest right-wing party (20.5 percent) ahead of the Moderates (19.1 percent), the conclusion was clear: either accept another four years in opposition or find a way to govern with the SD’s support. The Moderates then formed a minority government with the Christian Democrats (KD) and the Liberals, which relies on the support of the Sweden Democrats but does not formally include the SD. In other words, the SD do not have ministerial positions, but the government agreement bears a strong SD footprint – for example in terms of the strong emphasis put on migration policy reforms and law and order issues – and the SD’s influence on the government’s policymaking is clear.

Germany may be a “special case” because of its history, and it is certainly different from Sweden in terms of size, its federal organization, and political culture. But the similarities between the considerations currently preoccupying centrist German politicians and parties and the Swedish experiences are striking.

In the German case, the coalition-building dilemma is particularly acute, as the AfD is projected to gain some 30 percent of the vote in some of the Eastern state elections this fall. The CDU is stuck between a rock and a hard place: to coalesce with the Left party Linke or the far-right appears equally impossible. As said above, there are no easy answers to this dilemma. But judging from the results of academic research and experience from other countries, mimicking the far-right’s positions and frames is unlikely to work, nor is ignoring the far-right party or, especially, the issues that drive its success. Engage with the issues, offer positive yet concrete solutions, do not demonize but confront the challenging party on the basis of practical politics could be the best way to go. 


Heinze, Anna-Sophie/Salo, Sanna: „The Transformation of the Mainstream Right and its Impact on (Social) Democracy in Germany“. In: Rovira Kaltwasser, Cristobal (ed.): Shifting Alliances: The Radicalisation of the Mainstream Right in Europe, and its Implication for Social Democrats. Berlin: Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, im Erscheinen, 2024.

Salo, Sanna/Rydgren, Jens: The Battle Over Working-Class Voters: How Social Democracy has Responded to the Populist Radical Right in the Nordic Countries. London: Routlege 2021.


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