Listen: Simon Tormey in conversation with Stephen O’Doherty.
Professor Simon Tormey says populist political movements of both the right and left are changing politics around the world. The latest example is the Swedish election where the right-wing, anti-immigration, Swedish Democrats (SD) enjoyed a growing popularity – despite their neo-Nazi origins.
Sweden: Still tolerant and progressive?
The SD are threatening the hold on power of the long dominant Social Democrats and the reputation of Sweden as progressive, haven of tolerance and stability. The party have enjoyed rising popularity for about a decade and have become more popular following an influx of 163,000 mostly middle-eastern refugees and asylum seekers during the 2015 migration crisis in Europe.
Sweden and Germany were very generous in their welcome to the tens of thousands who had been displaced by the war in Syria and other conflicts. Per capita they were the most generous of European nations. The SD is capitalising on a backlash against that open door policy which asks why other countries in Europe and the European Union left it to Sweden (and Germany) to carry the can for what was a massive humanitarian emergency and they argue should have had a ‘whole of Europe’ response.
Swerving to the Right
On Open House Professor Tormey told Stephen O’Doherty Sweden is definitely swerving more to the right after a century of the progressive, left leaning, Social Democrats being the major party. The SD finished third with about 18 percent of the vote. That is about five percent better than their last outing and supports Professor Tormeys contention that support for populist parties like SD is growing.
Far-right growing in Europe
“It’s certainly an incremental increase in support for the far right; for anti immigration parties, anti refugee parties. We saw this in the French Presidential election where Marine Le Pen [President of the National Rally political party (previously named National Front) ] got as much as 40% of the national vote.” says Professor Tormey.
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Brexit a cry for help
“We saw in in the German election with the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), We’ve seen individuals like Geert Wilders [Dutch anti-Islamist politician] do extremely well and of course the Brexit vote itself is in often seen as a cry of help against immigration and freedom of movement within the EU. This is another test of the hypothesis that Europe is turning right and that at the same time that social democracy and center left politics has lost its legs” he says.
A hippy logo hiding a dark heart?
The party logo, in the national flag colours of blue and yellow , is a cute daisy which to Australian eyes, at least, looks more like an IKEA fabric than the official corporate brand of a political party. in fact that might be the exact idea behind the quirky fun logo.
Adjusting tone to attract votes
Like other right wing parties the SD have been sanitizing their past associations and modifying their political platform to be more electorally appealing. For instance, in France the right wing Front National was renamed to become Rassemblement National (National Rally). They dumped the party founder (Jean-marie Le Pen, father Marine Le Pen) as leader and eventually expelled him, changed their name and stepped back from some long held views to become more palatable to voters. Leader Marine Le Pen has called it a process of “de-demonising” the party.
While Professor Tormey says there are many legitimate arguments that could be had about immigration, a country’s capacity to provide for more immigrants and so on, many of the populist parties flourishing at the present time in Europe have an historic base in race hatred and other unsavoury ideology – including the SD.
“They [SD] have a past in Neo-Nazi movements in Sweden 15 to 20 years ago. There are some nasty elements still lurking within that party. Really in the last ten years the new leader [Jimmie] Åkesson [party leader since 2005] tidied it up a lot. He’s given it a much more respectable sort of televisual presence if you like.
He is doing for SD what Marine Le Pen has been doing for the Front National; which is to broaden its appeal, play down a racist past and to make sure people don’t see it as a racist or Neo-Nazi party.” explained Professor Tormey.
Some really nasty groups
“So what we can note here is that some of the nastier elements are no longer in the Sweden Democrat party they are further to the right still. So there is another party further to the right called Alternative for Sweden and outside of there there are really some nasty groups.”
“For example the Nordic Resistance Front and so on. So there is another set of issues as we move further to the right but certainly the Sweden Democrats are an anti-immigrant party. They do highlight the perils posed by refugees and so on but many of these concerns, as we can hear are shared by ordinary voting citizens.” says Professor Tormey.
Asked about the Neo-Nazi elements in European politics and the basis of those feelings in the ideology the Nazis promoted in Germany in the 1930’s and 40’s Professor Tormey says there is definitely such a movement.
“There is genuinely a kind of a Neo-Nazi movement in Sweden. You look at the imagery, the posters, the rhetoric of the Nordic Resistance Front. You are under no doubt at all that these are people that see themselves and style themselves as National Socialists – as Nazis. They are White Supremacists.”
“They feel that the ethnic purity , the homogenous nation of Sweden and Scandinavia more broadly, is being diluted and undermined by an influx of refugees and immigrants, so there is undoubtedly a strong racist element there. We’re trying to get to grips with what sort of a percentage of the population that might actually reflect.”
EU not leading on issues
Professor Tormey says the anti-EU (European Union) stance of many European populist parties stems from a number of things but it is certainly true that the EU did not really come to grips with the 2015 refugee crisis.
“The EU has shown little leadership in this respect which has meant that large concentrations of refugees and immigrants have found themselves in Eastern Germany and Sweden and in other kind of major centres. Whereas places like France and, for example, Spain have taken in proportionally far fewer refugees and migrants.” Professor Tormey explained on Open House.
Unequal burden of migration
“This is stoking the resentment because the feeling is that other people are not coming to the party. They are not helping out with this and instead these social problems that go with integrating and looking after large numbers of new migrants and not being equitably dealt with by the European Union. So this is also stoking an anti-EU sentiment as well as a pro-ethnic, nationalist, nativist movement.” says Professor Tormey.
“There is no excuse or reason for hunting people down, using violence and Nazi slogans, showing hostility to people who look different, who have a Jewish restaurant, for attacks on police officers,” Merkel told the Bundestag.
Social media gathered crowds
The protests came after a German citizen was killed, allegedly by asylum seekers. Chemnitz is a region which gave a 27% share of the vote to the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) in the last election. The area also has a strong Neo-Nazi history. The protests were organised by the AfD with the anti-Islam PEGIDA movement and the ethno-nationalist Pro Chemnitz group. Big crowds gathered quickly thanks to the power of social media with the largest demonstration estimated to have attracted 7,000 people.
Protesters used banned Nazi salute
The protests were the most violent in decades and were notable for for the use of the banned NAZI salute, a criminal offence in Germany. One protester has already been convicted of hate speech for using symbols of a banned organization, assaulting law enforcement and attempted assault and sentenced to probation and fined. The AfD is now the third largest in the German Parliament and was a prominent presence at the protests, despite officially distancing itself from neo-Nazis.
Populism – A Beginners Guide
While populism is most often associated in the public mind with right wing politics, Professor Tormey, whose latest book ‘Populism – A Beginners Guide’ is due to be published soon, says there are also centerist and left wing populist movements. He says there is another aspect to the Swedish elections in the resurgence of the Communist Party are also doing well in in Sweden with their popularity going from about four or five percent to around ten percent. He says that illustrates a world wide phenomena.
It’s happening in Australia
“Really what’s happening is that electorates across the world – and particularly in Australia – simply don’t have any trust in the political establishment any more. We don’t really believe the narratives. We don’t believe they are acting in our interests and this is creating haiuts in the party system which is itself translating into spills and leadership routs and all the kinds of things we’ve seen in Australia recently as well.” says Professor Tormey.
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