SWEDEN: ‘Swedish civil society needs to defend democracy at the grassroots level on a daily basis’

Anna Carin HallAs part of our 2018 report on the theme of reimagining democracy, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their work to promote democratic practices and principles, the challenges they encounter and the victories they score. Following Sweden’s September election, CIVICUS speaks to Anna-Carin Hall, press officer at Kvinna till Kvinna (Woman to Woman), a Swedish civil society foundation that seeks to strengthen the role of women in conflict regions by collaborating with women’s organisations and supporting their work to promote women’s rights and peace. Its advocacy focuses on six thematic areas: safe meeting places, the empowerment of women’s rights defenders, increasing women’s power, women’s participation in peace processes, power over one’s body and security for all.

Sweden’s September election saw support fall for the established centre-left and centre-right parties and rise for the far-right Sweden Democrats. What factors lie behind this result, and what broader trends do you think it points to?

First, I must emphasise that my answers reflect my own personal opinions rather than those of the organisation I work for. Kvinna till Kvinna is a politically and ideologically independent organisation and has only taken one single standpoint regarding the elections – against what we see as the Sweden Democrats’ anti-feminist policy.

That said, the drop in support for social democratic parties, for example, is an ongoing trend all over Europe, and not just in Sweden, so one answer could be that this global trend towards a more traditional, nationalist and authoritarian climate finally got hold of Sweden, too.

Part of the explanation is, as always, fear of globalisation, as traditional jobs move out of Sweden as a result of cost-efficiency thinking, and a large influx of migrants over a short time span, particularly in 2015, create a heavy pressure on the Swedish welfare system, including education and health services, as well as housing shortages.

Before the election there was also public discussion about the gap between urban and rural areas in Sweden, and around health services shutting down in remote areas. Support for the Sweden Democrats is more common in regions with low education, low income and high unemployment.

Nevertheless, the Swedish economy is still very strong, and Swedes are in no way suffering economically because of heavy immigration. But large migration centres set up in the countryside have altered the makeup of the population very quickly, causing tension in these places. Additionally, long-term studies in Sweden have shown that for many decades public opinion has been less pro-immigrant than the policies of the dominant parties, and the Sweden Democrats are now being able to capitalise on this.

Apart from the economy, insecurity issues have also been used to stir anti-immigrant sentiment. A rising level of spectacular shootings among criminal gangs in some immigrant-dominated suburbs has attracted the attention of both Swedish and international media – one of those events was even mentioned by US President Donald Trump, who incorrectly implied that it had been a terrorist attack – and alt-right websites have used these politically a lot.

Longer term, do you expect support for far-right causes to continue rise, or do you think it has peaked?

There are different views on this. Some analysts say that the Sweden Democrats have become popular because the other parties in parliament have tried to shut them out. As a result, the Sweden Democrats and their supporters have been able to play the role of victims and claim that the political elite does not care for the views of the common people. Some therefore argue that the Sweden Democrats should be included in the government, and refer to the case of Finland, where Sannfinnlandarna, a nationalist party, reached the government and showed themselves unfit to govern, as a result of which support for them rapidly dropped. This is suggested as one potentially easy way to get the Sweden Democrats off the agenda.

Several analysts have predicted that the Sweden Democrats will rise a bit more in the next election and will then start to lose popularity. The explanation for this would be that the right turn in the Western world will eventually fade out - but this is really just an assumption, with not much in terms of facts to support it.

Are these trends indicative of rising currents of xenophobia and racism? If so, how have the more mainstream political parties responded to these and how have they impacted on rights-oriented civil society?

There is a discussion in Swedish media right now regarding whether support for the Sweden Democrats is driven mainly by xenophobia and racism. Some opinion-makers claim this is the case, but there are surveys pointing towards the fact that Swedes think that the problem is failed integration, rather than immigration itself. Swedish society hasn´t been able to provide immigrant groups with proper education in Swedish, guidance about the Swedish community, decent jobs and so on.

The change in the political climate manifests itself in, for example, more outspoken discussion of the costs of immigration and its impact on the Swedish welfare system. We can also see a more vivid discussion around cultural or traditional behaviour, such as honour crimes, with some claiming that for too long Sweden has not taken a strong stand against this and avoided several conflictive issues around immigration and integration that were considered culturally sensitive.

The normalisation of the Sweden Democrats, a party that originated in the Neo-Nazi movement of the 1970s and 1980s, has also led to a louder alt-right Neo-Nazi movement in Sweden, which though still low in numbers, gets a lot of media attention. Several alt-right media outlets are spreading fake news about crime rates among immigrants. Alt-right groups are also making threats, spreading hatred and running smear campaigns in social media. This climate may very well lead to self-censorship among pro-immigration, feminist and LGBTQI groups.

Mainstream parties have responded to all of this by moving towards a more moderate immigration policy and placing higher demands on immigrants – for instance, by introducing new requirements that they must meet in order to receive social aid and subsidies. Rights-oriented civil society groups are still trying to raise their voices in favour of a generous immigration policy based on humanitarian values, but they aren’t getting much attention these days.

How is civil society working to combat xenophobia, racism and right-wing populism in Sweden, and what else could it do to build support for human rights and social justice?

Open racism and xenophobia are in no way tolerated by the vast majority of Swedes, and several local rallies have been staged against racism and the Neo-Nazi movement both before and after the elections. Rights-oriented civil society has prepared for a long time to counter these trends, but stills needs the support of large groups of everyday people to have an impact on official discourse and the public conversation.

Swedes take great pride in their open society and will likely defend the free press, the freedom of speech and gender equality, among other values. Threats and hatred against immigrants, journalists, feminists and LGBTQI activists get much attention in the media and several political actions have been organised to prevent them from happening. So, if a right-wing government forms with silent or open parliamentary support from the Sweden Democrats, we will likely see a lot of strong reactions from the political and cultural establishment as well as from civil society.

In the long run, Swedish civil society needs to work to defend democracy at the grassroots level on a daily basis, and maybe it also needs to go to the barricades to build opinion and change what could turn out to be a dangerous course of history.

Civic space in Sweden is rated as ‘open’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.

Get in touch with Kvinna till Kvinna through its website and Facebook page or follow @Kvinna_t_Kvinna on Twitter.