Rodrigo Roa Duterte: A Jingoist, Misogynist, Penal Populist

Kenes, Bulent. (2020). “Rodrigo Roa Duterte: A Jingoist, Misogynist, Penal Populist.” ECPS Leader Profiles. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). September 17, 2020. https://doi.org/10.55271/lp0003


Around the world, populists are associated with economically irresponsible and unsustainable policies. In Duterte’s case, the action‐oriented dimension is demonstrated through his tough rhetoric and policies against criminal and anti-social activity, particularly the use of illegal drugs. This is described as the new penal populism.

By Bulent Kenes

On May 9, 2016, Filipinos voted to elect their 16th president. Among the candidates, Rodrigo Roa Duterte was the last one to join the campaign; and yet, he won despite a controversial reputation established during his long political career as a mayor of Davao City. During the campaign, Duterte promised to establish a similar regime to the one he established in Davao City – a regime that would restore “law and order” across the Philippines. He truthfully admitted that he was not going to be gentle with “criminality in general and drug lords in particular” and that his presidency might turn violent. Nevertheless, this crude rhetoric didn’t stop the people from giving Duterte their votes (Panarina, 2017). Immediately after his inauguration, public trust in him skyrocketed to 91 percent. His success lies in his ability to connect to the masses, a trick he learned during his school years (The Famous People, 2020).

Rodrigo Duterte was born on March 28, 1945, in Maasin, Philippines. His father, Vicente G. Duterte, was a lawyer; later, he became the acting mayor of Danao and, following that, the provincial governor of the Davao province. Rodrigo’s mother, Soledad Roa, was a teacher and a civic leader. Rodrigo was the second of five children. He started his education in Maasin, but within one year, the family moved to Davao City, where Rodrigo was admitted to Santa Ana Elementary School. His high school education was not smooth. After being expelled from two schools for unruly behavior, he was finally admitted to the High School Department of the then Holy Cross College in Digos, where he ultimately completed his schooling.

As governor of Davao, Duterte’s father was often absent. His mother was a stern disciplinarian who forced him to attend strict Catholic schools where he was allegedly molested by an American priest. To escape the strictures of life at home and at school, he often ran with his father’s police bodyguards, who introduced him to guns, booze, and life on the street (Vatikiotis 2018). He enjoyed hanging around with them and became street-smart, picking up their vocabulary and mannerisms. Although it caused immense trouble during his school days, the experience later helped him to connect with the masses (The Famous People, 2020).

“I killed about three of them… I don’t know how many bullets from my gun went inside their bodies. It happened and I cannot lie about it. In Davao, I used to do it [kill] personally. Just to show to the guys [police] that if I can do it why can’t you.”

Speaking of his high-school years, Duterte admitted that he shot one of his classmates. As The Enquirer explains, the student bullied Duterte (Fe, 2016) and got shot for it (although he luckily lived). It is worth mentioning other examples of Duterte’s violent behavior, such as his statements on personally killing three criminals as mayor of Davao. He said: “I killed about three of them… I don’t know how many bullets from my gun went inside their bodies. It happened and I cannot lie about it.” He also added: “In Davao, I used to do it [kill] personally. Just to show to the guys [police] that if I can do it why can’t you” (BBC News, 2016).

In 1988, Duterte was elected mayor of sprawling Davao City on the island of Mindanao. During the following decade, he was twice reelected. Due to term-limit restrictions, he did not run for mayor again in 1998 but successfully sought a seat in the Philippines House of Representatives, representing Davao. Upon the completion of that term in 2001, he returned to Davao City and was once more elected mayor. The restrictions were imposed again in 2010; he occupied the position of vice-mayor while his daughter Sara served as mayor. In 2013, Duterte returned to the mayor’s office, this time alongside his son Paolo (“Pulong”) (Panarina, 2017).

In Davao in the mid-1980s, communist rebels fought against the military and police-backed vigilantes in a gruesome dirty war. Violence killed people almost daily. Duterte was known as a tough city official in touch with both vigilantes and communists for political ends. As mayor, he was widely praised for cleaning up the city by using death squads and extrajudicial executions (Guthrie, 2018). He legitimized the activities of the Davao Death Squad (DDS), which many human rights organizations believe led to the deaths of 1020-1040 civilians from 1998 to 2005 (Quimpo 2017, p. 157). The DDS was composed of ex-army officers, police officers, and rehabilitated criminals who took justice into their own hands by killing suspected drug users, dealers, and petty criminals. DDS members were given “shoot-to-kill” orders for those resisting arrest (Tusalem, 2019).

During his more than two decades as Davao mayor, Duterte managed to transform the city into one of the safest areas in Southeast Asia. His radical crime-fighting tactics earned him the nicknames “the Punisher” and “Duterte Harry” (in reference to the film character Dirty Harry). Rather than denying extrajudicial killings in Davao City, he embraced them. The death squads that carried out the killings operated with impunity and Duterte openly praised both their methods and their apparent results. In this way, he cultivated the image of a coarse, pistol-toting vigilante, which he would utilize during the presidential campaign in 2016 (Ray, 2020).  

In 2016, the socio-political conditions in the Philippines were ripe for any populist candidate like Duterte to be elected. The life of a common Filipino has been complicated by inadequate infrastructure, ineffectual government, old-hat political leaders, and governments dominated by a few affluent families. All of these factors helped Duterte to win the hearts of the people despite not being a complete outsider in Filipino politics. His family originally came from Cebu, where they were also involved in politics (Kundu, 2016). Duterte’s “One Voice, One Nation” slogan referred to his background as a Manila outsider. In the classic mode of the “anti-politician politician,” he sought to distance himself from the discredited politics of the capital city (McCargo, 2016). Duterte’s success in restoring peace and order in Davao City led to his immense popularity among Filipinos who exhausted with an elitist political system blighted by corruption, bureaucratic inefficiency, and political instability (Curato 2017c).

Duterte’s reputation grew as he took his political reputation to the national stage and found a country receptive to the message he would deliver via social media and elsewhere: drugs are a scourge, and he would use any means necessary to end the problem (Guthrie, 2018). While Duterte’s responses to questions about vigilante connections were ambiguous and contradictory, he clearly relished his reputation as a ruthless anti-crime candidate. But while Duterte talked equally tough on corruption, he soon became embroiled in controversy over his own bank accounts (Santos, 2016).

Surveys reveal that the average Filipino is happy and optimistic, although socio-economic data suggests they are severely afflicted by income inequality in a country where 40 of the richest families account for almost 80 percent of the wealth.

The Philippines, a country of more than 106 million people, is an odd basket of contrasts. The faster the country grew, the more obvious its poverty became. The rich got richer, the corrupt escaped jail, crime rates soared, and Manila’s creaky infrastructure groaned under the weight of its populace. Measures of inequality in the Philippines soar above its regional neighbors, with a Gini coefficient of more than 44 and poverty rates above 20 percent; the murder rate, at close to 9 percent, is the highest in Southeast Asia (Vatikiotis, 2018). Despite these stats, surveys reveal that the average Filipino is happy and optimistic, although socio-economic data suggests they are severely afflicted by income inequality in a country where 40 of the richest families account for almost 80 percent of the wealth. Starved of opportunities at home, almost 12 percent of the population live or work overseas. And yet Philippine society is deeply nationalistic and given to fits of jingoism. In this context, Duterte’s appeal becomes more understandable (Vatikiotis 2018).

Electoral polling data from the 2016 election suggest that even as he won votes across socio‐economic classes, Duterte’s strongest base of support comprised younger, wealthier, and more educated sections of the population (Ramos, 2020). This appears to be borne out by polls conducted a month before the elections, on the basis of which Teehankee and Thompson (2016a) opine that “the Duterte phenomenon is not a revolt of the poor. It is middle‐class driven. It is angry protest most acute among the modestly successful, including call-center workers, Uber drivers, and overseas Filipino workers.” Similarly, Coronel (2019) notes that among Duterte’s most “hardcore supporters” are the “new middle classes,” comprising Filipino nannies, nurses, seamen, and construction workers working overseas and the digital underclass working in the booming call centers in Manila and other cities. They constitute a section of the population for whom the global division of labor has provided pathways out of poverty but not necessarily into affluence and security. It is not difficult to see how Duterte’s electoral pitch to deal with issues of criminality and the country’s crumbling urban infrastructure would resonate with them (Ramos, 2020).

At the core of Duterte’s public image were two closely interwoven themes: authenticity and masculinity. His authenticity was a challenge to the high-class backgrounds of both incumbent Benigno Aquino III and Aquino’s anointed candidate, Mar Roxas (Kundu, 2016). Duterte delighted in code-switching between Tagalog and English; the Philippine Daily Inquirer dubbed him the “trash-talking mayor” for his constant swearing in both languages. Duterte did not hesitate to curse anyone and everyone – even Pope Francis, whom he called a “son of a whore.” He flaunted his crudity as a marker of his maleness, boasting of his womanizing (Ranada, 2015), claiming that he wished he had raped an Australian missionary (ABC News, 2016); after the election, he catcalled a female reporter at a press conference (Youtube, 2016)

Duterte’s open disdain for women, crude jokes, and foul language only seemed to burnish his allure (Guthrie, 2018). Much of that vulgarity is misogynistic and homophobic, and John Andrew G. Evangelista explores the contradiction of how a country with some of Asia’s highest ratings for gender equality could produce a president prone to rape jokes and unwanted kisses. “Duterte did not make politics sexist,” Evangelista explains. “It was already sexist to begin with,”(Capozzola, 2018).

In a forum where he first indicated his interest to run for president, Duterte said, “If only to save this Republic, I can run for President.” He warned the audience of an “imminent disaster” if illegal drugs, criminality, and stalled peace talks are not resolved. For Duterte, the nation is on the brink “of being fractured,” and it takes a leader who can say, “if you don’t follow the law, you’re fucked with me.” Duterte’s framing of fighting illegal drugs as a major election issue gained traction, evidenced by a poll where low pay and illegal drugs became some of the top issues concerning voters (Pulse Asia, 2016). This is a change from the usual issues that survey respondents identify outside the electoral season, where jobs, poverty, and inflation are among the top concerns; illegal drugs are rarely part of this list (Curato, 2017a).

Duterte often used shock tactics in his rhetoric. The phrase “I killed … / I will kill you” was featured in two of his discourses. He used machismo as an overarching amplifier that allowed him to appeal to his supporters. This amplification strengthened his support and contributed to the masculine image he had built.

In Duterte’s case, his use of gutter language lends credibility to the urgency of saving the republic. By rendering the visceral rejection of the status quo visible, he gives voice to the peoples’ frustration. His main campaign message was the suppression of criminality and drugs within three to six months. He offered no clear economic platform, except for a vague proposal of a shift to the federal system. His currency is his promise of certainty, anchored on the rhetoric of violence and machismo (Curato, 2017a). During his election campaign, Duterte’s main slogan was “Change is Coming,” but this was no Obama-like evocation of the audacity of hope. The word “change” was invariably paired on Duterte posters with a clenched fist, more resembling a threat than a promise. Other slogans included the rousing “Go, Go!”, the idealistic “One Voice, One Nation,” and the more ambiguous Tagalog “Tapang at Malasakit (courage and devotion).” All were accompanied by the ubiquitous fist (McCargo, 2016). 

Duterte often used shock tactics in his rhetoric. The phrase “I killed … / I will kill you” was featured in two of his discourses. He used machismo as an overarching amplifier that allowed him to appeal to his supporters. This amplification strengthened his support and contributed to the masculine image he had built. Machismo is designed deliberately to amplify existing support from audience members (Ismail et al., 2018). Most controversially, he has made no bones about using extrajudicial violence to eliminate crime. During the campaign, Duterte warned that he would be killing people once he got elected: “When I become president, I’ll order the police and the military to find [criminals and drug pushers] and kill them.” Duterte declared in the final weeks of his campaign: “The funeral parlors will be packed … I will supply the dead bodies.” (Vatikiotis, 2018).

Wielding raw charisma, coarse language, and an unapologetic indifference to the norms of public behavior, Duterte’s no‐nonsense political style represented a fresh take on traditional electoral campaigns in the Philippines, in a way that spoke to people’s sensibilities (Fink‐Hafner, 2016; Taggart, 2004; Teehankee & Thompson, 2016b). His tough talk sparked the hearts of voters fed up with the incumbent administration’s inability to live up to its narrative of good governance (Holmes, 2016). Anchored on national frustration and anger (Teehankee, 2016), Duterte’s campaign speeches generated captivating stories of discontent and outrage over an inefficient and corrupt government.

Duterte invoked a crisis narrative of widespread criminality and illegal drug use, which generated illegal profits for the entrenched elite. Throughout his campaign, he cited a figure of anywhere from 3 to 4 million drug users in the country to justify his anti-drug campaign, although the Dangerous Drugs Board of the Philippines pegged the number at around 1.8 million (Gavilan, 2016). Through iron‐fisted leadership, Duterte vowed to eliminate the drug problem in 3 to 6 months, even at the expense of human lives (David, 2016).

Populism may not be new to the Philippines, but Duterte’s style is a departure. While Joseph Estrada and Jejomar Binay were often compared to Thailand’s Thaksin Shinawatra, whose anti-elite rhetoric and pro-poor programs were tainted by scandals and corruption, Duterte’s brand of populism is often compared to that of Donald Trump.

A Populist Public and Duterte’s Presidency

On May 9, 2016, nearly 80 percent of eligible voters turned out for the election, and Duterte captured nearly as many votes (39 percent, or 16 million votes) as his two closest competitors combined (Ray, 2020). His “change” and “courage” image was that of a fearless pugilist, single-handedly taking on the forces of darkness. This narrative drew on the Davao mayor’s reported links to vigilante groups credited with killing dozens or even hundreds of drug-dealers (Whaley, 2016).Duterte’s promise of a country free from drugs and criminality resonated with the public’s concern for peace and order. Election exit polls showed that 57 percent of voters who voted for Duterte did so on the basis of his drug-war platform (Mangahas, 2016).

There are various ways to account for Duterte’s rise to power. His brand of populism is one of the most compelling approaches to making sense of his electoral victory. Duterte was chosen as the people’s champion against an oppressive and corrupt political establishment (Abts & Rummens, 2007; Moffitt & Tormey, 2014). This is consistent with previous literature on populism, which documents how populist leaders construct society as separated between “the pure people” and “the corrupt elite” (Mudde, 2010). Populism may not be new to the Philippines, but Duterte’s style is a departure. While Joseph Estrada and Jejomar Binay were often compared to Thailand’s Thaksin Shinawatra, whose anti-elite rhetoric and pro-poor programs were tainted by scandals and corruption, Duterte’s brand of populism is often compared to that of Donald Trump (Curato, 2017a). Duterte’s “anti‐elitist” stance appears to be directed only at those sections of the elite outside his own governing coalition (Ramos, 2020).

Many firsts characterized the 2016 Philippine elections. It saw the electoral victory of Duterte, the first Filipino local politician to directly leapfrog to the presidency (Heydarian, 2018). Duterte’s election also reflected an emerging trend of rising populism around the world (Arguelles, 2017; Curato, 2017a). This international surge of populism has not only resulted in populist leaders but also what Curato (2017c) calls, the “populist publics.” According to Curato, the scandalous statements and incessant improprieties that have defined populists have also characterized their respective populist publics. “Populism is about populist publics as much as it is about populist leaders,” she wrote. Thus, at a gathering of supporters in Manila, Duterte’s “public” brought placards that read, “Those who will not vote for Duterte will get killed!” (Clement, 2016).

This perceived fanatical character of many populist supporters earned them pejorative labels. Rivals of Duterte have labeled his supporters as “Dutertards,” a contraction of “Duterte” and “retard.” This wave of ridicule and mockery was not only limited to populist critics. Even in academic literature, it is common for populist supporters to be represented in negative terms (Arguelles, 2019). Yet it’s important to remember that Duterte won a majority of his support from the upper and middle classes (Holmes, 2016; Teehankee & Thompson, 2016a).

In the past decades, the Philippines has witnessed an electoral cycle vacillating between “reformism” and “populism,” with both sides having sometimes won the support of poor voters, who are admittedly more populist (Thompson, 2010). The populist Filipinos offer their support to Duterte in exchange for changes in how they are represented in public, how politics is conducted, and how the government is managed (Arguelles, 2019). As an example, many residents of Kalayaan, which is one of the many poor villages in the country targeted by Duterte’s brutal operations against drug operations, still continue to support him in the face of the extrajudicial killings (Arguelles, 2018).

For the populist public, a vote for Duterte is a vote to make their everyday misery visible (Christie, 2009). Despite widespread international and domestic criticisms of his drug war policy, the populist public sees it as a recognition of their hidden suffering (Curato, 2018). Support for Duterte also reflects the populist publics’ demand to bring authenticity to Philippine politics. In the eyes of the populist public, Duterte possesses both transparency and consistency. By being authentic, Duterte is seen to be more trustworthy, predictable, and relatable – characteristics that allowed a politician like him to easily get the political support of the populist public (Arguelles, 2019).

By being open about his personal failings and moral weaknesses, Duterte is seen by his supporters as ordinary. The populist public considers him to be more predictable and accessible, as they understand the state of mind of an “ordinary” person. As Schaffer (2007) noted in his study of slum communities, they gravitated to politicians who may be corrupt but can accord them respect and dignity. Hypocrisy repulsed the populist public on two counts: one, they despised that politicians considered themselves to be morally better individuals than ordinary people; and two, they were offended that these politicians would think they, the public, could be easily fooled (Arguelles, 2019).

The populist publics also voted for Duterte to overcome perceived bureaucratic inertia. For his supporters, Duterte is seen as a representation of a persistent political will. To these voters, the persistence of political will is demonstrated when politicians are determined to overcome all impediments, including legal challenges, just to be able to do pursue their desired course of action. These voters demand that politicians refrain from using the complexity of the bureaucracy as an excuse. In Duterte’s case, his unresponsiveness to the criticisms of his controversial drug war policy is seen as proof of this. Duterte’s supporters interpreted his disregard for due process and the rule of law not only as persistence and determination to fulfill his campaign promises but also as a form of solidarity with them in resisting the faceless but powerful bureaucratic rules (Arguelles, 2019).

Around the world, populists are associated with economically irresponsible and unsustainable policies that bureaucrats tend to reject (Rodrik, 2018), including unconditional cash transfers, free social services, and huge infrastructure projects. (Pasuk & Baker, 2008). In Duterte’s case, the action‐oriented dimension is demonstrated through his tough rhetoric and policies against the criminal and anti-social activity, particularly the use of illegal drugs. This is described as the new penal populism (Curato, 2017c; McCoy, 2017b; Pepinsky, 2017): Duterte’s supporters are drawn to his war-on-drugs policy on the premise that the existing legal system and institutions are used by the illegal drug industry to their advantage. For Duterte and the populist publics, if the order is to be restored in the country, what is needed is a strong and decisive leadership instead of strengthening the rule of law (Arguelles, 2016).

Penal Populism and Duterte’s “War on Drugs”

Duterte justified his “war on drugs” by exaggerating the security threats imposed by the illegal drug trade and, in turn, used this war as an instrument to incorporate the national police into his power base (Quimpo, 2017). This also resonates with the rhetoric of a strand of the new right and populist leaders with whom Duterte currently shares the world stage. This strand of populism has been described as “penal” or “punitive” (Curato, 2016). It involves the political practice of courting votes by preying on citizens’ anxieties about security and safety, through the promotion of punitive short‐term solutions to address criminality, often at the expense of respecting human rights (Ramos, 2020).

The ideology of penal populism has a positive relationship, on the provincial-level, with extra-judicial killings. For example, it has been found that extra-judicial killings are more likely to occur in provinces where Duterte’s vote-share in 2016 was highest and in provinces that he regularly visited and where he gave speeches justifying his war on drugs. These findings comport with theories relating to how chief executives of representative democracies may increasingly rely on vertical accountability from citizens to extract continued political legitimacy given that horizontal checks on their power remain weak and ineffective. The results also imply that penal populism is an ideology that is used not only as a campaign tactic or strategy to win elections but as a program of government (Tusalem, 2019). Duterte also increased visits to certain provinces to promote and sell his anti-drug crusade through landmark fiery speeches, which are often laden with profanities and appear to be popular with the masses (Lamchek, 2017). This is clearly a tactic used by presidents in delegative democracies as a way to connect with the public to guarantee continued support (Tusalem, 2019).

Because of his systematic attacks on human rights, Duterte was called as “fascist original”. Of course, Duterte doesn’t seem to care – he likened himself to Adolf Hitler and said that he would “be happy” to exterminate three million methamphetamine users and sellers in the country. He said, “If Germany had Hitler, the Philippines would have [points to himself]”.

By definition, penal populism is a virulent type of populism where leaders run on a platform of law and order in an effort to exploit fear and anxiety from their citizens. It is also an ideology that portrays how a country’s political and economic instability can be traced to failures in the justice system and where policies and legislation are perceived by citizens as favoring criminals and neglecting the plight and concerns of law-abiding citizens and victims of heinous crimes (Curato,2017b; Kenny, 2018). This is also corroborated by Kenny’s (2017, 2018) analysis of Philippine politics. Such support for a pernicious form of populism is not directly related to a declining economy; rather, support for “law-and-order” political leaders is driven by stoking generalized fear in the population because of the lack of institutionalized parties that are programmatic (Tusalem, 2019)

As a matter of fact, citizens in more developed provinces are more likely to endorse and support Duterte’s penal populism. Such strong support for penal populism in affluent provinces and in provinces where Duterte won by large margins may also embolden police authorities to carry out the will of the majority. Conversely, poorer provinces, where narrower income inequalities exist, are less likely to prioritize crime victimization and crime insecurity in electoral campaigns, as their votes are based on addressing immediate, pressing concerns like poverty, hunger, and employment(Tusalem, 2019). Penal populism resonates with a public whose experience of justice is mostly of its elusiveness. Around 80 percent of drug cases in the country end up being dismissed, and it may take a decade to achieve a conviction. The demand for immediate action plays on the temptations of swift justice (Arguelles, 2019)

However, penal populism comes with a cost: because of his systematic attacks on human rights, Duterte was called as “fascist original” (Bello, 2017). Of course, Duterte doesn’t seem to care – he likened himself to Adolf Hitler and said that he would “be happy” to exterminate three million methamphetamine users and sellers in the country. On September 30, 2016, he said, “If Germany had Hitler, the Philippines would have [points to himself]” (Lema & Mogato, 2016)Committing mass violence with impunity and with public adulation, Duterte is the most dangerous president in the post‐dictatorship Philippines. In fact, Simangan (2018) argues that his war on drugs is a “textbook case for what the processes of genocide look like.” 

Within days of his landslide victory, Duterte vowed to reintroduce the death penalty – abolished in the Philippines in 2006– in concert with his promise to “fatten all the fish” in Manila Bay with the bodies of criminals. In a televised address in June, he endorsed vigilantism by members of the public, stating that he would personally reward anyone who shot and killed a drug dealer. On June 30, 2016, Duterte was inaugurated as president of the Philippines (Ray, 2020). In his inaugural address, he read a short and powerful speech free from expletives. He assured the public that he knows the limits of presidential power and vowed to adhere to due process and the rule of law. However, hours after his inauguration, Duterte started cracking jokes about the profitability of funeral parlors under his administration (Curato, 2017a).

At the turnover ceremonies of the Philippine National Police and Armed Forces of the Philippines, he once again resorted to off-the-cuff speeches. “There is time to rest and to die,” he said, pertaining to drug lords. And, in perhaps one of the most controversial moves of his first month in office, he publicly named top police generals, judges, and politicians who were part of the illegal drug trade (Curato, 2017a). His drug war soon led the National Police (PNP) to carry out extrajudicial killings of presumed drug dealers (Timberman, 2019). When the police become the sole executor in the war on drugs, it makes obeying other rules even more difficult. In the 2016-2018 period, Duterte fired more than 400 police officers who were proven to have violated various regulations. Duterte eventually even offered to take over the leadership of the PNP himself (Aminuddin, 2020). Duterte openly followed a policy of reestablishing “law and order” by using authoritarian and militaristic methods. These have been heavily criticized by Western democratic societies but have rapidly earned him the “trust” of ordinary people (Panarina, 2017)

The violence precipitated by the war on drugs, the use of murder as a tool of public policy, and the open disregard for law and the courts is nothing new in the Philippines. Presidents, warlords, politicians, and various kinds of insurgents have been murdering with impunity in the country for generations. Duterte just took things a step farther, turning the use of death directed against the underclass into a political selling point. Duterte learned the tactic when he cut his political teeth as a prosecuting attorney in Davao City at the end of the dictatorial Ferdinand Marcos era. Marcos also used wars against drugs to justify violence, albeit on a more modest scale than Duterte (Guthrie, 2018).

Duterte’s disregard for human rights has been the most worrisome aspect of his administration. “Human rights cannot be used as a shield or an excuse to destroy the nation,” he declared in his first State of the Nation Address, a direct retort to his critics including human rights advocates, academics, and the Roman Catholic Church. One month after Duterte took office, there had been over 900 drug-related killings, 700 anti-illegal drug operations, 700 arrests, and hundreds of thousands of voluntary surrenders all over the country, further crowding jail cells already serving over five times their maximum capacity (Curato, 2017a).

In his first six months in office, more than 6,000 people were killed in Duterte’s “war on drugs,” many by vigilante groups; a fraction of those deaths occurred during police operations. Metro Manila’s funeral parlors were strained beyond capacity, and hundreds of unidentified or unclaimed bodies were interred in mass burials. Human rights organizations and Roman Catholic officials spoke out against the bloodshed, but Duterte responded by accusing the church of corruption and the sexual abuse of children (Ray, 2020). Duterte’s “war” can be seen as his key instrument for delivering on his electoral campaign promise. He treats the purported “drug menace” as an issue of criminal justice, rather than as a public health concern (Tomacruz, 2018). These extra‐judicial killings of suspected drug pushers and addicts by the police and vigilante groups deprive the victims of the recourse to due process (Ramos, 2020).

The death toll has continued to rise. In two years, police shot and killed around 4,800 people (Guthrie, 2018), although human rights activists suspect the body count could be as high as 12,000-15,000. According to the Brookings Institute and Human Rights Watch, the figure is between 9,000 and 12,000; the political opposition in the Philippines has the number at 20,000 (Tusalem, 2019); and the head of the Philippines Commission on Human Rights has said the death toll from the policy may be as high as 27,000. Duterte has reveled in the bloodletting, barely bothering to deny his role in mass death (Guthrie, 2018). Most of the victims are denizens of urban slums and disproportionately poor; the drug war has rightly been described by international organizations as a “de facto program of social cleansing” and a “war on the poor” (Hadro, 2017).

Most victims come from poor socio-economic backgrounds. More specifically, many are unemployed or did not complete their primary or secondary education (Tusalem, 2019). The victims – often young male breadwinners from poor families –are dismissed as “collateral damage” of a war meant to keep the streets safe (Curato, 2019). Photojournalists have documented almost nightly killings in slums: people found slumped in pools of blood. A few of the killings have been caught on CCTV cameras.

Beyond the grisly spectacle of bloodied bodies, are grieving wives and orphaned children. Nearly 800,000 supposed drug users have surrendered to authorities and volunteered for rehabilitation. Unfortunately, there isn’t the infrastructure to cope with this volume of treatment. Meanwhile, a 2017 survey revealed that eight out of ten Filipinos fear that they may become victims of the war on drugs – yet, a similar number nonetheless support the campaign (Vatikiotis, 2018).

This fear is not baseless. The crackdown on drugs has resulted in the deaths of elected city officials and even Catholic priests. Duterte has shown no remorse. Yet, confoundingly, he remains popular. He may have silenced his critics using extra-judicial means, sacking the Supreme Court chief justice in the process, but he continues to deliver on key parts of his promise to address chronic problems. While Duterte draws most of his attention because of the war on drugs and his foul-mouthed disregard for women and religion, as a populist leader, he is moderately successful (Vatikiotis, 2018). In June 2019, a survey showed the public’s satisfaction with the war on drugs at 82 percent (Reuters, 2019). The popularity parallels that of pro-poor social programs, infrastructure development, and military pay raises. Duterte’s populist policies continue to earn major support from the low and middle classes and the urban poor (Aminuddin, 2020).

The pace of these gross human rights violations has alarmed scholars with concerns that the country is moving toward a situation where creeping authoritarianism is making a comeback, thus eroding the democratic gains the country has achieved since 1986 with the overthrow of the Marcos dictatorship (Curato 2017c). What also confounds scholars is that this act of state repression has been endorsed and supported by citizens. National surveys conducted by Pulse Asia in September 2017 suggest that 88 percent of Filipinos support the Oplan-Tokhang movement (as Duterte’s “war on drugs” is known) and 86 percent believe that the campaign is orderly and does not violate the due process rights of Filipinos(Tusalem, 2019)

In July 2017, the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, a bi‐partisan formation in the United States House of Representatives, conducted a public hearing on the human rights consequences of the war on drugs in the Philippines (Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, 2017). In February 2018, the International Criminal Court (ICC) opened a preliminary investigation into the more than 12,000 deaths that had occurred during Duterte’s “war.” The following month, Duterte responded by announcing his intention to withdraw the Philippines from the ICC (Ray, 2020). Lashing out at the ICC investigation, Duterte said during a speech on Sept. 27, 2018, “What is my sin? Did I steal even one peso? Did I prosecute somebody who I ordered jailed? My sin is extrajudicial killings” (Guthrie, 2018). The Philippines’ withdrawal from the ICC became official in March 2019 (Ray, 2020)

In June 2019, international human rights experts from the United Nations issued a statement calling on the UN Human Rights Council to investigate the human rights situation in the Philippines, in the face of the “staggering number of unlawful killings and official attacks on people and institutions who defend human rights” (Cumming‐Bruce, 2019). International and domestic human rights organizations have continued to remain sharply critical of Duterte, but he has dismissed them, going so far as to instruct police to shoot activists if they are “obstructing justice” (Ray, 2020).

In October 2018, Rappler – an online news organization which published investigative pieces that exposed Duterte’s online troll army, questionable procurement deals, and impunity in the drug war – began running an extraordinary series called, “‘Some People Need Killing’ – Murder in Manila” by journalist Patricia Evangelista. The six-month investigation details how the police used and sometimes paid vigilantes, gang members, and others to ratchet up the body count in the grimmest district of Tondo, the worst slum in Manila. In the series, which is street-level reporting at its best, a young thug named Angel details how he was recruited into a vigilante gang by police and middlemen and was paid per killing. “Every time they said we had a job, they meant we were going to kill,” Angel is quoted as saying (Guthrie, 2018).

Duterte engineered the arrest of his leading legislative opponent and the removal of the country’s top judge; declared martial law in the country’s second-largest island; and boasted of using extrajudicial force. And yet, Duterte is the most popular president in Philippine history.

Dutertismo: Demise of Democracy

Away from the carnage on the streets of Manila and other parts of the country, Duterte has generated controversy on the world stage. Like Trump, Duterte is given to surprising outbursts, such as when he called both US President Barack Obama and Pope Francis a “son of a whore” in Tagalog. He has shown little patience with the formal aspects of diplomacy, showing up late for summit meetings, dressed informally, and sometimes even skipping key events (Vatikiotis,2018). He engineered the arrest of his leading legislative opponent and the removal of the country’s top judge; declared martial law in the country’s second-largest island; and boasted of using extrajudicial force. And yet, Duterte is the most popular president in Philippine history (Capozzola, 2018). Why?

According to Capozzola, almost every explanation begins in the middle of an urban highway. From February 22-25, 1986, as many as a million Filipinos gathered on Manila’s Epifanio de los Santos Highway (EDSA) to prevent President Marcos from attacking a group of military defectors who had broken with his regime to support Corazon Aquino in the aftermath of elections widely viewed as fraudulent. Filipino political culture was reborn in these four days, creating a democratic vocabulary and expectations for sweeping reforms even as entrenched elites continued business as usual (Capozzola, 2018).

More than 30 years later, it is clear that “People Power” did not bring about the expected transformation. Politicians prattled on about the “unfinished” revolution but offered little explanation for why so many tasks were long left undone; meanwhile, doors opened for media-savvy populists. While ordinary people endured grinding poverty, a rising middle class demanded infrastructure, public safety, and an end to corruption. The poor wanted someone to speak for them, and the middle class wanted the government to do something. Both were disappointed. This was a ticking time bomb, and the election of Duterte was its explosion (Capozzola, 2018).

Like many observers, Heydarian sees Duterte as the culmination of three decades of political crisis. He argues strenuously for the existence of “Dutertismo,” political ideology and approach to governance that draws from Duterte’s “deep and diversified base” and targets his enemies at the expense of basic liberal principles (Capozzola, 2018). Thus, under the rule of Duterte, democracy in the Philippines has backslid towards authoritarianism. 

Aminuddin (2020) argues that three key factors are driving the current recession of democracy in the Philippines. The first factor is the use of populism in political campaigns. This results in elected leaders being held hostage by their own political promises, which have the potential to inflict damage on democratic institutions, practices, and values(Aminuddin, 2020). Populism, as political theorist Simon Tormey (2018) puts it, is a pharmakon, “a powerful substance intended to make someone better, but which might end up killing him or her” (Curato, 2019). The second key factor is the political marginalization – used by presidents and their respective oligarchies – of their political rivals. This is accomplished through both repression and hegemonic power, weakening the opposition and public control of the ruling regime’s performance. The third factor is the weakening of public institutions through policies created by politicians that support the regime (Aminuddin, 2020).

As mentioned above, Duterte’s government uses the legal system to attack political opponents, disparage or threaten leaders of key accountability institutions, and batter the mainstream media with lawsuits and criminal charges (Medina-Guce & Galindes, 2018). However, voters in May 2019 delivered a resounding endorsement of his agenda by backing a slate of pro-Duterte candidates. Duterte maintained his hold on the House of Representatives, and, by taking control of the Senate, he removed what was the only effective check remaining on his administration (Ray, 2020). Beyond Duterte’s overt displays of toxic masculinity is a discernible pattern of his aggressive attacks against the integrity of democratic institutions. His regime has demonstrated its willingness to breach the boundaries of state power while evading accountability (David, 2016 & Thompson, 2017b).

The Philippines’ presidential system allows presidents to utilize state-level repression with very limited constraints from other branches. This led many scholars to classify the Philippines as an example of Guillermo O’Donnell’s (1994, 1996) delegative democracy – political systems that have not completely transitioned from authoritarianism to democracy and thus maintain autocratic features where the president employs coercive strategies against the country’s people (Thompson 2017a; Pilapil 2016). According to O’Donnell, such polities are characterized by the elevation of the chief-executive as the true “embodiment of the nation, the custodian and definer of its national interest” and one that assumes a “paternalistic” role for his subjects. This arises because legislatures and the courts lose their ability to regulate the rule of law, and thus such institutions are likely to have no real political power except to rubber-stamp presidential directives(Tusalem, 2019)

In such a system, the president maintains his legitimacy through vertical accountability with the people, and, as such, his/her campaign promises must be translated into real, actionable programs to sustain his/her continued popularity. Thus, the president is above all political parties and organized interest groups, as his/her only sole purpose is to promote an agenda that continues to cater to the will and desires of the masses (Tusalem, 2019). Running on a platform based on this brand of populism, Duterte was able to gain support among an exhausted population made apathetic by political instability and economic mismanagement. More specifically, the public embraced Duterte’s dichotomy between “virtuous citizens versus hardened criminals – the scum of society” (Curato 2017b).

To show who he supported in this dichotomy, in December 2019, Duterte threatened to beat up and jail the “oligarchs” who run Manila’s water concessions, accusing them of bilking the government and overcharging consumers. “No matter how many bodyguards you have,” he said at a public meeting, “I can ruin your face, son of a bitch.” As their share prices went into a tailspin after the president’s attacks, the heads of the country’s two biggest business conglomerates agreed to renegotiate the water contracts and give up the hefty awards the government owed them. One company even ceded control of its water business to a businessman on friendlier terms with the president (Coronel, 2020).

Duterte’s dystopian depiction of drugs as the root of all social ills has been a successful deflection strategy, distracting Filipinos from the country’s limited developmental gains and shifting the blame for social problems onto criminals, who can be ruthlessly targeted in the name of national progress (Thompson, 2018). Duterte also campaigned on a promise of challenging the elitist democratic institutions in the country. These same institutions have been unable to bring needed reforms and have failed to unleash the country’s economic and political potential (Heydarian 2017). He has made good on his word, moving to eliminate liberal barriers to his agenda.

He has also sought to sideline domestic critics by intimidating independent media, government institutions, and civil society groups, whom he accuses of “coddling” criminals (Thompson, 2018). His campaign was entirely based on restoring peace and order based on a populist sentiment that the country had become a “narco-state” (Quimpo 2017). Duterte believes that the Philippines will be unable to sustain its economic growth trajectory and remain politically stable unless the government eradicates drug use among its population. This platform was then translated into action as “Oplan-Tokhang” (Tusalem, 2019).

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of Duterte’s tenure so far is the manner in which he has dealt with the political opposition. Critics have been handled harshly and often threatened with violence. At the beginning of his presidency, he successfully had one of his leading critics in the Senate, Leila de Lima, who cut her teeth investigating the Davao Death Squads, imprisoned on improbable drug charges after he publicly “slut-shamed” her (Thompson, 2018). However, Duterte’s efforts to jail another opposition senator, Antonio Trillanes IV, have backfired. Trillanes, a retired army officer who helped plot a coup against the unpopular former president Macapagal Arroyo, has accused Duterte and several of his top officials of corruption and has suggested that his son and son-in-law are both involved in drug smuggling (Thompson, 2018).

Supreme Court Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno was also removed – and almost without a whimper. She was also a critic of Duterte’s “war” (Vatikiotis, 2018). Lawyers described the purge of Sereno as the “final nail in the coffin of judicial independence” (Minda News, 2018). The first female chief justice had a tense relationship with the macho president. Early in Duterte’s term, Sereno reminded Duterte that only the judiciary had the right to discipline judges, after he had publicly accused a number of them of being part of the drug trade. Duterte threatened Sereno, claiming she should not create a crisis, “because I will order everybody in the executive department not to honor you” (Lorena, 2018). These threats became even harsher in 2018. Duterte put Sereno “on notice” that “I am your enemy and you have to be out of the Supreme Court.” Duterte demanded that Congress fast-track Sereno’s impeachment, and Congress dutifully acted (Cruz, 2018).

Parallel to the impeachment proceedings, in Congress, a case was filed by Solicitor General Jose Calida to consider Sereno’s appointment void from the beginning. Sereno was accused of failing to accurately declare her wealth in her Statement of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth when she applied for the post of chief justice. This, according to the solicitor general, calls into question her integrity, thereby disqualifying her from holding public office. With a vote of eight against six, the Supreme Court made history by removing its own chief (Curato, 2019).

Duterte also tends to take repressive actions through parliament, where left-wing parties and politicians have become his main allies and support his populist policies, such as the Tax Reform Program, which provides benefits to the middle class. It was an exceptional case when Duterte supported the Anti-Political Dynasty Bill of 2018 but failed to get approval from Congress. His support was questionable – he comes from a political family, his children also hold public office, and his daughter is mentioned as a future successor to the top office. Similarly, many legislators supporting him also belong to political dynasties (Aminuddin, 2020).

Duterte has extended his crackdown on opponents to every corner of society. He has been particularly vicious against the Catholic Church, which has been critical of his war on drugs. Duterte has called the church “the most hypocritical institution in the entire Philippines,” accused the clergy of abusing boys and coddling drug dealers, and threatened to behead a bishop who provided sanctuary to witnesses of police abuses in the drug war. In even more heavy-handed moves, Duterte has used his propaganda machine to shave off support for liberal opposition, and his state lawyers have hounded the most outspoken dissenters with aggressive prosecution. As a result of this campaign, Duterte has a near-monopoly on political power (Coronel, 2020).

The pandemic did not halt but instead furthered Duterte’s illiberal project is best instantiated in the shutdown of ABS-CBN – a media giant Duterte singled out in his previous speeches for its alleged bias against him. The last time the network went off the air was in 1972 during the Marcos dictatorship.

Rappler’s chief editor Maria Ressa attends the TIME 100 Gala 2019 at Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York, NY on April 23, 2019.

Having threatened, bullied, and jailed many of his opponents, Duterte has also cowed much of the media into submission and curtailed press freedoms. Maria Ressa, the cofounder of a news website Rappler – which documented the worst excesses of Duterte’s anti-drug campaign – was arrested numerous times on questionable charges (Ray, 2020). 

Since he took office, Duterte has been persistent in accusing Rappler of violating the constitutional requirement for mass-media organizations to be 100% Filipino owned. Rappler is American-owned, Duterte claims. He also claims it is backed by the CIA and out to destabilize his administration. Rappler denies these claims (Curato, 2019).

“It is easier to navigate a conflict zone, a war zone than it is to navigate the social media and the legal weaponization of laws in our country. But we hold the line,” Rappler’s chief editor Ressa stated. The two areas of Rappler’s coverage that seem to have most unnerved Duterte revolve around significant investigations of police impunity in the drug-war killings and the continued use of Facebook to spread disinformation and distortion for political ends (Guthrie, 2018). 

On January 15, 2018, the Securities and Exchange Commission revoked Rappler’s license to operate, claiming violations of the Foreign Equity Restriction of the Philippine Constitution. A month later, Rappler’s Malacañang correspondent Pia Ranada was banned indefinitely from covering the president. The eight-year-old media start-up also found itself facing a cyber-libel complaint and five charges of tax evasion, together with unrelenting online death threats to its journalists(Curato, 2019). Duterte is belligerent and has warned the media about the limits of press freedom. “It’s a privilege in a democratic state,” he said. “You have overused and abused that privilege” (Salaverria, 2018).

The weakening of the political opposition has been aided by the regime’s aggressive intimidation of the press. Duterte’s other targets include the Philippine Daily Inquirer, which had been the most respected newsgroup in the country before it caved to political pressure on its businesses and sold out to an ally of Duterte. Other outlets still challenge Duterte, including to some extent the country’s largest TV news network, ABS/CBN (Guthrie, 2018).

Duterte is aware of using social media to control his agenda. He applies so-called Key Internet Protocols, or KICS, to censor online media, limits information, and launch technical attacks on government critics. The attacks on freedom of expression on social media or in conventional media are of concern because they are often followed by physical attacks or torture (Aminuddin, 2020).

In reality, the Philippines has one of the most vibrant media landscapes in the region, but it is also one of the most dangerous places to practice journalism. Long before Duterte threatened the media, the Philippines had some of the highest incidences of journalists being killed in the world. Journalism in the Philippines is a dangerous enterprise, made even more toxic by a president who sees journalists as the enemy.

Duterte has shamed the Philippine Daily Inquirer and ABS-CBN News as “rude” in his speeches. “See how they slant,” he complained. “I’m not scaring them, but someday, karma will come.” Observers read this as a clear threat to two of the country’s biggest media organizations. The ABS-CBN franchise is up for renewal in 2020. Duterte has said that if it were up to him, he would not renew it (Rappler, 2017). After 12 hearings, the House Committee on Legislative Franchises rejected the franchise application of the ABS-CBN Corporation (de la Cruz, 2020).

The pandemic did not halt but instead furthered Duterte’s illiberal project is best instantiated in the shutdown of ABS-CBN – a media giant Duterte singled out in his previous speeches for its alleged bias against him. The last time the network went off the air was in 1972 during the Marcos dictatorship. The network was forced to go off the air at the height of the pandemic because its franchise was not renewed. There are many implications of the network’s shutdown. Aside from curtailing press freedom, ABS-CBN’s absence means many Filipinos living in far-flung and vulnerable areas have no access to news and information not only about the pandemic but also about forthcoming disasters including the destructive Typhoon VongFong (Curato, 2020).

Duterte Makes New Friends From Old Enemies or Vice Versa

Ever since independence in 1946, every Filipino president has walked a fine line between insisting on an “independent foreign policy” and burnishing close connections to Washington (Capozzola, 2018). Duterte has also long wanted to end the Philippines’ dependence on the US security umbrella and foreign aid; past presidents were forced to come to heel when American officials threatened to withhold assistance in an effort to rein in corruption and human rights abuses. Therefore, Duterte has called for a “separation” from the US and advocated closer ties with China, believing that the Philippines’ long-term security and economic interests are best served by Beijing’s embrace (Coronel, 2020)

Duterte called US President Barack Obama “a son of a whore,” in response to the US’s criticism of the extra-judicial killings (Ismail et al., 2018). He threatened to “break up” with the US at their joint military exercises.

In the months after his presidential victory, Duterte stirred the global political arena by announcing his radical departure from long‐standing Philippine diplomatic relations with the US and his subsequent shift to an alliance with China (Montiel et al, 2019). The Chinese Ambassador was among the first foreign envoys who met Duterte after his victory. During his campaign, Duterte said that he would continue a stance toward multilateral negotiations on the disputes over maritime claims in the South China Sea. He has also encouraged China to invest more in the Philippines and engage in further economic cooperation (Kundu, 2016).

On September 5, 2016, Duterte called US President Barack Obama “a son of a whore,” in response to the US’s criticism of the extra-judicial killings (Ismail et al., 2018). He threatened to “break up” with the US at their joint military exercises(Ranada, 2016a). During his state visit to China in October 2016, Duterte declared to Chinese officials, “I announce my separation from the United States, both militarily but also economically … So, please, you have another problem of economics in my country. I am separated from them so I will be dependent on you for a long time” (Ranada, 2016b). Following Duterte’s shift in allegiance, China generously provided financial assistance to the Philippines, offering aid in the construction of major local infrastructure projects, including major bridges, expressways, and even rehabilitation of a war‐torn city (de Vera, 2017).

China has continued to lend significant funds to an ambitious public works program, and Chinese businesses and tourists bring much-needed investments and foreign exchange to the Philippines. Unlike the US, China offers these benefits without pressing Duterte to give ground on democracy and human rights (Coronel, 2020).  However, high-profile visits by Duterte to Beijing aside, the basics of the US-Philippine military relations have not changed: the Mutual Security Act commits the US to military protection, while the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement allows joint maneuvers, training, and ship visits. Heydarian argues this is not an erratic or inconsistent foreign policy but one that “follows a strategic logic which is sensible for smaller powers precariously caught between competing superpowers” (Capozzola,2018).

When Western governments expressed concern over the rampant vigilantism, Duterte said that the West could offer the Philippines only “double talk.” When the US went beyond talking and suspended the sale of 26,000 assault rifles to the Philippines, Duterte met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in May 2017 to discuss the prospect of an arms deal (Ray, 2020). Duterte successfully showed that the country’s sovereignty cannot be compromised by business interests. Similarly, it may not be difficult for Duterte to assert his country’s sovereignty despite its economic dependence on China. In response, the international community has threatened economic sanctions while the US government has cut off some overseas development assistance to the Philippines, with Duterte lambasting officials of the EU and the US government as disrespectful of his country’s right to self-determination—often giving speeches laden with profanities and obscenities against world leaders and threatening to withdraw from international human rights organizations, treaties, and obligations(Tusalem, 2019).

Foreign direct investment (FDI) continues to pour into the country, although this may have less to do with the approval of the regime, and more to do with the opportunities offered by the government’s ambitious infrastructure spending program and the momentum resulting from steady economic growth throughout the 2010s. Data from the Central Bank of the Philippines show that total net foreign investments increased in all years that Duterte has been in power so far, compared to their levels in 2015. While there have been fluctuations in FDI from Japan, the US, and the European Union, Chinese FDI steadily increased from 2015 to 2018, reaching unprecedented levels in 2018 and 2019 (Ramos, 2020). Foreign investment from China increased 10 percent in the early period of Duterte’s presidential term (Cigaral, 2019). They flowed mostly into promised infrastructure projects. With the Duterte administration’s multi-trillion-peso flagship “Build, Build, Build” program, the National Economic and Development Authority envisions that the Philippines will be a high-middle-income country by the end of Duterte’s term (Curato, 2019). Duterte is hedging his bets on Chinese investments to finance this economic vision. While the Aquino administration took a proactive approach against China in pursuing territorial claims, Duterte takes a pragmatic route, preferring bilateral negotiations and the joint development of resources(Aminuddin, 2020).

Since 2016, shortly after Duterte took office, more than 3 million Chinese nationals have visited the country. This resulted in rising public anxiety about the number of illegal workers (Aminuddin, 2020). Nevertheless, superpower talk rarely stirs widespread public emotion, because the majority of the voting population concern themselves with local issues. However, when a populist leader wins and governance begins, she/he may decide which global superpower best suits the country’s needs for effective governance. In the case of the Philippines, this also includes optimal logistical and ideological support for the authoritarian rule (Montiel et al, 2019). More specifically, leaders in countries with weak economies need foreign aid for advanced military equipment, training of armed forces personnel, and potentially even foreign militarized consultants during escalations of intrastate armed confrontations (Grant, 2010; Hawkins, 2008)

Duterte believes China can fulfill these needs. Before he left for China in April 2018, he publicly declared his “love” for Xi Jinping. And during Xi’s state visit, twenty-nine deals were signed. The most controversial of these deals is a memorandum of understanding covering the joint exploration of oil resources in the South China Sea. The skepticism regarding China resonates with the public. Xi’s visit was met with protests all over Manila demanding that China get out of Philippine waters (Curato, 2019). 

The Philippines’ President Rodrigo Duterte is a prominent example of a populist rising to power through law-and-order rhetoric.


Duterte is, of course, a populist, but he is also a pragmatist. The utilitarian logic behind Duterte’s decision-making is best described by the words of Kovács and Lynch, who wrote that “Drugs are a problem in the Philippines. What is the most direct way of dealing with it? Kill drug pushers and users. Is it feasible? Yes. Let us do it. China is encroaching on Philippine maritime territory. Is it possible to repel China? No. Let us deal with China, then. The insurgencies are a fundamental challenge to the state and a major loss of treasure and life. Can they be defeated? No. Let us negotiate peace with them. All these are part of what adds up to an effective nation-building project, perhaps not planned, but playing out so.” And from the outside, it appears Duterte does implement the policy most convenient for him at a particular moment(Kovács & Lynch, 2016).

Curato (2020) wrote that Duterte’s initially ambiguous ideological position became clear four years into his term. Having rid his cabinet of progressive politicians and populating them with retired military generals, Duterte’s illiberal project is getting consolidated as time goes by. The Covid-19 pandemic gave Duterte the justification to further tighten the control of security forces, especially in the capital.

In the Philippines, most presidents become lame ducks halfway into their six-year terms. But four years into his presidency, Duterte remains at the top of his game, impervious to blistering criticism of his autocratic tendencies and his bloody war on drugs. A December 2019 poll shows his popularity at 87 percent, surpassing that of every Philippine president since competitive elections were reintroduced in the 1980s. His opponents hope that “Dutertismo” will fade away in 2022 when his term ends. But they should not assume that Duterte will quietly leave office like his predecessors(Coronel, 2020).

According to Coronel (2020) Duterte’s demonstration of power may be thuggish, but it is also methodical. From his 21 years as mayor of Davao, he learned that citizens respect and follow a strong leader. He is an avid reader of Nietzsche and Machiavelli and likes to quote from “The Prince.” He’s a student of power, which means that despite his seemingly irrational fits of public rage, Duterte plays the long game.

Buoyed by public support, Duterte is making every effort to consolidate his base, cement his legacy, and handpick a successor so he can continue to exert influence and exercise power beyond his term. If he succeeds, then Duterte’s illiberalism, anti-Westernism, and anti-elitism may endure for years to come. Duterte has fanned rumors he will field either his daughter Sara or his former aide Senator Go in the 2022 presidential race. He has let slip that his daughter may succeed him. Some observers speculate that Duterte will run as vice president on the same ticket as his successor, thus setting himself up to continue exercising power (Coronel, 2020). Dutertismo seems set to remain, either with Duterte or without him, for the foreseeable future – even after his mandate as a populist, jingoist, macho president ends.


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Hungary which has populists in both the government (Fidesz) and in the main opposition (Jobbik) is one of the best examples for populist democracies. Far-right main opposition party Jobbik's electoral poster seems in the streets of Budapest for the parliamentary elections of 2018.

Jobbik: A Turanist Trojan Horse in Europe?

Kenes, Bulent. (2020). “Jobbik: A Turanist Trojan Horse in Europe?” ECPS Party Profiles. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). August 3, 2020. https://doi.org/10.55271/op0002


Defined as Turanist, Eurasianist, pro-Russian, pro-Iranian, anti-immigrant but pro-Islam, racist, antisemitic, anti-Roma, Hungarist, and radically populist, Jobbik do not exist in a vacuum. The rise of Jobbik from deep nationalist, antisemitic, and anti-Roma currents in Hungarian politics dates back to the late 1980s and early 1990s. Despite its extensive efforts at “image refurbishment” in recent years, Jobbik remains a populist, revisionist, racist, radical right-wing party that threatens to destabilize Hungary, the neighboring region, and the EU.

By Bulent Kenes

The collapse of the communist regime and the transition to a liberal market economy in the early 1990s precipitated major shifts in Hungarian society. Almost one million people lost their jobs, while income inequality increased markedly and wages and living standards shrank. Facing uncertain futures, large sectors of society viewed themselves as the “losers” of this transition. Extreme poverty reappeared amidst austerity measures initiated by the government. The rise in economic uncertainty and the hardships of transition increased the popularity of political parties pushing for radical solutions (Pap & Glied, 2018). As a consequence of this, since the end of communism there has been widespread support for the political far right in Hungary.

During the past 30 years, the symbolic politics of “national revival” have evolved into a daily politics characterized by anti-Semitism, anti-liberalism, and anti-Roma expressions (Murer, 2015). Hungary, an erstwhile poster boy of neoliberal transformation in the region, openly proclaimed itself as a prototypical “illiberal regime.” This climate has also created a fertile ground for more radical movements and populist parties. Thus, the far-right Jobbik, which has affiliated paramilitary organizations, has become the second largest party in the Hungarian parliament (Fabry & Sandbeck 2019). But what is Jobbik? Who are the people who have been mobilized by the party which is paradoxically defined as Turanist, Eurasianist, pro-Russian, pro-Iranian, anti-immigrant but pro-Islam, racist, antisemitic, anti-Roma, Hungarist, and radically populist? 

The Movement for a Better Hungary (Jobbik Magyarországért Mozgalom) (Jobbik.com) was established as a new generation radical right political party. It is commonly known by its abbreviated name “Jobbik,” which is in fact a play on words. The word “jobb” in Hungarian has two meanings: an adjective, meaning “better,” and adverb, meaning the direction “right.” The comparative “Jobbik” therefore means both “the more preferable choice” and “more to the right.” This is similar to the English phrase “right choice,” which could mean both “a choice on the right side of the political spectrum” and “a correct choice” (Murer, 2015).

Actually, the current radical right and Jobbik do not exist in a vacuum. The rise of Jobbik from deep nationalist, antisemetic, and anti-Roma currents in Hungarian politics dates back to the late 1980s and early 1990s (Murer, 2015). In the period since the political transition to democracy in post-Communist Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), nationalists and radical-right parties were either newly formed or reemerged. In this transitional context, Hungary has come to be seen as a stronghold of the radical right (Kim, 2016). However, of all the radical-right Hungarian parties that existed in the 1990s, the only one to have electoral success was the Hungarian Truth and Life Party (Magyar Igazság és Élet Pártja – MIÉP) led by novelist István Csurka (Akçalı & Korkut 2012; Murer, 2015).

MIÉP was one of the most extreme far-right parties in Europe (Mudde, 2007). As the chief representative of the radical right in contemporary Hungary, Jobbik is in many ways the successor of MIÉP, which seceded in 1993 from the then-governing party Hungarian Democratic Forum (Magyar Demokrata Fórum – MDF). MIÉP’s ideology incorporated an anti-EU sentiment and nationalist and Christian values alongside anti-liberal, anti-democratic, and anti-globalization elements. MIÉP focused its ire especially on international financial groups, global capital, communists, Jews, and liberals who, it claimed, controlled global trends and wished to “re-colonize” Hungary by regaining their former power over post-communist Hungary. In 1998, the party gained seats in parliament but did not reach the necessary five-percent threshold in 2002 and thus lost its seats (Pap & Glied, 2018; Kim, 2016). When Jobbik was established as a political movement in 1999 by university students, they learned from MIÉP’s failure. 

Preceding MIÉP by many decades, Hungary was briefly governed by the fascist Arrow Cross party (Nyilaskeresztes Párt) following Nazi Germany’s intervention in 1944. The Arrow Cross helped the Nazis to organize the extermination of Hungarian Jews. 

Both of these previous radical-right parties influenced Jobbik. The founders of Jobbik claimed publicly to be inspired by MIÉP. Though the Arrow Cross party is not officially cited as an influence, Jobbik’s use of its symbols, such as the Árpád stripes, is a clear reminder of the Hungarian fascist era. This is natural because the constant reference to the past is particularly crucial for radical-right parties, since national history is usually a key element of their ideology (Karl, 2017). 

Jobbik, as a party even more radical nationalist than MIÉP, wields increasing influence on the mainstream stage. Its success is a unique post-transitional political development that represents the central elements of Hungarian nationalism. These include an underlying social prejudice against Jews and Roma; anti-liberal capitalism; and an attraction to the historical narrative of mythic Turanism in the debate over the origins of Hungarian national identity. Jobbik manipulates all of these national elements in shaping its identity (Kim, 2016). In many ways Jobbik is similar to other European far-right groups, although it features several characteristics that make it unique. Hungary-Jobbik

Jobbik was officially founded as a political party in 2003, an outgrowth of the student organization “Jobboldali Ifjúsági Közösség – Jobbik” (Right-Wing Youth Association) which was established in 1999, and several other organizations with links to the political rightThe young organizers led by Gábor Vona and Dávid Kovács intended to create a new, radical political force that was capable of attracting the masses. They were describing themselves as the answer to a left-wing and right-wing political structure (Pap & Glied, 2018). Vona, who became party leader in 2006, took the party into an electoral alliance with MIÉP for that year’s parliamentary election cycle. The MIÉP-Jobbik Third Way Alliance only garnered 2 percent of the vote and won no seats. As Csurka’s MIÉP was dissolved, Vona became one of the most prominent players on the far right. 

On September 17, 2006, when socialist Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany’s infamous speech – in which he lied about Hungary’s economic situation – was leaked to the public, Fidesz, a center-right party, and Jobbik were presented with an opportunity to revive their fortunes. Throughout September and October, a series of demonstrations organized by the members of these two parties demanded the resignation of the PM. Gyurcsany refused to resign and instead resorted to police force. The most violent confrontations between riot police and protesters took place at Freedom Square. Jobbik’s vigorous resistance to the intervention made a deep impression on the public. Jobbik, which came to be seen as a party that took the most determined stance against the government, succeeded in shaping its image as an anti-establishment party (Kim, 2016).

Due to the disillusioning of young people because of a lack of future prospects, deteriorating living conditions, and a frustrating level of state corruption, the popularity of Jobbik skyrocketed among younger voters. Since 2014, Jobbik has consciously tried to address young people that are disappointed with the other parties in Hungary.

Racist Reincarnation in a Digital Age

In the next parliamentary election in 2010, Jobbik enjoyed great success, securing 47 seats, finishing the race as the third largest party with nearly 17 percent of the vote. Jobbik established itself as an essential player in Hungarian politics. In analyzing the electoral success of Jobbik, political scientist András Bíró-Nagy and others focused primarily on the radicalization of the political process and identified three main components of Jobbik’s campaign: hostility against minorities, a left-wing economic agenda, and cultural conservatism (Karl, 2017). Mihai Varga has argued that the reasons for Jobbik’s success, especially in 2010, lie in its focus on the economy (Varga, 2014). Meanwhile, Gergely Karácsony and Daniel Róna focused on the Roma issue as a motivating factor for Jobbik’s voters (Karácsony & Róna, 2011).

Due to the disillusioning of young people because of a lack of future prospects, deteriorating living conditions, and a frustrating level of state corruption, the popularity of Jobbik skyrocketed among younger voters. Since 2014, Jobbik has consciously tried to address young people that are disappointed with the other parties. As a result of its youth policy, Jobbik’s popularity has continued to rise. Especially in the 2014 campaign, Jobbik performed very well among young people, thanks both to the dedication of significant resources and energy by Jobbik as well as extreme right-wing cultural organizations that helped attract youth voters. Jobbik has organized a large number of concerts (featuring national rock bands), festivals, get-togethers, camps, professional forums, and many other youth events (Saltman, 2014). It has become a party which uses its platform and campaign messages to emphasize the problems facing the youth; its youth organization has more Facebook-followers than all other competitors combined (Gregor, 2014).

According to an international survey, conducted in 2016, 53 percent of Hungarians aged between 18 and 35 years would vote for Jobbik (Almássy, 2016). A university survey strengthens the claim that Jobbik is the most active organization amongst youth voters (Róna, 2020). Nevertheless, Jobbik’s number of seats in parliament decreased to 23 because of a reform which has decreased the number of parliamentary seats from 386 to 199. So, while Jobbik’s seats were cut in half, its overall percentage of the popular vote increased to 20 percent. In April 2015, Jobbik won its first single member constituency, in a by-election following the death of a Fidesz deputy. The seat was won by Lajos Rig, who had a reputation as being an adamant anti-Semite and was rumored to sport an SS tattoo (Murer, 2015). In the April 8, 2018 elections, Jobbik secured 19.06 percent of the vote and became Hungary’s second largest party in parliament. 

According to Philipp Karl, Jobbik might better be likened to the new social movements of the digital age or to tech-savvy parties such as the German left-wing Piratenpartei than to the traditional radical right. In this context, around 300 websites were identified as parts of the Hungarian radical online network. Researchers also recognized four sub-networks: i) News, media, and history sites; ii) Music and band sites; iii) Web shops; and iv) Political parties and associations. Jobbik has been particularly effective at mobilizing young Hungarians by using online venues to amplify its message, recruit new members, and organize. Jobbik shares some similarities to the new hybrid forms of social movements that developed in the digital age. Manuel Castells emphasizes three paramount conditions for those new movements, all of which apply to Hungary: an active group of jobless academics, a highly developed culture of cyber activism, and the rather widespread use of the Internet. Jobbik’s success can be partly explained by its grasp of the influence of the Internet and social media on digital natives (Karl, 2017).

Despite adverse allegations, Jobbik has long described itself as “a principled, conservative and radically patriotic Christian party,” whose “fundamental purpose” is the protection of “Hungarian values and interests” (Reuters, 2017;politics.hu. 2009). Although the party does not consider itself nationalist but “conservative,” this very moderate description is completely different from the way Jobbik is presented in the international media. The party is usually described as “neo-nazi” (Rev, 2015), “far-right,” “populist” (Aisch, Pearce, Rousseau, 2016), “neo-fascist” (Chomsky, 2011) and so on. However, in 2014, the Supreme Court of Hungary ruled that Jobbik cannot be deemed “far-right.” The party also rejects such labels (Zalan, 2014). What is more, during the Party’s 2016 congress, Vona declared that they want to be a “national people’s party” (Kowalczyk, 2017).

This political trend, the so-called néppártosodás (transition to a people’s party), first emerged before the 2014 parliamentary elections. The party adopted a new style of communication while reversing many radical elements of its earlier program (Csaky, 2016). Jobbik declared that it has turned from a radical right-wing party into a moderate-conservative people’s party. Vona, in an interview, promised to “cut the wildlings,” the one-time radicals (Jobbik.com, 2015) According to Vona, after 2014 the party has grown out of its “adolescence” and reached its adulthood. Since then Jobbik has significantly changed its views on the EU; internally, the party has started to emphasize opening towards different groups of Hungarian society (Szigeti, 2017). At the same time, Vona distanced the party from “wrong statements” that it had made in the past (Budapost, 2017).

Jobbik had been gaining steam ahead of the 2014 elections, so much so that the ruling party, Fidesz, was forced to raise and discuss elements of Jobbik’s agenda. Due to its radical rhetoric, Jobbik attracted 20.69 percent of all votes in the 2014 parliamentary elections and won 23 seats in the National Assembly (Róna, 2016). From the results, the party leadership concluded that its racist and antisemitic rhetoric should be replaced by a more moderate, yet uncompromising radical political communication with similar objectives – a prerequisite for transforming Jobbik into a popular party. This calculated change earned further support for Jobbik (Pap & Glied, 2018).

More Than A Political Party 

Nevertheless, even in its reformed state, Jobbik has always been more than a political party: through their direct actions, such as acts of intimidation and violence, its members engage in physical politics beyond the ballot box. With its stance opposing liberalism, Jobbik has been seen as the new face of illiberal politics in Europe seeking to dismantle the Euopean Union (EU) project (Murer, 2015). The party has also been described as an “antisemitic organization” by The Independentand a “neo-Nazi party” by the president of the European Jewish Congress (Paterson, 2014). However, as Jobbik seeks to increase its electoral support, it looks to convince people that it is capable of governing and to moderate its positions, or at least make them appear more palatable. 

One way of doing this has been the separation of the party’s political functions, communications, and allied group activities through the creation of direct-action organs. The symbols, language, rhetoric, and even sartorial choices set Jobbik apart from the direct-action groups. For instance, the party chairman wears a suit; the direct-action network members often do not (Murer, 2015).

Jobbik did not give up its expansionist interests. According to Jobbik’s official manifesto, the party’s political horizons are not defined by the current borders of Hungary but by the borders of the Hungarian nation. These latter borders do not coincide with the geographical boundaries of the Hungarian Republic. Therefore, Jobbik has been frequently accused of being revisionist and of agitating for a return to pre-Treaty-of-Trianon borders.

Eventually, the party started to re-define itself as a conservative people’s party. According to the party’s manifesto on the guidelines of a future government, Jobbik represents all Hungarian citizens and people and aims to build a modern national identity, while rejecting the chauvinism of the 20th century (jobbik.com). Analyzing an opinion poll conducted for Euronews in Feb. 2020, leading political scientist Balázs Böcskei commented that Jobbik has completed its transformation into a centrist people’s party and its voting base has been changed; now, it is a predominantly moderate pro-EU constituency. 

Is that really so?

Jobbik did not give up its expansionist interests. According to Jobbik’s official manifesto, the party’s political horizons are not defined by the current borders of Hungary but by the borders of the Hungarian nation. These latter borders do not coincide with the geographical boundaries of the Hungarian Republic, given that the Hungarian nation had its contiguity dismembered by “the imposition of the Trianon peace diktat.” The manifesto says: “Our fundamental principles are: thinking in terms of a nation of 15 million, establishing ‘protective power’ status for the motherland vis-à-vis Hungarian communities beyond the border, the cultural and economic reunification of the Hungarian nation, the granting of Hungarian citizenry to every Hungarian, the establishment of a Ministry of National Affairs, the promotion of efforts for self-determination, the reincorporation of beyond-the-border communities and émigrés into active Hungarian life, the promotion and development of border-transcending regional cooperation; and the coordinated development of domestic relationships between disparate nationalities… We will also develop a legal defense network, which will extend assistance to Hungarians living in cleaved territories, should their individual or collective rights be abused…” (Guide, 2010).

Because of this stance, Jobbik has been frequently accused of being revisionist and of agitating for a return to pre-Treaty-of-Trianon borders (Zimberg, 2013). However, Jobbik has never suggested changing borders by force and believes that the ultimate solution is territorial and cultural autonomy within an EU framework of minority rights (Daily News Hungary, 2017). It is a fact that one-fourth of ethnic Hungarians live outside the country (Inder Singh, 2000). Many suffer discrimination because of their ethnicity, causing frequent diplomatic disputes between Hungary and its neighbors. Jobbik dedicates itself to supporting the cause of Hungarian minorities in adjoining countries (Molnar, 2001 & Frucht, 2005). On the other hand, Jobbik considers its most important task to be the reunification of a Hungarian nation unjustly torn apart during the course of the 20th century: “It is our most fundamental moral duty to represent the interests and defend the rights of Hungarian communities. We will strive, perpetually, for the collective rights of the Hungarians of the Carpathian basin, and for the realization of their territorial, economic and cultural self-determination” (Guide, 2010).

Jobbik was among the founding members of the Alliance of European National Movements (AENM), alongside the French National Front, the Ukrainian Svoboda, Italy’s Tricolour Flame, the British National Party, the Swedish Democrats, the Finnish Blue and White Front, the Portuguese National Renovator Party, and the Spanish Republican Social Movement. AENM was formed in Budapest on October 24, 2009. Jobbik’s membership ended in February 2016, when the party cut its affiliation with AENM. However, Jobbik currently has ties to the Conservative People’s Party of Estonia, the Bulgarian United Patriots, the Latvian National Alliance, the Polish National Movement, the Indian Bharatiya Janata Party, the Russian Rodina, and the Turkish Nationalist Movement Party. Jobbik proposed joining the European People’s Party, but was rejected in August 2018 (Murer, 2015).

When the popularity of the ruling party declined dramatically due to major corruption scandals involving the government and Orban’s family in early 2015, voters started shifting toward Jobbik, which is the only serious opposition to Orban’s government and has been moralizing about anticorruption policies and defending the rights and interests of what they call true-born Hungarians (Rev, 2015). To capitalize on the opportunity, Jobbik adopted a policy of penal populism and promised to bring political crime to an end. The party argued that the national police should be greatly strengthened and promised to restore the death penalty if they came to power (BBC News, 2015 & Daily News Hungary, 2015). Stating that the image of the political profession has been almost irreparably damaged, Jobbik’s party manifesto also underlined that, “In Hungary the word ‘politician’ is now synonymous with the word ‘scoundrel.’ A fish rots from the head down; which is why circumstances of decency must first be produced in the country’s leadership… Our goal is not merely the abolition of corruption, it is rather the cessation of the existence of politicians – as lawmakers – as being above the law… Jobbik wants the holding to account of politicians to be all-encompassing… It is high time that political crimes finally become classified under the Hungarian penal code!” (Guide, 2010).

In 2016, the party pursued its strategy of refurbishment by abandoning parts of its original ideological corpus and excluding certain extremist elements, in order to make its image more respectable and to craft a credible opposition to the government of Orbán (Thorpe, 2016). In summer of 2016, Vona declared a new style of politics, called “modern conservatism” with the aim to exceed the pointless debates between the right- and the left-wing and to induce cooperation among Hungarians with different political backgrounds. According to Vona, the goal of “modern conservatism” is, beyond politics, to build a society that can, by its proactivity, be a basis for a more democratic political functioning. As a historical precedent, he referred to the ideals of István Széchenyi, who is considered as one of the greatest statesmen of Hungarian history (Dunai, 2017). Despite Jobbik’s pledges, particularly to the Jewish community in Hungary, many left-wing intellectuals and political figures say they want to keep their distance from an organization often deemed undemocratic. Thanks to these changes, some media now debate whether Jobbik should be classified as “far right” (McLaughlin, 2017).

Following the 2018 parliamentary election, Gábor Vona resigned due to his earlier promises that he would resign if he could not lead the party to victory. Despite rumors that Jobbik would change its policies, the National Board of the party unanimously decided in favor of the moderate right-wing conservative platform. On May 12, 2018, the party elected Tamás Sneider as the president and Márton Gyöngyösi as the executive vice president of the party. The Hungarian press evaluated the new presidency as a victory of the moderate politicians. Sneider told he wanted to build a socially conscious party based on the teachings of Christianity

Jobbik vs. Roma People

Tension between the Roma and the non-Roma population is a longstanding and pervasive issue in Hungary (Halasz, 2009). There is a high level of social prejudice against the Roma community as reported by Amnesty International (AI, 2014), and Jobbik has capitalized on this particular issue for its own political ends. Along with antisemitism, xenophobia, and racism, anti-Roma sentiments presaged the rise of the far right in Hungary. Putting aside political correctness and airing anti-Roma views rapidly increased Jobbik’s popularity, especially in the eastern regions of Hungary, where – apart from the big cities – the majority of the Roma population lives (Pap & Glied, 2018). When Jobbik took up the case of a murder committed by members of the Roma community, Roma crime and penal populism advanced to the political forefront (Kim, 2016).

On October 15, 2006, a group of Roma people lynched a Hungarian teacher in the Eastern Hungarian village of Olaszliszka (Politics2009). When a Tiszavasvari teacher, Lajos Szögi, drove through Olaszliszka, an accident occurred in which Szögi knocked down a Romani girl. Szögi got out of his vehicle to check whether or not the girl was seriously injured. Although the girl was not harmed, the onlookers misinterpreted the scene and a group of angry Roma villagers beat Szögi to death, while his own children, who had been travelling with him, looked on from the car. This grim news spread quickly across the country, and those who interpreted the incident as a serious threat to their own security asked for protection from the authorities. Investigation into the case required time; however, Jobbik thought that the authorities were too slow to react to the potential threats from the Roma community (Kim, 2016). The case turned public attention to the failure of Roma integration and the inability of the Hungarian police to maintain law and order in the Hungarian countryside (Murer, 2015).

Jobbik argues that Roma people are genetically predisposed to criminal activity. With this in mind, Jobbik took a concrete course of action to tackle the alleged “Roma crime”. The idea of setting up a “national guard” became widespread among Hungary’s radical-right political parties. On August 25, 2007, Jobbik founded the Hungarian Guard (Magyar Garda) as a direct-action organization to fulfill the role of policing the Roma.
Woman and her son in a Roma settlement in Hungary. 40 kms from Budapest there’s a really poor gipsy settlement called Bag.

Jobbik’s leaders and members did not hesitate to exploit the incident and were intent upon addressing “Roma crime” in their own way. Jobbik formulated its first response: “The Movement for a Better Hungary took charge as the only party to face one of the underlying problems in Hungarian society, the unresolved situation of the ever-growing gypsy population. The Movement spoke up about, what everyone knows but others do not say due to political correctness, the phenomenon of ‘gypsy crime’ is real. It is a unique form of delinquency, different from the crimes of the majority in nature and force” (Halasz, 2009).

The implication was obvious. Jobbik argued that Roma people were genetically predisposed to criminal activity. With this in mind, Jobbik prepared a concrete course of action to tackle the alleged “Roma crime” (Kim, 2016). The idea of setting up a “national guard” became widespread among Hungary’s radical-right political parties. On August 25, 2007, with the blessing of his party, Vona founded the Hungarian Guard (Magyar Garda) with a mass loyalty oath ceremony at Saint Gyorgy Square (Pal, 2007; Murer, 2015 & Jordan, 2010)) as a direct-action organization to fulfill the role of policing the Roma with the alleged intent to “strengthen national self-defense.”

Jobbik claimed that the aim is to assist in “maintaining public order” and “self-help in case of natural disasters, and humanitarian interventions” (Varga, 2014). Yet the appearance of the Guard, whose members were uniformed in black with the red-and-white Arpad Stripe emblem on the front, was reminiscent of the pro-Nazi Hungarian Arrow Cross party (Jordan, 2010). Inspired by the Guard, other similar quasi-paramilitary organizations were also formed, and the Hungarian Guard Movement became increasingly popular and visible across the country (Kim, 2016). According to many academics, it is the Guard that made a significant contribution to Jobbik’s success. (Karacsony and Rona, 2010).However, the Metropolitan Court of Budapest disbanded Magyar Gárda in 2009. Later, the Hungarian Supreme Court approved the court decision, and, in an appeal trial, the ECtHR adjudicated on the case in July 2013 and upheld the ruling of the Hungarian Supreme Court. (Ivanis et al., 2014).

It did not take much time for the group to reorganize under at least three banners, as the Új Magyar Gárda (New Hungarian Guard), the Magyar Nemzeti Gárda (Hungarian National Guard), and the Szebb Jövoért Polgáror Egyesület (Civil Guard Association for a Better Hungarian Future). Szebb Jövoért is the most active of the three and has its roots in paramilitary organizations from the inter-war period and WWII. These groups work together and with Jobbik (Murer, 2015). In 2019, László Toroczkai, the president of the Our Homeland Movement, who was expelled from Jobbik, reorganized the Magyar Gárda. Nowadays, Magyar Gárda belongs to this movement.

In August 2012, members of The New Hungarian Guard, Magyar Nemzeti Gárda, Szebb Jövoért Polgáror Egyesület, Betyársereg (the Outlaws’ Army), Magyar Nemzeti Arcvonal (the Hungarian National Front), and Védero (Defence) gathered at the small village of Devecser to demonstrate against “gypsy crime (cigánybunozés).” The demonstration began with a welcome from the Jobbik affiliated Veszprém county chairman, Gábor Ferenczi, who told the crowd that “self-defense is a fundamental right.” The “self-defense” was for ethnic Hungarians and so-called Hungarian “values” only, which by definition the Roma residents of Devecser do not hold (Murer, 2015). Zsolt Tyirityán, the leader of the Betyársereg, stated that “I will use any means necessary to protect our race. I am a racist and I am proud of it, because I love my race and I’m going to defend it.” The demonstrators then began throwing bottles and rocks at homes they believed to belong to Roma and shouting, “You are going to die here” (Hungarian Spectrum, 2013). This was no idle threat, as the events in Devecser resembled those the year before in the small village of Gyöngyöspata, in Hungary’s northeast corner (Murer, 2015).

In March-April 2011, elements of these far-right direct-action groups descended upon Gyöngyöspata and decided that they would run “military exercises” and walk “security patrols” to defend the residents against crime. Védero announced that it was going to establish a paramilitary training center in the Roma section of town (BBC News, 2011). As the police had done nothing to stop the incursions by the paramilitary groups, an American businessman, with assistance from the Hungarian Red Cross, organized the evacuation of around 270 Roma women and children from the beleaguered village (Der Spiegel, 2011). The village became such a focal point for tensions between far-right militants and the Roma community that the Hungarian National Front (MNA) published on their web page that they believe the confrontations in Gyöngyöspata were the “outbreak of a cleansing civil war.” Since then, the MNA has held monthly paramilitary exercises either at their headquarters on a former Soviet military base outside of Bony or in other cities all around the country. These groups coordinate with one another and organize training exercises not only for other Hungarian groups, but for groups across the region. The MNA does this because, according to their propaganda materials, they believe that civil war is imminent (Murer 2015).

In the logic of the Jobbik-affiliated, direct-action groups, and within the rhetoric of Jobbik itself, Jews and Roma become two sides of the same threatening coin. For the extreme right, and increasingly for more politically mainstream Hungarians, a shared fantasy of small-scale crimes by Roma is allied with conspiracy theories concerning large-scale financial crimes perpetrated by bankers and the EU. In this paranoid fantasy, both must be violently opposed. Moreover, just as Roma are habitually associated with the commission of petty crime, larger financial degradations associated with globalization and capitalism are often attributed to Jews. This combination could be seen in a December 2012 propaganda campaign from the MNA, which claimed “…a virtual bulldozer is destroying our country. The blade of the bulldozer is made up of gypsy criminals and its driver, who is directing the whole process, is the Zionist Jewry” (Murer, 2015).

The connection between Vona/Jobbik and Zsolt Tyirityán and his Betyársereg was exposed during a campaign rally in February 2014, held by Jobbik in a former synagogue that became Esztergom’s civic hall during the communist period. Vona and Jobbik wanted to hold the event there to demonstrate that that “true Hungarians” could go anywhere and say anything, including discussing the “evils of capitalism” in a former synagogue. While Vona addressed the 200 or so Jobbik supporters inside, Tyirityán’s Betyársereg provided “security” to defend the Jobbik speakers against the nearly 100 demonstrators who protested outside, some with yellow Stars of David pinned to their chests (Aljazeera, 2014 & Murer, 2015). Similarly, Tyirityán declared at a November 2013 anti-Roma demonstration in Vác, that people “should stop being the prey and start being the predators” vis-à-vis Roma (Murer, 2015). 

In 2009, Betyársereg and Jobbik signed a cooperation agreement, saying that “we support each other and take part in each other’s events.” While Betyársereg does not receive funds directly from Jobbik, it did have access to more than 40 million forint (approximately Euro 130,000) provided by the Jobbik Party Foundation to the Sixty-Four Counties Youth Movement. Tamás Sneider, then vice president of Jobbik, stated that the relationship between Betyársereg and Jobbik “must be acknowledged to be a division of labor. It’s good to have an Outlaw’s Army; it’s nice to have the Sixty-Four Counties because they are able to do what I cannot from inside parliament” (Murer, 2015).

The relationship between Jobbik and the radical nationalist  Betyársereg has caused much controversy. Betyársereg openly asserts that elements of guerrilla warfare, such as preparing explosives and training for acts of terrorism, can be learnt from the propaganda videos of Al-Qaeda and ISIS. With varying degrees of success, Jobbik has tried to demonstrate its distance from radical organizations since 2015 (Pap & Glied, 2018). The separation between Jobbik and the direct-action groups allows the party itself to suggest that it is more moderate, without actually alienating the participants in the direct-action groups. The separation also allows Jobbik to claim that it does not endorse violence in any way. Jobbik told Reuters through a communiqué that “Jobbik condemns violence, and its members cannot be linked to such acts either” (Goettig & Lowe, 2014).

Jobbik’s anti-Roma character does not consist solely of direct-action groups. In 2015, deputy leader Előd Novák posted on Facebook a picture of himself and his family next to a separate image of the first newborn in Hungary of the year, who was born to a Romani family. In a comment on the pictures, he stated that the population of Hungarians would become a minority and suggested that the Romani population is the biggest problem facing Hungary. Novák’s remarks were both condemned and supported. Novák would later respond to the issue by refusing to apologize and suggested that the family should apologize to him (Thorpe, 2015). Novák was forced by the party’s parliamentary group to resign from his position as an MP in 2016 (Székely, 2016).

Prior to Jobbik’s entry onto Hungary’s political stage, parties had not dealt openly with the Roma issue and instead treated it as a part of wider social problems arising from underlying social circumstances such as the prevalence of extreme poverty and illiteracy. In contrast, Jobbik approached the issue by taking an exclusively “ethno-perspective,” promulgating the view that “most of gypsy society lives outside the law and outside work and education” (Bíro-Nagy et al., 2012), and this was the cause of perceived “Roma criminality.” 

Anti-Roma sentiments, even violence, characterize the political climate in Hungary. The Roma population is blamed for not only committing crimes, but also draining national wealth by relying on social benefits. Jobbik’s successful manipulation of anti-Roma sentiment resulted in increased electoral support.

The significance of this socio-cultural phenomenon for shaping the party identity is well observed by political analyst Andras Bíro-Nagy, who notes that: “Anti-Roma sentiment is very strong in Hungarian society. It is Jobbik that made the most use of this social attitude for its own benefit, and was indeed successful… For that process, I stress the role of the Hungarian Guard. The Guard was the paramilitary arm of Jobbik and it was very important for the party to reach many people via media. With the Guard, Jobbik could appear in every corner of the country, precisely in the ‘crisis area’ of Northeast Hungary. This is the poorest region of the country, in which ethnic conflicts are recurrent and Jobbik, along with the Guard, marched there on a regular basis. When people saw it, they said, ‘finally there is someone who creates order and keeps [people] safe from potential threats in this abandoned under-served rural area.’ In this way, Jobbik could garner support” (Kim, 2016).

Jobbik’s successful manipulation of anti-Roma sentiment resulted in increased electoral support. Jobbik distinguished itself from other political groups by finding its own practical solution. According to Laszlo Lengyel, a leading political commentator at the Financial Research Institute, this differentiated approach of Jobbik is well observed at the small town of Pecs. This is where a boy was raped and murdered on a roadside leading to a predominantly Roma area. According to Lengyel, immediately after the incident, Vona, went to the crime scene and spoke in front of several hundred people. He encouraged people to treat the Roma in a certain way. He said that “there are people around here who might kill our wives, our children, and our mothers.” Following this incident, the people in Pecs felt the need to place the Roma community under police surveillance and to prevent them from leaving the Roma area of town (Kim, 2016). By basing their campaign on the Roma crime issue, Jobbik made electoral gains, and its use of anti-Roma political rhetoric was instrumental in shaping party identity. 

Likewise, anti-Roma sentiments, even violence, also characterize the current political climate. These expressions of antagonistic politics are tied to the widely held political belief among the political right that Hungary is under assault from outside forces, whether expressed as international global capitalism, dominated by Jews, or trans-local, “rootless” Roma painted as the perpetrators of “gypsy crime” (Murer, 2015). The Roma population is blamed for not only committing crimes, but also draining national wealth by relying on social benefits. This anti-Roma attitude was well demonstrated by a social survey conducted by social researchers at the Tarki institute. They found that more than two-fifth of respondents (40 percent) were in favor of taking discriminatory measures against the Roma community (Bernath, Juhász, Krekó & Molnár, 2013).

Jobbik’s 2010 electoral manifesto explicitly stated that the coexistence and cohesion of Magyar and Roma is one of the severest problems facing Hungarian society. “On the occasion of 1989’s regime change, great swathes of the Gypsy people lost their jobs; who subsequently found themselves unable, and in many cases unfortunately unwilling, to adapt to the new realities… In certain parts of the country over the last decades the situation has deteriorated to truly deplorable levels. Generations have now grown up, having never once seen their parents in work. The continuation of the Gypsy people’s circumstances along their current course is nothing short of a potential time-bomb, and if it is not subject to concerted intervention, our mutual home could sink into a state of virtual civil war. At the present time a segment of the Gypsy community strives for neither integration, nor employment, nor education; and wish only that society maintain them through the unconditional provision of state benefits” (Guide, 2010).

The manifesto continued: “The most pressing of these issues is undeniably the halting of gypsy crime, for which the strengthening of the established police, and the foundation of a dedicated rural police service, or Gendarmerie, is required… certain specific criminological phenomena are predominantly and overwhelmingly associated with this minority, and that as a result such phenomena require the application of fitting and appropriate remedies. Law enforcement initiatives therefore must go hand in hand with the reform of social, educational and employment policy, given that Gypsy integration means assimilation into society-at-large, and that this process must commence at school, even in nursery school…” (Guide, 2010). 


The memorial wall with the names of the members of the Hungarian Jewish community perished in the Holocaust, inside the famous Dohány Street Synagogue.

Antisemitism and Hungarism

Another element that has contributed to Jobbik’s rise is that of Hungary’s specific history of antisemitism and its embedded socio-cultural prejudice towards Jews. Unfortunately, in contemporary Hungary, antisemitism remains a very public part of the political landscape (Murer, 2015). In the context of post-1989 political developments, antisemitism – like anti-Roma sentiment – is essentially linked to the far right. Being anti-Roma was the main platform of MIÉP, whereas antisemitism is the central tenet of Jobbik’s political rhetoric. A poll on antisemitism, conducted by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), suggested that a large segment of the Hungarian population thought that Jews wielded too much influence in global financial markets (63 percent), and that they were utilizing this influence to serve their own interests (57 percent) (Kim, 2016).

Despite this subtle difference, both MIÉP and Jobbik have represented an extreme ethno-nationalism, the essence of which was expressed through a notion of their own creation: the value of Hungarianness (Kim, 2016). Hungarianness, or Hungarism, is also a powerful Jobbik phenomena. Established in the 1930s, Hungarism is one of the ideologies of the traditional Hungarian far right. Its ideas were sustained by émigré groups after 1945, and it returned to Hungary after the transition to democracy. Two small groups operate independently from each other: the Hungarian National Front (Magyar Nemzeti Arcvonal) and the Pax-Hungarica Movement (Pax Hungarica Mozgalom). Neither has become a significant political actor, but their members and supporters generally vote for right-wing parties. Their messages are anti-Western, antisemitic, anti-capitalist, and anti-democratic, with an added emphasis on maintaining military capabilities (Pap & Glied, 2018).

Although the term “Hungarism” was coined by the Catholic bishop Ottokár Prohászka to describe an ideology rapidly spreading before World War II, the Hungarist ideology has no strong Christian influence. During the last two decades, the foreign policy stance by these two organizations has taken on a significant pro-Russia orientation, which aims to build economic and cultural relationships with Russia. Although Jobbik is not an outgrowth of traditional Hungarism, both movements share some ideological elements (antisemitism and a Russian orientation), and both also typically use the so-called Árpád striped flag (Pap & Glied, 2018). According to Jobbik, Hungarianness ought to be safeguarded from perceived “foreign” influences. With this in mind, any supranational bodies, international organizations, or multi-national companies were seen as alien to the national interest (Kim, 2016).

Hungarianness, or Hungarism, is a powerful Jobbik phenomena. Established in the 1930s, Hungarism is one of the ideologies of the traditional Hungarian far right. Its ideas were sustained by émigré groups after 1945, and it returned to Hungary after the transition to democracy.

Jobbik’s transformation since 2014 is a unique post-transitional political development that is rooted in elements of Hungarian nationalism. These national elements included underlying social prejudice against Roma and Jews, a preference for paternalistic economic systems, and a re-introduction of a historical narrative based in mythic Turanism. Jobbik has capitalized on these elements in order to shape party identity, and their political maneuvering has proved effective, recognizably influencing both politics and society as a whole (Kim, 2016).

Despite the fact that Jobbik leaders have suggested registration of the Jews in Hungary (Stephens, 2017), the party has strenuously denied allegations of antisemitism (LeBor, 2009) or racism, claiming such allegations are either politically motivated (Moore, 2008) or simply false. It has also dismissed the criticism of perceived antisemitism, racism, and homophobia as the “favorite topics” of its political opponents. Even so, the movement has been accused of playing on those fears (Freeman, 2009). For instance, in a newsletter published by a group calling itself “The trade union of Hungarian police officers prepared for action,” the following was printed: “Given our current situation, antisemitism is not just our right, but it is the duty of every Hungarian homeland lover, and we must prepare for armed battle against the Jews.” The editor of the union, Judit Szima, was a Jobbik candidate in the upcoming election for the EU Parliament. Haaretz alleged Szima “didn’t see anything wrong with the content of the article” (Lahav, 2009)

In spring 2012, a Jobbik deputy in Hungarian parliament, Zsolt Baráth, caused outrage by commemorating the 1882 blood libel against Jews in Parliament. The Tiszaeszlár blood libel, found later to be unrelated to Jews, was known as the first major anti-Jewish event in modern Hungary, predating the Holocaust (Free Hungary, 2012). After the incident, Baráth was not re-elected and is no longer an MP. In November 2012, while evaluating the latest news on the controversial Israeli military action in the Gaza strip, Jobbik’s deputy parliamentary leader, Márton Gyöngyösi, stated in his speech at Parliament, “I think such a conflict makes it timely to tally up people of Jewish ancestry who live here, especially in the Hungarian Parliament and the Hungarian government, who, indeed, pose a national security risk to Hungary” (Ynetnews.com, 2012). Around 10,000 Hungarians (Than, 2012) in Budapest protested against Gyöngyösi’s antisemitic remarks. All major Hungarian political parties took part in the protest. Jewish organizations responded to Gyöngyösi’s speech by describing it as a reintroduction of Nazism in the Hungarian Parliament and by describing Jobbik as a Nazi party. Gyöngyösi admitted immediately after his speech that he had composed his sentence wrongly and offered an apology (Al Jazeera, 2012).

On May 4, 2013, Jobbik members protested against the World Jewish Congress in Budapest, claiming the protest was against “a Jewish attempt to buy up Hungary” (BBC News, 2013). Jobbik MP Enikő Hegedűs vociferously condemned both Israel and Jews at the rally as her husband, Lóránt Hegedűs Jr., stood nearby (Heneghan, 2013). An ordained minister in the Reformed Church in Hungary, Lóránt Hegedűs himself had served in the National Assembly as an MP of the far-right nationalist Hungarian Justice and Life Party from 1998 to 2002. He invited Holocaust denier David Irving to his Budapest church in 2007 as a “special guest” (Odehnal, 2011) and has also been accused of antisemitism on several occasions for statements he has made about Jews at Jobbik events. 

In 2014, Tibor Ágoston, the deputy chairman of Jobbik’s Debrecen and Hajdú-Bihar County organization, referred to the Holocaust as the “holoscam” (politics.hu, 2014). Then-Jobbik leader Vona later stated that he had criticized Zionism as a political idea and pointed out that he understood the Hungarian Jewish community had to survive traumas during the 20th century that make dialogue very hard. At the same time, he emphasized that he wanted to have harmonic relations with the Hungarian Jewish community (Bayer, 2017).

According to a survey on antisemitic prejudices, antisemitic political discourses, and political antisemitism in Hungary, 10-15 percent of the Hungarian adult population held a strong antisemitic prejudice. Surveys conducted after 2006 show not only an increase in the absolute percentage of antisemites, but also an increase in the proportion of antisemites who embed their antisemitism in a political context. This phenomenon is directly linked with the appearance on the political scene of Jobbik as an antisemitic party. When examining the causes of antisemitism, the most interesting finding was that the strength of antisemitic feelings is regionally different and that these differences correlate with the strength of Jobbik’s support across various regions. Accordingly, the support for a far-right party is not a consequence of antisemitism, but conversely the party should be regarded as a factor that mobilizes attitudes leading to antisemitism. Thus, antisemitism is a consequence of an attraction to the far-right rather than an explanation for it (Kovacs, 2012). Later surveys have also showed that anti-Jewish sentiment is reactive to political campaigns: antisemitism increased in election years and then fell back to its previous level. (Karacsony & Rona, 2010). 


Aerial view from Tomb of Gul Baba, Turkish memorial monument in Budapest, Hungary.

Unique Among European Racists: An Islam-friendly Jobbik

Although they differ regarding the extent and form of action demanded, the agenda of each far-right party includes the fight against the spread of Islam in Europe, primarily manifested by halting the construction of mosques. Far-right parties demand governments take radical measures to force immigrants, predominantly from Muslim-majority countries, to accept 

European traditions, customs, and legal order; as well as the forced learning of the language of the host country. In many ways Jobbik is similar to other far-right groups in Europe; however, it is alone among radical parties in Europe in pursuing a Muslim-friendly policy (Pap & Glied, 2018). Jobbik’s views on Islam differ significantly from those of most parties in Europe that are recognized as nationalist, which consider Muslim people as a serious threat to the safety and the identity of Europe (Kowalczyk, 2017).

Perhaps, the main reason for this is the fact that in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), immigration has not caused problems that affect people’s daily lives. There are no major immigrant groups; religiously active citizens are typically Christian, and cultural identity is based on Judeo-Christian cultural traditions. This is exactly why the nationalistic radical rhetoric of Jobbik is outstanding and controversial at the same time: its former leader, Gábor Vona, considers Islam humanity’s last hope. Moreover, Muslim migrants were not targeted in Hungary as they have been in other parts of Europe, where many far-right movements overtly define Muslim immigrants as an existential threat. Since Hungary has no sizeable Muslim community but a rapidly increasing Roma population, the social and political issues typically linked to Muslims in Western Europe have been linked instead to the Roma (Pap & Glied, 2018).

The Hungarian tribes first came into contact with Islam during their migration through the Eastern European Steppe, including passing through the Khazar Empire, in the 8th century. When the tribes settled in the Carpathian Basin at the end of the 9th century, there were some Muslims among them. In the Hungarian Kingdom, ruled by the House of Árpád up to the 14th century, Muslims held important offices in the financial administration, the military, and the royal guard, and lived on royal estates. 500 years of peaceful coexistence passed. At the end of the Árpád dynasty, Muslims disappeared from historical records, and historians assume that they converted and assimilated into the Hungarian population by the 14th century (Pap & Glied, 2018).

In many ways Jobbik is similar to other far-right groups in Europe; however, it is alone among radical parties in Europe in pursuing a Muslim-friendly policy. Jobbik’s views on Islam differ significantly from those of most parties in Europe that are recognized as nationalist, which consider Muslim people as a serious threat to the safety and the identity of Europe.

The present Hungarian Muslim community is young and concentrated in Budapest, with no apparent segregation within the city. The number of Hungarian converts is significant: estimated to be more than 30,000, they make up 10 percent of Hungary’s Muslim community, itself less than 1 percent of the total population. Established Hungarian Muslims typically work in the retail and hospitality sector, as architects and engineers, and in healthcare. Their standard of living is not high, and there is a sense of marginalization. In spring 2015, when the Fidesz government launched its anti-refugee and anti-migrant campaign, their relationship with the majority worsened (Pap & Glied, 2018).

Prior to 2015, the Hungarian Islamic Community (Magyar Iszlám Közösség, MIK) maintained close relations with Jobbik, finding common ground in its anti-Israel stance and foreign policy issues concerning the Gaza strip. They opposed “in principle” Hungarian military participation in the NATO missions to Iraq and Afghanistan (Pap & Glied, 2018). The current government’s “Opening to the East” (Keleti nyitás), a policy of seeking to build relationships with countries all over Asia, is also supported by all Muslim organizations in Hungary (Csicsmann, 2011). 

Until the migrant crisis of summer 2015, immigration and integration challenges were not considered problems by the majority of Hungarians. Moreover, Jobbik’s positive attitude towards Islam and Muslims living in Hungary was largely accepted by its supporters. Muslims have lived among Hungarians for a thousand years, and in several instances, have taken up arms for the country, most recently in Western Hungary in 1921; the Croatian War of Independence from 1991 to 1995; and Laslovo in 1991. The close relationship of Hungarian Muslim organizations and certain far-right radical groups, including Jobbik, during the 2000s can be understood in this context. This link has been further strengthened by a common anti-Israel sentiment and support for the establishment of a Palestinian state. In 2012 and 2014, they organized protests against Israeli military actions in Gaza. Vona and other leading Jobbik figures have publicly called Israel an aggressive, racist, and terrorist state that operates “the world’s largest concentration camp” in the Gaza Strip. This stand contrasts significantly with that of right-wing parties in Western Europe, in countries with significant Muslim minorities (Pap & Glied, 2018).

In 2010, Vona explained his attitude toward Islam in Barikád magazine and stated that traditional Islam is a ray of hope (reménysugár) in the fight against Western globalization and neoliberalism. Vona supports the establishment of an independent Palestinian state and promotes the relationship between Turkic peoples and Hungarians. Vona claims that conservative traditions can save globalized consumer societies that are destined to fail, and Christianity has been unable to stop the growth of consumerist societies. On the other hand, Vona and his party argue that the strength of Islamic societies lies in their adherence to conservative values, providing the answer: a halt to globalization (Pap & Glied, 2018). In a 2013 interview, he also stated: “the actual division in the world may not be between religions, countries and cultures, but between communities still trying to preserve traditions and anti-traditionalist, global liberalism. If you take a closer look, it is the Islamic world that can best resist the unipolar world order led by the US,” (Sarkadi-Illyés 2015). Vona’s positive attitude to Islam also defined the foreign policy of Jobbik for years (Pap & Glied, 2018).

One can also follow the traces of this stance vis-à-vis Muslims in a statement of a Jobbik deputy. After Anders Breivik’s terror attack in Norway, Jobbik’s MP Márton Gyöngyösi published a statement on the party’s website, criticizing Breivik’s ideology. The title of the statements was: A Hungarian party advocating “Eastern Turn” and return to Asian roots cannot be allied with Western anti-Islamic radicals! (Gyöngyösi, 2011). Gyöngyösi stated that Jobbik was criticized by the international press in connection with the attacks, but that his party represents a “unique position” when it comes to their foreign policy strategy: “…These lies were based on the single fact that Breivik mentioned in his 1,500-page diary radical movements in Hungary that he knew of… Jobbik. The media was silent about the fact that Breivik in reality heavily criticized Jobbik for not being anti-Islamic” (Gyöngyösi, 2011). Gyöngyösi suggested that Jobbik is not “anti-Islamic” or “xenophobic,” as opposed to many movements in Western Europe. He tried to argue that Hungarians are the only European nation with Asiatic roots and that therefore brotherly relations with such countries as Turkey or Azerbaijan are very important (Gyöngyösi, 2011).

Vona also visited Turkey and declared that it is necessary to cooperate with Muslims. Encouraging Christians, Muslims, and believers of other religions to join in a fight against global liberalism, Vona stated that the countries Hungary now calls “allies” are in fact destroying Hungary’s economy by exploiting Hungarians as cheap labor, forcing them to fight in pointless wars, and disrespecting Hungarians’ national traditions. Vona encouraged dialogue between cultures and religions (Kowalczyk, 2017).

Although antisemitism and the “Eastern” relationship are widely supported within Jobbik, its members have become divided on close ties with Islam and Muslim states. The question of how a nationalistic-Christian commitment is compatible with a pro-Muslim stance is frequently raised, particularly since the start of the 2015 migrant crisis. Jobbik has also worked hard to reverse its pro-Muslim stance in response to the anti-migrant campaign launched by Fidesz. As the migrant crisis erupted, Jobbik started to describe this crisis in terms of a clash of Muslim and Christian civilizations. Polls also suggested that Jobbik supporters share a radical anti-migrant viewpoint. In February 2016, Fidesz openly called Jobbik’s political and ideological shift, from pro- to anti-Muslim, an “identity crisis” (Pap & Glied, 2018).

In August 2015, parallel to these developments, Imam Miklós Ahmed Kovács, the MIK vice-chairman, declared four radical right-wing organizations, including Jobbik, to be prohibited (haram): “It is religiously haram for all Muslims to support or to vote for or participate in the activities of these groups, parties, or organizations, or to assist them in any way, because that would be an act against Muslims.” Kovács justified the prohibition on the grounds that these organizations did not stand up for Muslims and had organized an anti-refugee campaign during the influx of refugees into Hungary. Most interestingly, in his speech, he touched upon the former cooperation between Muslims and these organizations: “Before, many people from these circles became Muslims or supported these parties as Muslims … many Muslims voted for Jobbik in 2010 and some of them joined the self-defense organizations or the party itself.” Since its shift from pro-Muslim to anti-migrant, none of Jobbik’s leaders or representatives have visited a Muslim country (Pap & Glied, 2018).


Hungarian-Turkish friendship symbol.

Tracing the Footsteps of Imagined Ancestors: Turanism

In practical politics the vital thing is not what men really are, but what they think they are. Accordingly, the Magyars instinctively turned to seek out their long-lost kindred, and the researches of Hungarian scholars, particularly those of the great orientalist Arminius Vambery, disclosed the unexpected vastness of the Turanian world (Stoddard, 1917). According to Kim, Jobbik has attempted to revive the glorious legacy of mythical Turanism, which has contributed significantly to the party’s rise (Kim, 2016).

The term “Turanism” is derived from Turan, a word most likely of Persian origin, once used to describe the lands of Central Asia inhabited by nomadic tribes. In seeking to determine when the term first emerged, scholars refer to the two oldest sources known today: the Avesta, the holy book of Zoroastrians; and the Shahnameh, by Ebu-l Kasim-i Ferdowsi (940–1020), which narrates the mythical history of the Persian Empire (Levent, 2016).

The origins of ethnic Hungarians are still being debated, thanks to the emergence of an “alternative history” espoused by right-wing and nationalistic groups, such as Jobbik voters. Evidence suggests that the Magyar tribes migrated from the Ural mountain region in Central Asia, settling in the lowlands of the Carpathian Basin. However, the right-wing alternative historians argue that the Magyars were an ancient warrior people – descendants of Attila the Hun – who lived in the Carpathian Basin for hundreds of years and then migrated all over Europe and Central Asia, finally returning to the Carpathian Basin years later. Although there is no evidence to support this claim, the alternative narrative is regarded as fact by some Hungarians and is touted by present-day far-right parties, romanticizing Turkic-Hungarian connections and contributing to a national pride that is sympathetic to Muslims (Pap & Glied, 2018).

Proponents of the Hungarian alternative history assert that Hungarian history has been deliberately and systematically falsified by the Habsburgs, the communists, and foreign powers intending to “colonize” Hungary. These theorists claim that foreign academics forged evidence that the Magyars are connected to Finno-Ugric people in order to rob Hungarians of their true history as an ancient warrior people, since Finno-Ugric people were considered lower class nomadic peoples. Alternative theorists believe many unproven narratives that supposedly link Hungarians to Asian peoples and a stolen, glorious history. For example, some controversially claim that Hungarians had a historic role in human civilization as descendants of Attila the Hun and that the Hungarian language is related to ancient Sumerian, “proving” that Hungarians are an ancient people (Pap & Glied, 2018).

Many Hungarian researchers and explorers travelled to Central Asia, seeking to find peoples related to Hungarians. The first to employ the term Turan in Hungarian literature was Ferenc Pulszky, who used it in 1839 as a geographic concept. However, in 1895 Géza Nagy wrote that “Turanian” is synonymous with “Ural-Altaic” and that Turanians should be considered Central Asian nomads: Huns, Cumans, Hungarians, Tatars, Turks, Kyrgyz, etcIn this case, the term is used in an anthropologic meaning (Kowalczyk, 2017). As a geographical and ethno-cultural concept, Turanism is a belief that “aspires to the unification of Uralo-Altaic races, including the Turks of Turkey, the Turkic peoples of Central Asia, Tatars, Hungarians, the aboriginal tribes of Siberia, and even the distant Mongols, Manchus, Koreans, and Japanese” (Akcali & Korkut, 2012).

The Hungarian people are believed to have originated from East Asia, and the Grand Prince Arpad was assumed to be the direct descendant of Attila (Engel, 2005). This lineage was recorded in the Hungarian chronicle – Gesta Hungarorum (the Deed of Hungarians) – and in the Greek inscription on the Holy Crown which “translates as Geo-vitzas the Faithful King of the Lands of the Turks” (Akcali and Korkut, 2012). This historical narrative offered the Hungarians a sense of Asiatic belonging, which evolved to shape their distinctive identity with its “glorious Scythian-Hunnic past.” From the mid-18th century and on, this historical narrative had begun to carry political connotations which essentially served as a counter-ideology to the Western portrayal of Hungarian historiography. In particular, the re-fashioning of the existing historical narrative was seen as significant at countering the influence of German scholarship (Akcali and Korkut, 2012). 

In 1910, a group of prominent scientists, nobles, and politicians established the Turanian Society (Kessler, 1967). In 1925, a concise definition of Turanism appeared in Révai nagy lexikon: “It is the Turanian movement, peoples, and states, and the co-operation in the fields of culture, economy, and politics, as well progress in the matters of creative output and development.” 

It is also important to mention the critical perception of Turanism. Gyula Germanus was its fierce critic. In his opinion, the goal of Turanism was not to provide reliable knowledge, but to foster “an imaginary, fictitious idea of kinship” in order to reap political benefits. (Kowalczyk, 2017). 

In an attempt to preserve Turanism, Hungarian aristocrats consciously encouraged the entrenchment of the Uralo-Altaic narrative into Hungarian intellectual discourse. Yet this attempt was hampered by the dominance of regional hegemonic foreign power, and it was the Ottomans, the Habsburgs, and the Russians who were primarily held accountable for Turanism failing to take hold. Thus, it was only after the end of the WWI that saw ripe conditions for the revival of Turanism. The idea was especially appealing to those who saw the post-war truncation of Hungary as unjust and inadmissible and pined for the days of Greater Hungary. Still, this resuscitated idea failed to take hold – a failure which was due to Hungary’s defeat in WWII and the imposition of Communist rule thereafter (Kim, 2016).

For Jobbik, Turanism, with its emphasis on the unification of Uralo-Altaic brethren, seems to be an ideal means of achieving this goal. Turanism, it was thought, might serve as counter-ideology to offset the influence of the Atlanticists. Furthermore, Jobbik might have seen Hungary’s turn to the East as an opportunity to expand into new markets.

The fall of the Iron Curtain allowed for a re-emergence of the Turanist movement. The largest and the most important group appears to be the Hungarian-Turan Fund under the leadership of András Zsolt Bíró. The modern Turanist movement has different opportunities than those available to its predecessors. First of all, the internet is a very useful tool in promoting Turanism. Thanks to the internet, one can obtain knowledge about Turanists and their vision of history, but it is also possible to buy Turanist clothes, caps, pendants, mugs, arches and knives of ancient warriors, as well as many other gadgets. Turanist themes are also present in songs of bands representing the Hungarian “National Rock” genre. For example, the famous Hungarian band Kárpátia has written a song titled Turul, about the bird from Hungarian mythology. Kárpátia also recorded a song dedicated to Cumans, the nomadic Turkic people who settled in Hungary in the Middle Ages. Turanism became a part of Hungarian mass culture, although mostly among nationalists (Kowalczyk, 2017).  

The transition to democracy naturally created an opportunity for the “spiritual revival” of Turanism. These attempts did not, however, draw a great deal of support from the wider community. The rejuvenation of Turanism began to gather momentum only after Jobbik included it on its own political agenda. Jobbik openly adheres itself to Pan-Turanism (Ghosh, 2013). It is noteworthy to point out that modern Hungarian Turanism, particularly as it is represented by Jobbik, displays strong anti-Western attitudes. At the time when Turanism reemerged onto the Hungarian political scene, Europe was grappling with financial crises, and in Jobbik’s eyes, the misleading role of the Euro-Atlantic community was primarily to blame for the country’s socio-economic ills. Thus, Jobbik questioned the wisdom of Hungary’s membership in the Euro-Atlantic community. Vona argued that Hungary’s alliance with the EU is counter-productive to promoting its national interests (Vona, 2012). 

In view of this, Jobbik’s anti-EU and anti-liberalism stances are hardly a surprise. Jobbik sought to develop and promote an alternative geopolitical discourse that might more closely align with Hungary’s national interests and might challenge the dominance of Euro-Atlanticism (Kim, 2016). For Jobbik, Turanism , with its emphasis on the unification of Uralo-Altaic brethren, seems to be an ideal means of achieving this goal. Turanism, it was thought, might serve as counter-ideology to offset the influence of the Atlanticists (Akcali and Korkut, 2015). Furthermore, Jobbik might have seen Hungary’s turn to the East as an opportunity to expand into new markets. This pragmatic consideration may explain certain Jobbik members’ support for Turanist ideas. Moreover, Hungary is in a unique position within Europe, one that allows it to facilitate engagement with Eurasian culture (Kim, 2016). This dual identity, drawing on both European norms and Asian values, was embedded in the historical consciousness of Jobbik members. 

Turanism is a very important part of Jobbik’s program. Jobbik regularly organized a series of socio-cultural programs, including Kurultaj, which was most well-known among pro-Turanists (Dettke, 2014). In some Altaic languages the word Kurultaj means “meeting of the tribes,” something which occurs among many nomadic peoples. Such meetings are also very important for Hungarian culture and mentioned throughout Hungarian literature. The Nagy Kurultaj (Great Kurultaj) is held every summer, in the village of Bugac, 160 km south of Budapest and close to Kiskunság National Park. Before every Kurultaj, organizers construct a large nomadic village with innumerable Turanian tents (yurts); there are also special corrals and stables (Kowalczyk, 2017). In the summer of 2010, a quarter million people gathered at Bugac. Such attendance shows the growing popularity of TuranismIn 2012, a decision was made that the event will be held once every two years and that representatives of all Turanian nations will be invited (Kowalczyk, 2017). It can be argued that Jobbik’s rise is predominantly due to the party’s strategy in which they’ve re-shaped Hungarian national identity, forming an ideological narrative based in mythic Turanism (Kim, 2016).

An analysis of Jobbik’s vision of Hungarian foreign policy also shows the influence of Turanism. Whenever Jobbik’s politicians speak out about Hungarian origins and affiliation, they readily support the theory that Hungarians are one of the Turanian peoples (Kowalczyk, 2017). 

Jobbik politicians not only speak about Turanism, but they also travel to countries considered Turanian. In October 2013, Vona paid a visit to Turkey, where he met with university students and delivered lectures. He was talking about Hungarian-Turkish kinship, common ancestors, and a need for cooperation. He suggested that the mission of Turanism could be to build bridges between the West and the East, between Islam and Christianity. The party remains consistent in supporting states and nations recognized as Turanian while also trying to build relationships with them. Jobbik supports Azerbaijan in its conflict against Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh. In February 2013, an article titled Jobbik expresses solidarity with brotherly Azeri nation was released on Jobbik’s website (jobbik.com, 2013). It is surprising to many that Jobbik, often considered to be “far-right” or “xenophobic,” promotes Turanism and calls for reconciliation between Christians and Muslims (Kowalczyk, 2017).

Lastly, Jobbik tries to utilize Turanistic images and symbols for its benefit. In its manifesto, Jobbik promised to constitutionally protect ancient national symbols that have been oft-attacked: The Holy Crown, Hungary’s historic flags, and the Turul-bird emblem (Guide, 2010). 


Jobbik banner and poster in the streets of Budapest for electoral propaganda on September 6, 2014.

“Eastern Turn” & Ties with Russia, Iran, and Turkey

In Jobbik’s ideology, very diffuse elements complement each other. In addition to incorporating Hungarian history from the time of paganism, as well as nationalistic and Christian ideas, there is also a spiritual and esoteric dimension. Together with the anti-EU arguments and a pro-Russia orientation, an anti-immigrant stance exists simultaneously with a pro-Muslim stance. This stance primarily focuses on Iran and Turkey (Pap & Glied, 2018). Since its formation, Jobbik has been very critical of the international policy of the EU and the US and considers Hungary to be a victim of the West. What is more, Jobbik strongly criticizes globalism, liberalism, and anti-traditionalism, which it considers to be features of modern Western societies. Because of this, Jobbik’s “Eastern Turn” appears to be a turn away from the West (Kowalczyk, 2017). 

In a sense, Jobbik could be considered a revisionist party, one which disagrees with the provisions of the Treaty of Trianon (1920), according to which Hungary lost a vast majority of territories. The Treaty of Trianon is one of the reasons Jobbik is so mistrustful of the West. Jobbik also condemns the Euro-Atlantic co-operation, perceiving it as a vehicle for the US to secure its interests. Therefore, the party calls for the replacement of Euro-Atlantic co-operation with Euro-Asiatic co-operation. Putting aside historical animosity towards Moscow, Jobbik considers Russia a desirable ally for Hungary (Kowalczyk, 2017). The party regarded the accession of Hungary a failure and looked at the EU as an organization that did not serve the interests of Hungarians (Jobbik.com, 2010). However, following Brexit and the continuous debates on the future of the EU, Jobbik has reassessed its views on the EU and started to emphasize that an EU reform could make the Union advantageous for European nations (Kroet, 2016).

Jobbik’s foreign policy – its “Eastern Turn” or “Opening to the East” (Keleti nyitás) – is aimed at reducing dependence on Western resources. In Hungary, the “East” is considered a region which is made up of all the countries in the Middle East and Asia – all non-European countries east of Hungary. In several speeches on behalf of Jobbik, former party leader Vona advocated forming alliances with “Eastern” powers. Jobbik rhetoric regularly refers to uprisings from Hungarian history to symbolize its commitment to defending Hungary against Western powers (Pap & Glied, 2018). In April 2011, Vona presented the Béla IV Plan, in which the economic potential of Russia, China, Turkey, Central Asia, the Arab countries, and Iran are put forward as a means of ending Hungary’s international financial dependence on the EU and Western multinational corporations, which he sees as injurious to Hungary’s sovereignty (Pap & Glied, 2018).

Jobbik also stated in its party manifesto that they will develop a partnership with Russia and will pursue cooperation with the Far East and Southeast Asian region. With the US they intend to develop a kind of bilateral relationship, which consistently promotes national interests. They shall also widen diplomatic relations with Arab nations and will promote the creation of an independent Palestinian state. In the case of Central Asian nations, Jobbik intends to reinforce the development of political and economic ties on the basis of cultural relationships, given their ancient kinship with the peoples of that region (Guide, 2010).

Jobbi believes the growing countries of the East (China, India, Russia, Turkey, Kazakhstan, Indonesia) have unexplored potential for trade and economic development. Jobbik promised to turn foreign trade relations eastward to guarantee these economies the opportunity of a “bridgehead” towards the markets of the EU. Jobbik also promised to reappraise the necessity of the country’s involvement in current NATO operations (Guide, 2010). According to A. Buzogány, Jobbik’s anti-NATO and anti-EU policies are influenced by Russia. Press reports also showed that the Kremlin has been involved in funding extreme right-wing forces in the EU, including Jobbik, which underwent an unexpectedly sharp pro-Russian turn during the 2010s (Buzogány, 2017). Politically, the most troubling development for the EU are persistent suggestions of financial connections between Jobbik and Russia and Iran (Murer, 2015).

According to Jobbik leaders, Hungarians, Turks, and Russians are the three nations preserving “universal human traditions.” What is more, these nations are, due to their history, fate, and disposition, European and Asian at the same time. Therefore, Hungarians, Turks, and Russians should create a “Eurasian alternative” to the Euro-Atlantic co-operation.

Not long after Jobbik’s successful showing in the 2010 parliamentary elections, Gabriel Ronay, writing in the Scottish broadsheet The Herald, reported that the Hungarian Public Prosecutor’s Office was investigating claims that Béla Kovács, then a Jobbik foreign policy advisor, was Moscow’s money channel, bringing funds directly from the Kremlin into the party’s coffers (Ronay, 2010). In May 2014, the assertions of a connection between Jobbik and Moscow continued when Jávor Benedek of the Hungarian political party “Politics Can Be Different” (LMP), claimed in the Budapest daily Magyar Nemzet that Béla Kovács, now a Jobbik MEP, is regarded in Brussels as “a lobbyist for Russia and Gazprom, someone whose career clearly demonstrates a commitment to Russia.” It was further alleged that Kovács was spying on EU institutions for the Russians (XpatLoop, 2014).

The consequences of this connection are significant, as Jobbik MEPs oppose EU sanctions against Russia, inflame the Ukrainian crisis, and disrupt EU foreign policy. This confluence of Russian interests and cooperation from Jobbik is most apparent in the rhetoric of “Eurasianism.” Jobbik suggests that just as Crimea is Russian, the Carpathian region of western Ukraine is Hungarian. Furthermore, Vona said in a June 2015 speech that “Europe is in crisis; Europe is sick” (Murer, 2015). Whether Jobbik is actively anti-EU or pro-Russian, the activities in the European Parliament and the close connections revealed in frequent trips and lectures, such as Vona giving a lecture at Lomonosov University in Moscow in May 2013 at the invitation of Alexandr Dugin, irritate Brussels; such stances and actions have led to some political scientists wondering whether Jobbik is acting as “Russia’s Trojan Horse.” (Petsinis, 2014).

Jobbik’s politicians express respect for Dugin’s geopolitical ideas. Dugin is the main ideologist of Eurasianism; he and Vona have even discussed common goals. According to Vona, Hungarians, Turks, and Russians are the three nations preserving “universal human traditions.” What is more, these nations are, due to their history, fate, and disposition, European and Asian at the same time. Therefore, Hungarians, Turks, and Russians should create a “Eurasian alternative” to the Euro-Atlantic co-operation (Kowalczyk, 2017). According to Murer, it is ironic that, via the platform of the EU, and especially the European Parliament, Jobbik is able to find a far larger audience to disseminate its anti-capitalist, antisemitic, and anti-Roma views. Jobbik also disrupts EU attempts to speak with one voice on issues ranging from human rights to the crisis in Ukraine, while at the same time appearing to promote Russian interests (Murer, 2015).


Although Jobbik identifies itself as a “principled, conservative and radically patriotic Christian party” whose “fundamental purpose” is the protection of “Hungarian values and interests,” it could not hide its racist, populist, and far-right character. It is accepted widely that Jobbik’s ideology is neo-Fascist and neo-Nazist and that combines militant ethno-nationalism with antisemitism and anti-Roma racism. 

As a revisionist political party in its foreign policy, Jobbik also advocates a militant revanchism and seeks the “reunification” of the Hungarian nation and a revision of the 1920 Treaty of Trianon which determined the borders of present-day Hungary, granting the new country only 36 percent of the kingdom’s pre-war population. Jobbik’s Greater Hungarian irredentist claims are also reflected in pleas for cross-border ethnic self-determination. For instance, Jobbik demands “territorial autonomy” for parts of Romania with large Hungarian populations and desires to make Trans-carpathian Ukraine an independent Hungarian district. Since a quarter of ethnic Hungarians live outside the country, Jobbik dedicates itself to supporting the cause of significant Hungarian minority populations abroad. Thus, it stirs up ethnic hatred in neighboring countries. 

Since Jobbik believes that Hungarian diaspora communities face discrimination in their host countries, the party calls for Hungarian communities in neighboring states to receive territorial autonomy if they form a local majority. Jobbik further argues that all other Hungarian diaspora communities should receive “cultural autonomy.” Despite its extensive efforts at “image refurbishment” in recent years, Jobbik remains a populist, revisionist, racist, radical right-wing party that threatens to destabilize Hungary, the neighboring region, and the EU – especially if it could secure a ruling majority in upcoming elections. 


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Sweden Democrats' Square Meeting in Umeå. Jimmie Åkesson speaks to the people on the city square in Umeå, Sweden on August 14, 2018.

Per Jimmie Åkesson: A Smiling Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing?

Kenes, Bulent. (2020). “Per Jimmie Åkesson: A Smiling Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing?” ECPS Leader Profiles. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). August 3, 2020. https://doi.org/10.55271/lp0002


Jimmie Åkesson and his party, the Sweden Democrats (SD), are not yet authentically democratic. They are still “the same old iron gang as usual” despite concerted efforts to change their image. Of course, Åkesson has steered the SD away from the Nazi movement onto a more parliamentary path. But its essence – alarmist resistance to immigrants and Islamophobia – has remained the same, and there is still no solid indication that Åkesson has matured or moderated over the years.

By Bulent Kenes

Per Jimmie Åkesson is a Swedish author and leader of the populist radical right (PRR) Sweden Democrats (SD) party. Åkesson’s path to politics was both normal and unusual: he began his political activism through the anti-abortion movement and Scientology meetings (Poohl, 2011). Åkesson, who was also politically active as a member of Moderates (M) for a short period of time, first became a member of Sölvesborg City Council in 1998, running on the SD platform. After he became president of the party in 2005, he took the SD from the political margin to the center, making it into one of Sweden’s largest parties (Expo, 2018). He has been a member of the Riksdag (Swedish Parliament) representing Jönköping County since 2010 (Parliament, 2010).

Åkesson was born in 1979 in Ivetofta in Skåne County (Lindström, 2010), but grew up in Sölvesborg in Blekinge County. He had tried to get in touch with the local department of the neo-nazi New Democracy party, but his efforts were unsuccessful (Poohl, 2011). Instead, he became a member of the Moderate Youth League, the youth wing of the Moderate Party. But he soon left the Moderates and contacted the SD in December 1994. On New Year’s Eve 1994, he and some of his comrades founded the the Sweden Democratic Youth (SDU: The youth wing of the SD) in Sölvesborg (Expo, 2018).

Despite his involvement in 1994, he claimed that he did not join the party until Mikael Jansson was elected as party leader in March 1995, when the party began a process of renewal (Expo, 2018). Therefore, the question of exactly when Åkesson joined the SD is still shrouded in obscurity. 

Although the specifics are still debated, he joined the party sometime between 1994 and 1995. Under normal circumstances, a few months may seem an insignificant detail. But in Åkesson’s case, it matters. In the chapter of SD’s anniversary book (20 röster om 20 år) about him, Åkesson makes an allegation that he did not join the SD until controversial party leader Anders Klarström left his post in favor of Mikael Jansson. For Åkesson, the change of party leadership represents a breaking point in the SD’s history. Mikael Jansson symbolized the “new.” The new SD started the process of purging racists and neo-Nazis. For Åkesson, it is important to stand on the right side of the line. 

The problem is that his story is not right. His narrative – of joining in 1995 – is contradicted by a text Åkesson wrote for SDU-Syd’s member magazine in 1997: “We first had contact with the SD sometime in December of the same year (1994). During a meeting on New Year’s Eve, we decided to start working party politics, and that a local SDU department would eventually be formed” (Åkesson, 1997). And in a 1999 interview with The Democrat, he said that he joined the SD’s youth association “after the 1994 elections” (Poohl, 2011). In 2012, Lars Adaktusson claimed in the Metro newsapaper that Åkesson joined the SD “when the party politics were still shaped by right-wing nationalists and skinheads,”(Mattsson, 2015). However, the SD’s press secretary Christian Krappedal has accepted Åkesson’s official narrative and stated that he became a party member in the spring of 1995 (Nyman, 2015).

It is also difficult to find out how exactly Åkesson came into contact with the SD. He himself says that it was one of his teachers’ negative attitudes about the SD that attracted him to the party: “The teacher said it was a bad party and it was awful to vote for it. Anyway, there were two students in the class who had voted for the SD and then it led to a great discussion. Then I became a little curious and looked more closely at the party. There was a lot I could do there” (Poohl, 2011). But in 20 röster om 20 år, Åkesson told a different story. There, Åkesson described distancing himself from Sölvesborg’s fashionable youth circles; then, together with some friends, he began to search the “outfields.” There he found the Sweden Democrats. The correct explanation remains unclear. In any case, Åkesson’s political search ended with the SD (Poohl, 2011).

Åkesson claims in his book Satis Politio that his main political ambition was to “distance the party from questionable ideas” (Åkesson, 2013). Paradoxically, he also claims that he has not seen any form of racism in the SD – this despite working with Tina Hallgren-Bengtsson, an SD member Höör, while founding the SDU in Sölvesborg; in 1996, Hallgreen-Bengtsoon burned books in bonfire while wearing a Nazi uniform (Expo, 2018). Moreover, many who have criticized the SD pointed out that party members have expressed Nazi views. In some cases, they’ve used Nazi symbols and uniforms. Both of the then-SD leader and the youth union chairman were Nazis. SD members dressed in Nazi uniforms – even at the party’s official meetings. For instance, Kenneth Sandberg, who later left the SD and appeared in Nazi contexts – including as a writer for a Nazi newspaper – sat with Åkesson on the party board (Mattsson, 2015). In the SD’s newspaper Kurier, the aforementioned Hallgren-Bengtsson was widely advertised as deputy party leader. After she resigned from the party, she and her husband Jan Bengtsson went over to the more radical National Socialist Front. 

There are many similar examples, i.e. many people in the ranks of the SD have previously expressed sympathies with racist or national socialist ideas (Mattsson, 2015). Åkesson states in Satis Politio that he joined the SD with the intention of fundamentally changing the party, but wrote that, “Not even Mikael Jansson succeeded fully in the clean-up during his ten years at the helm.” Åkesson didn’t deny that the former party leader (Klarström) was a Nazi, nor that the party has links to Nazism and skinhead culture, but he claims that such links are exaggerated (Åkesson, 2013).

Åkesson studied a three-year social science program between 1995-1998 at the Furulund School in Sölvesborg (Adolfsson, 2013). In 1997, he was elected as a deputy member of the party board (jimmieåkesson.se). Then, he began his studies at Lund University in 1999. During his first year, he studied philosophy and research policy. He then studied political science, law, economic history, economics and social geography. According to his autobiography Satis Polito, he was most attracted to the SD’s policies opposing the European Union (EU) and immigration: “Like so many others, I stuck to the SD’s immigration policy, but it was probably above all the party’s view of the EU that made me to take the final decision” (Åkesson, 2013 & jimmieåkesson.se).

Prior to working for the party full-time, Åkesson worked as a web designer at the company BMJ Aktiv, which he co-founded with Björn Söder, the former SD party secretary. Meanwhile, the local SDU association quickly became one of the largest and most active political youth associations in the municipality. This laid the foundation for the municipal elections in 1998, when Åkesson was elected to public office as a councilman in Sölvesborg. The same year, he also became deputy chairman of the SDU (Lindström, 2010).

Åkesson recounted his political experiences in those days with the following words: “Of course, as a 19-year-old and a Swedish Democrat, it was great and exciting to take a seat in an assembly elected by the people, especially since it was about something you yourself have been involved in building from the ground up. At the same time, it would have been good to have someone more experienced to learn from, and I must say that I envy the youth politicians in the established parties because they have that advantage. As a Swedish Democrat, so far, we have had to start from scratch, which has been useful but extremely challenging” (jimmieåkesson.se). 

His role within the SD national organization began in 1997, when he was elected alternate member of the party board. Since then, he has held many different assignments, including being chairman of the SDU between 2000-2005, within the party’s communications unit where he was involved in advertising production and press contacts. He wrote press releases and produced information materials and political programs. Åkesson was also assigned to the chair of the party’s program commission. He was the lead author of the principle program adopted in 2003 and of the “democracy program” that was produced in the fall of 2004. In addition, he put together the election manifesto of 2002. He described those days: “Politically, the ideology and democracy issues interest me above all. The development of recent decades in Sweden is interesting to study, especially in relation to other countries. There is no doubt that Swedish society has [been] derailed in many respects” (jimmieåkesson.se).

In the years before he became the party chairman, Åkesson devoted a great deal of his time and efforts to organizational and election planning work. He was a driving force in the SD’s central election planning group. Before the 2004 European Parliament (EP) election, he was one of the party’s top names behind Sten Andersson and made himself known as a diligent speaker. The party tripled its support in the European Parliament (jimmieåkesson.se).

Åkesson received massive attention and reaction when he published a debate article in Aftonbladet on October 19, 2009 that was critical of Islam. The article argued that various phenomena associated with Islam were the “greatest foreign threat to Sweden since World War II” and it highlighted Muslims as Sweden’s biggest foreign threat.

After some internal disputes within the party, Åkesson was proposed by the nomination committee to be the new SD leader in 2005. At the party congress on May 7, 2005, Åkesson won a vote over former party leader Mikael Jansson (Widfeldt, 2015). Since 2005, Åkesson has remained party leader. In the 2006 election, the SD significantly increased its support in the municipality of Sölvesborg, more than doubling their seats in the municipal council and winning almost ten percent of the votes. As party leader Åkesson participated in a number of debates and hearings on both television and radio (jimmieåkesson.se). 

On October 19, 2009, Aftonbladet published a debate article by Åkesson that was critical of Islam. The article argued that various phenomena associated with Islam were the “greatest foreign threat to Sweden since World War II.” The article highlighted Muslims as Sweden’s biggest foreign threat (Åkesson, 2009). It received massive attention and reaction. Åkesson met Business Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Maud Olofsson in a live debate on SVT (Stensson, 2009). The Center for Racism applied to the Swedish Attorney General (Justitiekanslern – JK) about the article potentially inciting violence against various ethnic groups (Aftonbladet, 2009). JK did not, however, consider that the article’s content constituted incitement against an ethnic group and decided not to initiate an investigation about it (Justitiekanslern2009).Despite reactions from political and intellectual circles, an opinion poll conducted by United Minds Opinion Institute and Synovate in October 2009 found that the debate had increased support for the SD (Brors, 2009). In February 2010, the DSM magazine released a survey showing that according to 150 leading Swedish writers, debate editors, chroniclers, and social debaters, Åkesson was Sweden’s 9th most crucial opinion leader (Brors, 2010). 

In the 2010 general election, the SD passed the 4 percent national election threshold for the first time and entered the Riksdag with 5.70 percent of all votes, gaining 20 seats (Nyberg, 2010). Åkesson was elected together with 19 of his fellow party members. In 2013, Åkesson published his autobiography Satis Polito (Åkesson, 2013). Fokus magazine ranked Åkesson as Sweden’s 5th most powerful person of the year (Fokus, 2013).

In September 2014, Sveriges Radio’s (SR) Ekot reported that Åkesson spent about 500,000 Swedish kron ($70,000) on online betting in 2014 alone. The sum is more than a politician could earn in a year after tax (The Local, 2014). The revelation caused an uproar, both among people who view Åkesson as unreliable and those who opposed SR’s decision to publish the information. Åkesson called SR’s actions an attempt at “character assassination” (Eriksson & Olsson, 2014).Following the 2014 election, Åkesson announced he would be on sick leave due to burnout, during which Mattias Karlsson became temporary party leader (Holender et al, 2014). In early 2015,  Åkesson was named as Sweden’s most important opinion leader of 2014 by DSM; the authors of the piece claimed that he had changed the political landscape (DSM, 2015) of the county. In an interview with Fredrik Skavlan on March 23, 2015, Åkesson announced his gradual return to Swedish politics (Lisinski, 2015).

Sweden Democrats’ Square Meeting in Umeå. Jimmie Åkesson speaks to the people on the city square where opposition left-wingers have formed a chain and protest in Umeå, Sweden on August 14, 2018.

A Strong Leader Without Much Charisma

While several authors consider that charismatic leadership is an essential feature of populism, quite a few others remain skeptical (Pappas, 2016). For Albertazzi and McDonnell, for instance, “the charismatic bond between leader and his followers is absolutely central to populist parties” (Albertazzi & McDonnell, 2008). Meanwhile, Mény and Surel assert that populism “advocates the power of the people yet relies on seduction by a charismatic leader” (Mény & Surel, 2002).Weyland also places charisma at the center of his definition of populism, which he sees as “a political strategy through which a personalistic leader seeks or exercises government power” (Weyland, 1999). In a similar vein, lack of charismatic leadership has been proposed as explaining why some populist parties are unable to gain ground in some countries (Smith, 2010), while others have shown empirically that political charisma is an important predictor of the relative success of populist radical right‐wing parties (Lubbers et al, 2002 & Pappas, 2016).

Moreover, organizationally, PRR parties are seen as centralized, with grass-roots members enjoying little influence (Bolin & Aylott, 2019b). In this context, internal leadership essentially refers to the party organization. It is sometimes suggested that right-wing populist parties are leader-centric and take decisions in a top-down fashion (Heinisch & Mazzoleni, 2016).A study finds that PRR parties also display lower levels of intra-party democracy than any other parties on the political spectrum (Bolin et al, 2017). Meanwhile, external leadership refers to the electoral arena. Certainly, leaders do seem to greatly affect parties’ electoral support (Mughan, 2015); the importance of a party leader’s own personal traits are often emphasized (Bennister et al, 2015). In relation to PRR party leaders, the elusive quality of charisma is often assumed to be crucial (Lubbers et al. 2002). However, in a survey of forty-five populist contemporary European populist leaders, only five were categorized as being charismatic (Pappas, 2016).

There were genuine leadership contests in the SD in the early 2000s. The party’s first formal leader was Anders Klarström, a former member of an outright neo-Nazi party (Nordiska Rikspartiet), who was elected by the 1989 party congress. He was replaced by Mikael Jansson, formerly a member of the Center Party, at the 1995 congress. Although Jansson made the party somewhat more respectable, many thought the progress was too slow. Moreover, he was widely regarded as being a rather uncharismatic and introverted leader. Jansson was also accused of nepotism (Bolin, 2012 & Widfeldt, 2015).

Internal dissatisfaction with Jansson increasingly came to the fore after the 2002 election. A faction of younger SD politicians (known as the Skåne gang) from the party’s stronghold of southern Sweden managed to advance its position by acquiring more seats on the party board after each party congress. While Jansson was formally still leader, his standing was increasingly undermined. The advance of this faction was gradually reflected in the orientation of the selection committee. The new balance of power was openly revealed ahead of the 2005 congress when the selection committee nominated Åkesson as new party leader (Ekman & Poohl 2010). Jansson fought on, but Åkesson managed rather easily to unseat him, with 91 votes to 50 (Jungar, 2016).

Although Åkesson is the longest-serving SD leader (Bolin & Aylott, 2019b), the SD did not rely on charismatic leadership, at least not to the same extent as many other PRR parties (Bergmann, 2017). Swedish political parties have distinct organization cultures, especially with respect to leadership. Normally, leaders are formally accountable only to the extra-parliamentary organization. This is reflected in the formal titles given to the leaders (Bolin & Aylott, 2019b). The norm is that parliamentary groups are under the firm command of the party leadership and voting discipline tends to be solid (Jensen, 2000). Research has suggested that the SD is somewhat even more centralized and less internally democratic than other Swedish parties (Jungar, 2016), so it might well be that the election of Åkesson’s eventual successor will involve less openness than in other parties (Bolin & Aylott, 2019b).

Any long-serving party leader has to exercise considerable political skill and a good degree of ruthlessness, and Åkesson has been no exception. He has been successful both at holding onto his leadership position and at keeping the SD aligned to his preferred political strategy (Bolin & Aylott, 2019b).

Thus, the SD’s transformation and growth has coincided with Åkesson’s tenure. Despite being only 25 when he became party leader,  he pulled the SD’s ideological stance towards mainstream Swedish politics, rhetoric, and symbols. The SD’s popular support began to increase (Loxbo & Bolin 2016). Some of this could be attributed to Åkesson, but socio-political conditions in the country were changing, too. The financial crisis of 2008 had a sharply negative, albeit fairly short-lived, effect on the Swedish economy. As war, chaos, and violence spread through the Middle East, the applications for asylum by refugees – which had averaged less than 10,000 annually from 1995-99 – rose to over 25,000 annually from 2000-2010 (Migrationsverket, 2019). Economic and social changes are probably insufficient to explain the rise in support for SD, but they surely played a role (Bolin & Aylott, 2019b).

Despite his grip on power – he has never faced a serious leadership challenge – Åkesson is not regarded as particularly charismatic (Jungar, 2016; Bergmann, 2017 & Eatwell, 2018). According to a study, Åkesson “does not meet even generous definitions of charisma” and is better “described as low-key” (Widfeldt 2015). However, compared with his predecessors, there is no doubt that Åkesson as SD leader has a far broader electoral appeal. Jansson was instrumental in the SD’s professionalization, but Åkesson is generally reckoned to be much more eloquent (Bergmann 2017). While he is “rarely described as an inspirational speaker,” and although he is not prominent in social media, he has always been called “an effective media communicator” (Widfeldt 2015) and “media-savvy” (Demker, 2012). Åkesson’s low-key expression is said to suggest competence and reliability; only rarely does he sound deliberately provocative or outrageous. He is also a good debater (Widfeldt, 2008 & Bolin 2012), even when subjected to tough questioning about the SD’s extreme, neo-Nazi past, or when accused of racism (Bolin & Aylott, 2019b).

Åkesson generally appears calm and sensible – which is exactly how voters should perceive him (Poohl, 2011). Thanks to his cool image, Åkesson could make an attempt to broaden the party’s support and stretch out to female voters. While doing so, he made it clear that he most definitely is not a feminist. “I’m not a feminist! I am a Sweden Democrat, social conservative and nationalist. But I believe in equality,” he said (The Local, 2014). He has also been labeled a liberal – another term he disavows. “Maybe I’m a little softer in my opinions than Jimmy Windeskog, but I just see it as positive. Being liberal, on the other hand, is very destructive to me and of course it is deeply offensive to get such a title,” he said in an interview with the Democrat in 2000. Jimmy Windeskog, who was editor of the party’s member magazine SD Bulletin between 2000 and 2003, and party secretary between 2001 and 2003, had accused him of being “liberal.” Åkesson further explained that the reason he has been perceived as “soft” is because he is “very conservative in his attitude” (Poohl, 2011).

Poohl (2011) wrote that one of the reasons for Åkesson’s reputation as a “liberal” is probably his fierce opposition to the death penalty, which was a hot topic during his first year in the party. He has explained that during his first party meeting in 1996, he raised his voice in the discussion about the SD’s demands for capital punishment. Åkesson’s opposition to the death penalty is based on a strong conviction of “the inviolable right to life,” which also made him a loud opponent of abortion during his SDU years. As a young man he was a member of pro-life (anti-abortion) movement.

According to Bolin and Aylott, a clique of his close allies, most of whom he had met at university, has been central to Åkesson’s leadership. By 2015 the positions of secretary-general and chair of the parliamentary group, arguably the two most important roles in the party after that of the leader, were in the hands of Åkesson’s closest allies, Mattias Karlsson and Richard Jomshof, respectively. At the same time, other long-standing members of the clique were eased out of leading positions when their behavior and statements had become awkward for SD. Admittedly, this took a long time in the case of Kent Ekeroth. Elected to Parliament in 2010, Ekeroth was soon involved in an early-hours, racially charged contretemps, although this infamous “iron-bar scandal” only came to light two years later. More violence in 2016 led to his being dropped from the party’s lists for the 2018 election. Another example was Björn Söder, an old ally of Åkesson’s, who was replaced, against his will, as the SD’s secretary-general in 2015, although he remained an MP (Bolin & Aylott, 2019b).

In general, Åkesson is the least popular Swedish party leader. When respondents in an annual national survey have been asked to score each leader on a scale from -5 to +5, Åkesson’s average score has been significantly lower than others (Andersson & Oscarsson, 2018). While his scores improved over the years, from -2.7 in 2011 to -1.5 in 2017, his relative unpopularity mirrored the fact that the SD remained by far the most disliked party in Sweden (Ryan & Reiljan 2018).However, Åkesson’s average score has ranged from +2.5 in 2012 to +3.4 in 2015 among the SD’s sympathizers. Popular or not, Åkesson has proved to be a very capable party leader. He formulated a clear, long-term political strategy and pursued it with steadiness and ruthlessness. He helped take the SD beyond its extremist origins and established it as one of Sweden’s three biggest political parties (Bolin & Aylott, 2019b).

According to his book Satis Polito, Åkesson had already decided to deal with the SD’s racist and neo-nazi ideological roots when he took over as party leader in 2005: “My ambition was to further distance the party from dubious ideological traditions,” he wrote. These words are in fact a recognition of the fact that there were fascist elements within the party.

Racism: How Successful Has the SD Been in Changing Its Skin?

According to his book Satis Polito, Jimmie Åkesson had already decided to deal with the SD’s racist and neo-nazi ideological roots when he took over as party leader in 2005: “My ambition was to further distance the party from dubious ideological traditions,” he wrote. These words are in fact a recognition of the fact that there were fascist elements within the party. Åkesson understood the need for renewal within the party (Åkesson, 2013): just after Åkesson became leader, the party changed its logo from the flaming torch to one featuring an Anemone hepatica, reminiscent of the party’s very first, but short-lived logo (Sweden Democrats, 2005). Åkesson argued that “the flaming torch accounted for things that happened in and around the party during the lost years of the 1990s.” 

Other similar fascistic elements were also cleared out. Åkesson said racist slogans such as “Preserve Sweden Swedish” were also replaced with a goal of “making Sweden a little more Swedish.” He believed such changes were to “reach new voter groups and thus grow.” The party principles adopted in 1999 were free from stakes according to Åkesson and were instead based on “value conservatism” (Åkesson, 2013). Åkesson declared in October 2012 that his party had “zero tolerance” for racism or extremism and urged all “deviants” to leave the party. This happened after several well-publicized cases of gross racism by various representatives. 

But critics have claimed that the SD’s “zero tolerance” policy is applied to low-level representatives while those higher in the party hierarchy go free (Expo, 2018). 

By 2019, well over 100 SD members had been expelled under the zero-tolerance policy. They included several leading members of the SD’s youth wing, who were accused by the party leadership of consorting with an extreme right-wing organization. When, in 2015, an ally of those expelled members was elected chair of the youth wing, the SD leadership simply closed down the wing and replaced it with a new youth organization (Bolin & Aylott, 2019b). Despite all these changes and purges, critics still wonder whether these measures are sufficient to tame the SD and absolve it of its fascist, racist, neo-Nazi past. Some high-ranking members still use racist rhetoric or engage in far-right political activities. For instance, in 2016, SD lawmaker Anna Hagwall was dismissed from the party for antisemitism after proposing a bill to end state subsidies for media outlets that she claimed favored Jewish-owned media groups (The Times of Israel, 2016).

Hagwall’s proposed legislation was openly targeting the Bonnier media group, whose controlling family has Jewish roots. The Bonnier group owns 175 companies, including television and radio stations, newspapers, magazines, and book publishers, and operates in 15 countries. “For many years the SD have been working resolutely to end the currents of antisemitism and conspiracy theories in society,” Akesson argued in a statement. He addes, “Through her statements, Hagwall prejudiced this work and the party’s image. Anna wants legislation in which people are divided by ethnic appearances. We don’t support that.” Hagwell also sent an e-mail to Aftonbladet trying to justify her position. “It should not be allowed for any family, ethnic group or enterprise to control directly or indirectly more than 5 percent of the media,” she insisted (The Times of Israel, 2016).

In October 2018, a senior SD lawmaker Carina Herrstedt called for action against what she labeled the “control of media by any family or ethnic group,” again citing Bonnier. Herrstedt was also widely criticized in the media for writing a racist joke in an email that was deemed offensive to gays, blacks, nuns, Roma, and Jews. Moreover, SD’s finance spokesman Oscar Sjostedt was heard in a recording jokingly comparing Jews to sheep being killed in German abattoirs. Because of such remarks, the SD has been accused of espousing antisemitic views despite counting Jews among its ranks, including several lawmakers (JTA, 2018).

There have been other scandals. The Swedish newspaper Expressen revealed the fact that active and former neo-Nazis were standing as candidates for the SD in the 2018 election, despite the party claiming to have purged itself of any Nazi sympathizers. The SD’s deputy parliamentary speaker Bjorn Söder (a member of Skåne gang) said in summer 2018 that he did not believe Jews or people with indigenous Arctic Sami heritage could be Swedish (Martin, 2018). Söder maintained that he never questioned minorities’ rights as Swedish citizens but merely stood up for their rights to preserve their distinct ethnic identities. On Facebook, Söder criticized Annie Lööf, the leader of the Center Party, who wrote on Twitter that “My Jewish friends are simply my Swedish friends: As a citizen of Sweden, you are Swedish, even whether you belong to one of our national minorities or not.” Söder claimed that Lööf was “undermining” the status of those five minorities by downplaying their distinctive identities. Söder made similar statements in a 2014 interview with Dagens Nyheter, too (JTA, 2018).

Lena Posner Korosi, who was then the president of the Jewish Council in Sweden, expressed that Söder’s reasoning was “reminiscent of 1930s Germany.” Meanwhile, Paulus Kuoljok, the president of the Sami Parliament Plenary Assembly called Söder’s Facebook post “provocative” and designed to win votes. “They have shown their hostile stance for quite some time, so I’m not surprised,” he told SVT.

Despite SD officials frequently saying that they had planned to write a white paper on the party’s extremist connections, the project has never become a reality. In summer 2018 Åkesson highlighted Nazism in his speech during the political week at Almedalen: “Nazism can never be nationalism. Nazism is an anti-democratic, socialist, racist, imperialist, violent, international ideology, and it lacks justification for its existence in a democratic society” (Baas, 2018a). However, an examination of more than 6,000 Parliamentary candidates (and thousands more local candidates) from all political parties showed a totally different picture. The result showed that numbers of former members of the violent Nazi organization National Socialist Front (NSF) were running under the banner of Åkesson’s SD, including prominent Nazis such as Andreas Olofsson, Thomas Jelinek, Tobias Ekberg, Nina Magnom, Stellan Mårtensson, Morgan Scammel, and others (Baas, 2018a). The study was carried out by Expressen, with the support of Expo.

Furthermore, Åkesson’s co-worker and Parliamentary candidate Mikael Bystedt has anonymously written hundreds of comments on hate sites such as Avpixlat and Fria tiderExpressen revealed how Bystedt has systematically spread hatred towards Muslims and called Arabs “the scum of the earth.” He dismissed them as “lazy parasites that can’t bear to lift a finger and just lie on the couch expecting to be served with both one and the other” (Bass, 2018b).When Expressenreported that mosques were burned down in London, Bystedt wrote, “Damn it was well done! Now we hope this spreads to Sweden like a wildfire.” Expressen mapped out how Bystedt systematically and anonymously spread hatred, mainly against Muslims, on sites such as Avpixlat and Fria tider, but also the infamous American site Breitbart. Bystedt wrote the comments with an account that is linked to his private e-mail address, which he used when he became a member of the SD in 2013. He also used the same e-mail address in contacts with authorities, such as the Swedish Companies Registration Office and the Swedish Press, Radio and Television Authority. In comment after comment, he attacked Muslims. In 2015, Bystedt suggested on Avpixlat that Sweden should “expel all Muslims.” About the same time, he also presented a five-point program to “save Sweden.” Two of the points were: “Stop all immigration / immigration of Muslims. Destroy all traces of Islam in our Swedish society, mosques etc.” In order that no one should miss his views on Muslims, Bystedt repeated them again and again: “How many times do we have to say it, Muslims should not live in our countries, OUT OF THEM!”

At Breitbart, Bystedt put forward the conspiracy theory that former US President Barack Obama was in fact a Muslim in disguise who pursued jihad: “Now US has got rid of Obama, the Muslim conducting stealth jihad!” In a comment on Avpixlat, Bystedt expressed a belief that segregation was a good thing: “Enough for all people to have equal value. It was probably much safer in the United States when it was apartheid. Do you want to make your homeland safe … easy, out with Africans and Muslims.” When Expressen confronted Bystedt, he said he did not “recognize them [the comments],” even though he has systematically written about 500 comments on the hate sites for four years. When Expressen showed that he had written his personal information in his comments, he confirmed them (Bass, 2018b).

Bystedt has worked as a press assistant at the SD’s Parliamentary office. He is the Vice Chairman of the party’s Täby branch north of Stockholm, and in the 2018 election, he ran for both City Council and the Riksdag (Bass, 2018b).

Keeping in mind the fact that the SD was founded only three decades ago by Nazis, skinheads, and an 80-year-old SS officer who fought for Hitler’s Germany, it is understandable that the ultra-nationalist, extreme-right characteristics of the party and its neo-Nazi past are not easily purged.

In the 2014 election, Expressen was also able to reveal over ten SD politicians who anonymously wrote racist or otherwise hateful comments on sites such as Avpixlat and Fria tider. One of those revealed was the then-SD official Christoffer Dulny. And in November 2012, the paper revealed how the then-SD politician Erik Almqvist expressed himself in racist and hostile fashion during a night out in Stockholm. Late in the evening, he and his party colleagues Kent Ekeroth and Christian Westling armed themselves with iron pipes (Bass, 2018b).

Keeping in mind the fact that the SD was founded only three decades ago by Nazis, skinheads, and an 80-year-old SS officer who fought for Hitler’s Germany (Lindström, 2019), it is understandable that the ultra-nationalist, extreme-right characteristics of the party and its neo-Nazi past are not easily purged. Truly, many party members were involved in the 1990s skinhead wave, either as participants themselves or through friends. Björn Björkqvist, Magnus Söderman, Daniel Friberg, Vávra Suk, Jimmie Åkesson, and Mattias Karlsson all have a background in the skinhead wave (Teitelbaum 2017).

Åkesson confessed in his book that when he was a teenager, he listened to Ultima Thule. Ultima Thule was Sweden’s most well-known White Power band. SD circles have claimed that Ultima Thule weren’t racist but played a form of extreme nationalist music. The band’s first single, which became a success in nationalist circles, was used as a signature melody in the SD’s local radio broadcasts (Åkesson, 2013).

According to Lars Lindström, a columnist for Expressen, when Åkesson joined the SD, the political idea of the party was still that “ethnic strangers” should pack and run. Today, the party’s program talks about an “inherited essence” that must be preserved and Åkesson himself is concerned that immigrants should be sent back to their countries “where they should live.” The SD has always wanted to eject people originating in “distant countries and cultural circles” (party program 2011), including those “outside the Western cultural circle” (1996) from “ethnically distant cultures” (1994) or “overseas origin” (1989). Even today, the SD is working hard to consolidate its intolerance. In the Riksdag, SD proposals have demanded that investment in minorities should end, that minority protections in the Constitution should be removed, and that the Prison and Probation Service should carry statistics on ethnicity going several generations back. When the SD has seized power in municipalities, proposals have been put forward with the aim of damaging the Roma and Muslims – “the others” (Lindström, 2019). 

PRR parties are commonly referred to as extraordinary or exceptional. Some even study the party category without reference to established mainstream concepts and theories, as if it is “a pathology, and can thus only be explained outside of the ‘normal’” (Mudde, 2010). In terms of policy, the parties are often said to have extreme stances on, for example, immigration and nationalism (Bolin & Aylott, 2019b). “For a couple of decades, many SD politicians in social media have expressed condemnation and malice toward people of different skin color or religion. They are impossible to count: Hundreds of politicians, thousands of posts. So much hatred that you can’t get in. It’s happening now. Also: MPs from the SD participate in fascist sites, draw antisemitic jokes, call people in town ‘blatte-lovers – black lovers’ and ‘babbe – negro,’” wrote Lindström. (Lindström, 2019).

It is no secret that Åkesson has repeatedly expressed sympathy for Viktor Orban’s illiberal regime in Hungary without ever addressing how it is running an antisemitic campaign against the billionaire Jewish philanthropist George Soros. Expo magazine also mapped out nine SD politicians who have retained their mandate despite making rough antisemitic statements. These people were allowed to remain in high ranking positions in the party without being questioned by the SD leadership (Bass, 2018b). And Åkesson saw no problem with hosting Nigel Farage and several ethno-nationalist leaders from eastern Europe at an “alternative Nobel Prize” ceremony in Stockholm (Martin, 2018).

The SD may have neo-Nazi roots, but it is still actively antisemitic – and these traditions have been renewed by the conspiracy theory of how Jewish “cultural Marxism” in the EU leads to mass immigration (Aagård, 2019). A fringe group of neo-Nazi supporters undermine the SD’s attempts to clean up its image. In October 2016, even Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven branded the SD as “nazist and racist” (The Times of Israel, 2016).

According to Lindström, in 2018, the SD ran 14 politicians who were members of Nazi organizations or actively spread Nazi or grossly antisemitic propaganda. Whenever journalists have scratched the surface of the party, they have found a politician with ties to a Nazi compound or who wants to shoot refugees on the Öresund Bridge with a shotgun. “Of course, the SD’s party leader knows this. He is a political broiler who has served in a racist party since he was a teenager. That’s why Jimmie Åkesson has to take a walk when someone highlights the racism in the SD: He knows it’s true,” Lindström wrote (Lindström, 2019).

“There are still some neo-Nazis in the party,” said Anders Sannerstedt, a political scientist at Lund University in southern Sweden. “Akesson said people who in their teens had Nazi links should be forgiven and should be open about it. They still have a lot to do, but they’ve been more careful this time vetting candidates for election, nationally and locally,” he told the BBC in 2018. Sannerstedt said Akesson’s drive to broaden the SD’s appeal has worked and, like some other rising nationalist parties in Europe, it has a populist agenda setting it apart from the political “establishment” (BBC, 2018).

Immigration & Multiculturalism: “Sweden belongs to the Swedes”

Roger Griffin sees fascism as a form of “populist ultranationalism” that seeks to rebuild the nation after a period of perceived crisis and decline (Griffin, 1993). In his summer 2014 speech, Jimmie Åkesson described the crisis and decline he saw in Sweden: “Mass immigration is an issue of fate,” he said. “Mass immigration effects all parts of the society” (Mattsson, 2015). According to Åkesson, mass immigration negatively impacted the welfare, healthcare, and education systems; and “the limit of what is possible to handle has been passed long ago” (SVT Forum, 2014).

Sweden long sought to confirm its status as a “moral superpower” through its previously generous asylum and migration policies, welcoming all those fleeing oppression and war. But the SD has struck a different note. Åkesson argued for “helping refugees locally, in the near vicinity of their home-country,” rather than welcoming them to Sweden, warning that allowing them to seek refuge in Sweden would entail too great a burden for the welfare state and may lead to the collapse of Swedish society altogether (Norocel, 2017). This view is not new. In a 2006 interview with Expo, he talked about the years when he applied for the SD. “There were two issues that made me politically interested,” he said, meaning immigration and the EU. “At the end of the 1980s, a lot of immigrants started to come to our small town. It soon became apparent that it was segregated and that there were contradictions and that it created problems when immigrants arrived in such a short time,” said Åkesson; he was ten years old at the end of 1980s (Poohl, 2011).

Sweden long sought to confirm its status as a “moral superpower” through its previously generous asylum and migration policies, welcoming all those fleeing oppression and war. But Åkesson argued for “helping refugees locally, in the near vicinity of their home-country,” rather than welcoming them to Sweden, warning that allowing them to seek refuge in Sweden may lead to the collapse of Swedish society.

Åkesson has always opposed multiculturalism and the liberal mixing of cultures that Sweden’s mainstream parties have espoused for years. The SD has accused the traditional centrist parties of “wrecking” social welfare by encouraging the arrival of foreigners – especially Muslims – who they argue do not share Swedish values. They try to tie immigrants to crime. As an example, in recent years, shootings have risen in Sweden, something the SD links to the rise in immigration, although official figures show no correlation (BBC, 2018).

According to the SD, multiculturalism poses a threat to the shared values that constitute the cultural community of Sweden. The party defines “Swedish identity” in its programs: “Swedish applies to the one who has a principal Swedish identity and is from her own perspective and by others regarded as Swedish.” The rhetorical figure underpinning this message is: Sweden belongs to the Swedes. The idea of a distinct Swedish culture, albeit vaguely defined, is “the glue that binds Swedes together.” The projected image is of a long-lost homogeneous Swedish society that clings to the myth of a common ancestry and an original home, to which all “real Swedes” should and could also relate to today (Hellström & Nilsson, 2010).

As the average annual number of asylum applications has increased since 2011, the SD has tried to exploit this increase by voicing strong skepticism about immigration. Their efforts have, at least electorally, been successful: in 2014, the SD’s vote-shared doubled for the fourth-consecutive election, and it became Sweden’s third-biggest party. When 163,000 asylum-seekers poured into Sweden in 2015, the SD ramped up its anti-immigration rhetoric (Bolin & Aylott, 2019b). “Most of the immigrants haven’t had a chance to become part of Swedish society and of course many of them have been Muslims and many segregated in suburbs around the big cities, [where they] build parallel societies,” said Åkesson. The SD’s 2018 election manifesto also said that, “we want to stop receiving asylum seekers in Sweden and instead use real aid for refugees.” Åkesson also said that, “we want to enable more immigrants to return to their native countries” (BBC, 2018). In the 2018 election, Åkesson’s SD won 17.5 percent of all votes.

Meanwhile, the SD’s nostalgic appeal to an idealized and sanitized version of the Swedish welfare system, the folkhem (the people’s home) (Hellström et al, 2012), is a style of nativism and welfare chauvinism that has helped the party to increase its influence in Swedish politics. Since the election of Åkesson as chair in 2005, the party has undergone an ideological transformation in order to normalize populist radical right (PRR) discourse. Thus, references to the Swedish people and their folkhem, their culture, and their Christian (Lutheran) religion replaced former appeals in the SD discourse to safeguarding racial purity, reintroducing the death penalty, banning abortion, and stopping non-European adoptions, albeit arguably in a “racializing manner that often recreates the content of biological racism through different words” (Mulinari & Neergaard, 2014 & Norocel, 2017).

Åkesson’s speeches consolidate an idealized vision of the folkhem as an exemplary welfare society based on the homogeneous community of Swedish citizens. This line of reasoning was very clearly articulated in Åkesson’s speeches from 2011 and 2012, wherein he emphasized that the SD’s politics are about “unity and consensus, about a coherent, warm, and solidary Sweden,” about a tightly knit society that makes no distinctions “between the privileged or the neglected, there are no sweethearts and no stepchildren … not one of them despises the other.” 

In other words, the folkhem envisaged by Åkesson is one built on the ethnic and cultural homogeneity of the Swedish native majority, engaged in an intimate relationship characterized by warmth and solidarity towards one another, in a manner resembling a family united under the folkhem’s protective roof. Åkesson makes it clear that the SD is driven by a story about the good home for citizens – about the folkhem, a tale of a society where no one is left behind (Norocel, 2017).

By describing the folkhem’s inhabitants as family members, Åkesson enforced the idea that the Swedish native majority constitutes a homogeneous community of blood. In so doing, Åkesson specified the criteria for membership in thefolkhem, thereby enforcing a distinction between those “rightfully” belonging to the folkhem’s enclosure, and migrant Others as potential intruders among the folkhem’s family members. Namely, Åkesson used a discursive distinction between those migrant Others that assimilated into Swedish society and embraced the “Swedish values” underpinning the “Christian, democratic world” that Sweden is part of; and those migrant Others who failed the integration test and instead had willingly joined “the world’s Islamists” (Norocel, 2017). In other words, “becoming Swedish” is not a mere matter of fulfilling the administrative citizenship requirements; rather, it entails a more profound process, which hinges on “cultural commensurability with respect to the foundational values that define Europe’s cultural heritage” (Betz & Meret, 2009).

In the seventh chapter of Åkesson’s book Satis Polito is entitled “Multiculturalism or Folkhemmet.” Åkesson wrote critically of Sweden’s immigration policy. According to Åkesson, the ideals were lost “somewhere on the road.” He postulated that there is a converse relationship, a dichotomy, between the folkhem and multiculturalism; and immigration threatens national cohesion. Åkesson believes that SD challenges the “political establishment’s stance”: “We simply do not want the fragmented, segregated, soulless society that the social liberal establishment created for us. We fight against it” (Åkesson, 2013).

The SD asserts that the good “people’s home” has been destroyed by “internationalism in the traditional political ideologies [that] have had a full impact on both immigration policy and economic policy. Honorable concepts like the nation and family were trampled on in the dirt.” 

The SD and Åkesson link crime and moral resolution to “uninhibited immigration.The party program claims: “Sweden is considered to have become a “breeding ground for international leagues, drug syndicates, terrorists and criminals. Murderers and criminals have complete freedom” (Sverigedemokraterna, 1994). In a 1992 issue, the party puplication SD-Kuriren alleged, under the headline “Murdered by immigrants,” that 129 Swedes were murdered by immigrants between 1986-1990 and added that, “often these murders have been the results of raw and brutal assaults.” The report also claimed that this horrible fact was concealed by the mainstream media and the political establishment (Klarström & Wikman, 1992).

The campaign for 2018 election concluded with a big row in the final televised debate between the party leaders. Åkesson mentioned the relatively low rates of employment among immigrants and argued that “one must ask the question why it is so difficult for these people to get a job. It is because they are not Swedes. They do not fit in Sweden.” Swedish public service television, which hosted the debate, decided that Åkesson’s remarks were so “grossly generalizing” that they violated the terms of its mandate (Landahl, 2018). The channel publicly disassociated itself from them. The SD boycotted the broadcaster’s remaining election coverage (Aylott & Bolin 2019). 

Tensions were heightened in February 2020, when the Turkish regime announced that migrants were free to cross into Europe. Since 2016, an agreement between Turkey and the EU closed the Turkish/European border to migrants. By reneging on this agreement, Turkey dramatically escalated political tensions throughout Europe, as thousands of migrants and refugees massed on the Greek frontier. 

Åkesson travelled to the Greek/Turkish border in March 2020 just to tell the migrants – many of whom have been desperately waiting, camped in the open and hoping to be welcomed by Europe – that his country is full. “So, if you want to go to Sweden, then that is a bad idea. We don’t have the capacity to help more,” Åkesson told the newspaper Svenska Dagbladet, adding that he had traveled to the Turkish border city of Edirne (Daily Sabah, 2020). Åkesson was detained there by Turkish poliçe as he handed out leaflets, and he was escorted to a plane and sent home (Vanttinen, 2020).

Senior Swedish politicians condemned Åkesson’s provocative gesture. Swedish migration minister Morgan Johansson led the criticism, telling Swedish news agency TT that the stunt was “totally ridiculous” and that Åkesson only went there to “pose for cameras.” Åkesson’s party confirmed he had visited Greece, writing on Twitter, “We all remember the migration chaos of 2015 and we have to do everything we can to make sure it never ever happens again.” Other Swedish party leaders also criticized the move. Anders Jonsson of the Center Party told TT that it was “not worthy of a Swedish party leader,” and Jonas Sjostedt of the Left Party called it “pitiful” in a tweet (Daily Sabah, 2020).

Exterior of the Mosque which was built in 1998 and was completed in April 2007, is owned by the Islamic Cultural Association in Fittja, Sweden.

Racism Out, Islamophobia In

While Åkesson has instituted a much bally-hooed (and selectively enforced) promise of“zero tolerance” for racism within the SD, that promise also foreshadowed a shift in the SD’s tactics. The SD condemns neo-Nazi contacts but sees Islamophobia and xenophobia as acceptable. Islamophobia is prevalent among Swedish Democrats, and it is an essential part of the party’s core ideology. If Swedish Democrats make Islamophobic statements, they won’t be kicked out of the party (Engkvist, 2013).

Åkesson believes that there is a clash of civilizations between Christianity and Islam. Åkesson has underlined that Christianity and its moral values are central cornerstones of the folkhem. This may indicate a thinly veiled assumption that Muslim faith in itself – described by Åkesson as a deeply patriarchal religion of “genital mutilation of completely healthy children” and of “violence and oppression in the name of honor” – constitutes a hindrance for the migrant Muslim Other in their efforts to become a full-edged and law-abiding citizen of the folkhem, which “had been built on democracy and a thousand-year-old Christian foundation” (Norocel, 2017).

Åkesson believes that there is a clash of civilizations between Christianity and Islam. He has underlined that Christianity and its moral values are central cornerstones of the folkhem. After accusing the multicultural Swedish power elite as being “totally blind to the dangers of Islam and Islamization,” Åkesson used myriad clichés about Islam and Muslims to instigate fear and terrorize people.

In an October 2009 opinion piece in Aftonbladet, he argued that the immigration of Muslims has led to Islam adversely affecting Swedish society and that he sees Muslim immigration “as our greatest foreign threat since WWII” (Expo, 2018). According to Åkesson, despite its universal claim, multiculturalism is a monocultural phenomenon that has only found root in the postmodern, oikophobic western world (an oikofob is a person who despises his homeland) (Åkesson, 2009).Åkesson’s article in Aftonbladet portrayed his views on Islam as a religion as well as his thoughts on Sweden’s Muslim minority; he also expressed what he would do if he came to power. The article contained many of the classic PRR characteristics such as Islamophobia, nativism, racism, fear mongering, etc.

After accusing the multicultural Swedish power elite as being “totally blind to the dangers of Islam and Islamization,” Åkesson argued that “Islam differs from Christianity on several crucial points, such as the distinction between spiritual and worldly power and the view of the use of force. Islam has no equivalent to the New Testament and no universal love message. These differences have also made Islam and the Muslim world actively reject the enlightenment and humanism.” By highlighting the alleged presence of 1,400 years of war and contradictions between Islam and Christian Europe, Åkesson came to the conclusion that “Islam has affected Swedish society to a much greater extent than Swedish society has affected Islam. Mass immigration from Muslim countries together with the relatively high birth rates within the Muslim population indicates that this development will continue unless a change in political course occurs” (Åkesson, 2009).

Åkesson used myriad clichés about Islam and Muslims to instigate fear and terrorize people by saying, “I think, twenty years ago, most Swedes would find it very difficult to imagine that Islam would become Sweden’s second largest religion, that Swedish artists who criticize or joke about Islam would live under constant death threats, that about ten Muslim terrorist organizations would come to establish itself in Sweden, … that the freezer counters in our grocery stores would offer halal slaughtered meat, while Swedish preschools stop serving meat. Swedish schools would introduce new holidays to celebrate the end of Ramadan while banning more and more church schools and so on” (Åkesson, 2009).

Gender equality is always a difficult issue for culturally racist parties in the Nordic countries in general, and for the SD in particular (Berggren, 2007; Gullestad, 2002 & Norocel, 2010). On one hand, the party’s ideological core is suspicious of gender equality and its connection with feminism; on the other, gender equality constructed as a Swedish national trait is often seen as a fundamental boundary between “us and them.” Swedishness, in this context, is gender equality as a national characteristic (Mulinari et al, 2014), as highlighted in an opinion piece by Åkesson: “… that leading representatives of the Muslim community will demand the implementation of Sharia law (Sharialagar) in Sweden; that the Swedish municipal health board (Landsting) would use taxes to circumcise (skära av förhuden) totally healthy young boys; that Sweden would have a higher level of rape and that Muslim men would be strongly represented among the rapists (förövare); that Swedish swimming clubs would introduce separate timetables for women and men, that Swedish municipalities would discuss the possibility of gender-segregated swimming education in schools” (Åkesson, 2009).

He continued: “All of these are parts of Swedish reality today. The question is what it will look like in a few more decades, when the Muslim population, if the current rate holds, has multiplied in size and many of Europe’s major cities, including Malmö, are most likely to have a Muslim majority. The multicultural elite may see this future as a colorful and interesting change in Sweden and Europe… As a Swedish Democrat, I see this as our biggest foreign threat since the Second World War, and I promise to do everything in my power to reverse the trend when we go to elections next year” (Åkesson, 2009). According to Pew estimates, the number of Muslims in Sweden in 2050 will be approximately 1,130,000 (or 11.1 percent of the population) under a zero-migration scenario; 2,470,000 (or 20.5 percent of the population) under a medium-migration scenario; and 4,450,000 (or 30.6 percent of the population) under a high-migration scenario (Pew Research Center, 2017). As SVT’s senior political commentator Mats Knutsson wrote, Åkesson has a “Trump spirit.” 

Not all media members take a completely hostile attitude to Åkesson. SVT’s Bengt Westerberg wrote that Åkesson and other critics of Islam are not wrong in all respects. According to Westerberg, Åkesson and the SD’s politicians highlight views and phenomena that do exist and which deserve criticism. But these views are not representative of Muslims in general. Just as there are many expressions of Christianity, there are many of Islam. Moreover, many immigrants from Muslim countries are not practicing Muslims (Westerberg, 2016). A report from the Swedish Agency for Support to Faith Communities in 2017 showed that just 170,915 of Muslims (less than 20 percent) in Sweden regularly practice their religion (Statistik, 2017).

Furthermore, many Muslims leave their home countries in protest of how Islam is practiced there. “Muslims who immigrated to Sweden are also affected by Swedish values. Birth rates are generally not very high in Muslim countries and among Muslims in Sweden. For instance, it is lower in Iran than in Sweden,” wrote Westerberg. He added that, “Of course, there is every reason to worry about the radicalization taking place among some young Muslims. But it must primarily be solved through a more ambitious integration policy where the young immigrants get real opportunities for education and work” (Westerberg, 2016).

Åkesson’s views on Islam and Muslims – as explicated in his controversial article in Aftonbladet – have caused strong reactions, and legal experts say that his views (and those of the SD) vorder on persecution against an ethnic/religious group. For example, Per Hultengård, lawyer for the Swedish Newspaper Publishers’ Association, told Aftonbladet that the article could be read as a warning to Swedish Muslims, not in the least due to Åkesson’s promise at the end. “I would take that as a threat,” said Hultengård (Radio Sweden, 2009).

According to Jan Hjärpe, Professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Lund, the rhetoric used by Åkesson has clear racist undertones, as it is based on the assumption that religion is decisive for how people act: “This is the same kind of propaganda that was used by Nazi antisemites.” Hjärpe’s views have been shared by the head of the Swedish Muslim Council, Mostafa Kharraki: “This can’t be interpreted as anything but racism.” At an informal press conference at the Gothenburg University, then-Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt also said that Åkesson’s article reflected what the SD wants to achieve: “This is the core of this party’s ideas. They may have spent a whole weekend trying to make it look as if they have several different areas of interest. They don’t. They have one area of interest and that is to create an ‘us-and-them’ scenario” (Radio Sweden, 2009).

Aftonbladet’s editor Jan Helin, who decided to print Åkesson’s article against the advice of the newspaper’s legal experts, would have been legally responsible for the publication and would have been prosecuted for the offense. “I have decided to take that risk. Åkesson’s text is important because it shows clearly on what values a party, on its way into Parliament, rests on. You may think that his views are right or wrong. But through reading this article you get a chance to consider what the SD actually believes,” Helin wrote, also in Aftonbladet (Helin, 2009 & Radio Sweden, 2009).

Muslim woman in a scarf holds flag of Sweden.

During an interview with Dagens Nyheter’s Jenny Stiernstedt in 2011, Åkesson also stated that extremist Islamism is the biggest factor behind threat of terrorism in Europe and Sweden. He underlined his desire to change Sweden’s “extreme” immigration policy without being afraid of being called xenophobic or Islamophobic. He said it is his and his party’s right to discuss the dangers and threats facing Sweden. Stiernstedt asked, “Today, many tend to confuse Islamist extremism and Islam. Don’t you see a problem with that?” Åkesson’s answer showed that he makes no distinction between Islam and extremism: “First, I do not think that there is any particular extremist Islamism. All Islamism is by definition extremist… You cannot disconnect Islamism from Islam, because Islam is not only a religion but also a political ideology that governs every detail of a Muslim’s life” (Stiernstedt, 2011).

Åkesson’s interview confirmed that there is an Islamophobic way of thinking present in the SD’s jargon. If the SD thinks all Muslims are extremists, then increased Muslim immigration only brings Islam’s unwanted values. In reality, Islamists constitute a marginal group among Muslims, and extremist Islamism should not be confused with Islam. Radical terrorist groups constitute a very small group among Muslims (Engkvist, 2013). Thus, Åkesson’s mix of Islamism and Islam is baseless. When Åkesson speaks of extremist Islam, he suggests non-Muslims should fear an entire faith, despite many practicing Western Muslims endorsing a modernist interpretation of Islam (Gardel, 2010).

In an interview in Sydsvenskan on April 21, 2007, Åkesson also talked about ethnicity and stated that, “it primarily includes culture, language, and religion, but you cannot ignore the fact that appearance also has a certain significance.” He also argued that, “whoever says he is primarily a Muslim and secondly Swedish, he is not truly Swedish. I mean that Swedishness cannot be such a public identity that anyone can become Swedish. As I can’t become Alban, nor Aboriginal or Chinese either” (Expo, 2018). He even referred to world-famous Bosnian-Swedish football star Zlatan Ibrahimovic as a “mercenary soldier” on the Swedish national soccer team (Hellström & Nilsson, 2010). Åkesson has also argued that the minaret, a tangible symbol for the “new” multicultural Sweden, generates a feeling of insecurity among the Swedish people (Hellström & Nilsson, 2010).

In his traditional summer speech in 2014, Åkesson again focused on Islam, immigration, and crime issues. Following a sweeping review of the current global conflict zones, Åkesson shifted his focus to Islam. “In the wake of recent years’ developments in Libya, Iraq, Syria and several other countries, I argue that the problem of Islam’s bloody borders cannot be denied… Islamism is the Nazism and communism of our time and must be met with the same disgust and with a much stronger resistance than is the case today.” This allegation prompted the most generous applause. Åkesson went on to say that Islamism is the greatest global threat to peace, security, democracy, equality, and human rights (Jakobson, 2014).Furthermore, he directed his ire to the handful of Swedish citizens reported to be fighting in Iraq and Syria: “You guys can stay there. Sweden is no longer your home. This country is built on Christian principles” (The Local, 2014).

Åkesson has repeatedly used debates over classism and gender equality to justify his party’s opposition to “the unreasonable financial burden” entailed by the Muslim Others’ presence within the folkhem. In his speeches, Åkesson reiterated his concerns about Swedish working-class women. Åkesson has stated that the SD’s self-appointed task is not only to defend Swedish women from “the menacing (male) Muslim Other,” but also to prevent them from pursuing emancipatory activism on their own, thereby confirming tacitly the patriarchal assumption about male superiority he tries to embody (Norocel, 2017).

As was mentioned above, Åkesson’s preoccupation with gender equality as part of the folkhem system is only instrumental and serves a welfare chauvinist purpose to instigate and consolidate the Swedish native ethnic majority’s opposition to the presence of the migrant Muslim Other in the folkhem (Norocel, 2010). In Åkesson’s imagination, the Swedish Muslim population is a threat to Swedish gender equality: Swedish culture is secular, women-friendly, and respects individuality. In contrary, Muslims are religious, patriarchal, and live in collectivistic cultures (Gardell, 2010; Gullestad, 2002; Razack, 2004 & Yegenoglu, 1998). This reflects similar developments across Europe, whereby PRR parties’ leaders have morphed from “radical right-wing ‘thugs’ into well-educated and well-dressed demagogues, typifying overtly caring and responsible politicians” (Wodak, 2015).

According to Mulinari et al, the SD justifies through the shared assumption within Swedish public discourse that it is those who belong to the nation that have the power and the right to decide Swedishness. What is specific to Åkesson’s SD is that they focus on their right to exclude the other (Mulinari et al, 2014). A key component of these arguments is the connection of the boundary between “us” and “them” to processes of polarization, in which the other is not only different but problematically different; they differ from what is considered normal (Hage, 1998). Islam and Muslims represent the other or outsider in the SD’s exclusionist PRR worldview.

A Sharp U-turn of Euroscepticism

Continental Europe’s PRR parties have always had a complicated relationship with the EU. Unlike the British Eurosceptics, most of them have never been opposed to European integration per se, but rather to the shape it has taken. “Neoliberal,” “distant,” and “cosmopolitan,” Brussels became a perfect strawman in their “fight” against political elites. But this wasn’t always the case. In the 1980s, the Front National, like Italian neo-fascists, was a fervent defender of European integration – they saw it as a way to defeat the true enemy, the Soviets. With the end of the Cold War and the signature of the Maastricht Treaty in 1992, all these parties executed a 180-degree turn – from pro-European to Eurosceptics. PRR parties suddenly began fighting for the primacy of the nation-state. Now, opposing the “Eurocrats” and their puppets in the national political mainstream has become the general attitude of PRR parties (Fernández, 2019).

Åkesson indicated his party’s opposition to the EU as one of two main reasons to participate in the SD’s ranks. He reiterated this fact in an opinion piece he published in 2019: “For me, the EU issue has always been an extremely important issue, so important that it was one of the decisive reasons why I left Moderate School Youth and instead joined the Swedish Democrats well over 20 years ago.”

Brexit was a great opportunity for PRR parties – at least, it was in the beginning. With her desire to move away from traditional far-right discourse to a more “transversal” populism, Marine Le Pen championed using Article 50 as the cure to France’s problems, many of which stemmed from the EU, she alleged. Invoking Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union (TEU) starts the member state’s withdrawal from the EU. In compliance with the TEU, in March 2017 the UK gave formal notice to the European Council of its intention to withdraw from the EU, allowing withdrawal negotiations to begin. 

Brussels-imposed austerity and the negative perception of how the EU handled the Eurocrisis and the migration crisis fueled anti-EU sentiment across the continent. Along with Brexit, this was an opportunity for right-wing populists to find more suitable and exploitable ground for demanding sovereignty from Brussels (Fernández, 2019).

In his interview with Expo in 2006, Åkesson indicated his party’s opposition to the EU as one of two main reasons to participate in the SD’s ranks (Poohl, 2011). He reiterated this fact in an opinion piece he published in Aftonbladet on Januarry 31, 2019: “For me, the EU issue has always been an extremely important issue, so important that it was one of the decisive reasons why I left Moderate School Youth and instead joined the Swedish Democrats well over 20 years ago” (Åkesson, 2019).

Like many populist radical right parties in Europe, the SD has always been highly Eurosceptic, with Åkesson frequently arguing that the country should hold a referendum on whether it should remain in or leave the EU. Like Britan, Sweden was somewhat peripheral to the EU. If Brexit could happen, why not Swexit?

Åkesson told Reuters in 2014 that his party’s sympathizers have relatively little interest in EU politics. “It is obvious that our voters are very reluctant to vote in European elections. We thought maybe it had changed a bit since the last election, but it seems as if our voters are very skeptical about even going and voting.” Åkesson and his party argue that national governments should reclaim power from the EU. “For the average SD voter, EU opposition is not why you vote for them, it is because you want another immigration policy,” said Ulf Bjereld, professor of political science at Gothenburg University (Ahlander, 2014). Åkesson’s EU policy called for heavily restricting immigration, opposing Turkey’s accession to the EU, and seeking a referendum on EU membership (The New York Times, 2016).

Åkesson has rallied against “bureaucrats in Brussels” for years and as recently as the run-up to the 2018 election gave his full-throated endorsement of a “Swexit” referendum “The EU is not the way to cooperate in Europe,” he told channel P1 of Radio Sweden in August 2018. “My position is that we should renegotiate the terms of our membership and then the people should have their say,” he stated. The following month, a SD representative told The Local that, “we want the Swedish people to vote on Sweden’s EU membership” (The Local, 2019).

However, the SD has quietly changed its tune on the EU, with party leader Åkesson now saying that the party will be “pragmatic” and try to change the union “from the inside” (The Local, 2019). In January 2019, Åkesson wrote an op-ed in Aftonbladet officially announcing the party’s position change away from exiting the EU (Åkesson, 2019). Instead, Åkesson said, the party would now fight for treaty reform. This treaty would undo decades of post-Maastricht integration, but would keep Sweden in the EU (Fernández, 2019). Åkesson has always been against, and says he will always be against, the EU if it continues on a course of supranationalism. “It is the Swedish people who ultimately have to decide how Sweden is governed, not bureaucrats in Brussels or other countries’ politicians that we cannot vote for and which we cannot cast aside,” he wrote (Åkesson, 2019). “Cooperation is needed to achieve results, and it is through collaboration that opportunities for reforming the EU from the inside are improved,” he stated, adding that the SD would join the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group within the European Parliament and that it had established good relationships with its “Nordic friends in the Danish People’s Party and the True Finns” (The Local, 2019).

Although he did not rule out pushing for a “Swexit” referendum “in the long term” if his “vision” of a reformed and less “supranational” EU didn’t work out, he said it was simply false that his party is blindly Eurosceptic. “When other parties tried to portray the Sweden Democrats as a protectionist and closed party, it is a false image only intended to distort and smear the Sweden Democrats. We see the benefits, not only the disadvantages, of today’s EU cooperation” (Åkesson, 2019) he wrote. Åkesson added that it is important to “be pragmatic and fully utilize the opportunities that exist” within the EU framework (The Local, 2019).

This U-turn led to lots of speculation. Some said the shift must have been Åkesson’s, as most PRR parties have have top-down, authoritarian leadership structures. In this sense, the lack of internal democracy was potentially an asset: Without being conditioned by the party base, party leaders can be as pragmatic and as flexible as necessary to pursue whatever political objectives they want (Fernández, 2019). Others evaluated the change of position vis-à-vis the EU as related to wide support among the Swedish public for EU membership. Several polls in recent years have suggested that the majority of Swedes are still in favor of EU membership – in fact, support for the EU surged in the wake of Brexit turmoil, as happened in other continental European countries. In an October Eurobarometer poll, a total of 77 percent of Swedish respondents said that EU membership is a good thing, Sweden’s highest recorded level since 2007, according to the survey. Among other factors, the British incapacity to deliver Brexit and the negative coverage of Brexit made Europeans more pro-EU (The Local, 2019 & Fernández, 2019).


Jimmie Åkesson and his party are not yet authentically democratic – in fact, they’re not close. The Sweden Democrats and its leader are still “the same old iron gang as usual” (Ledarredaktion, 2018) despite concerted efforts to change their image. One should always remember that Åkesson himself was in contact with the Swedish Democrats for the first time in 1994, when the party was still marketing itself as overtly racist. Of course, Åkesson has steered the SD away from the Nazi movement onto a more parliamentary path. But its essence – alarmist resistance to immigrants and Islamophobia – has remained the same, and there is still no solid indication that Åkesson has matured or moderated over the years. On the contrary, he has emphasized that it was among the Sweden Democrats he found his home (Ledarredaktion, 2018).

Åkesson and his party struggle to be perceived as sincere because they do not want to face their dark past or talk about it. Every time the naked racism of an SD representative has been exposed, the SD claims it’s an isolated incident, perpetrated by a rotten egg. But the pattern has repeated again and again; there are too many rotten eggs in the party. Although Åkesson once promised to have a white paper drawn up, he has never delivered on this promise.

Nevertheless, the Christian Democrats (KD) and the Moderates (M) have considered seeking power with the potential support of Åkesson and his party. Of course, Åkesson has more ambitions than supporting others in their success. He primarily wants to push through his politics, and in the long run give the anti-immigrant, racist, Islamophobic, and xenophobic SD as much influence over Sweden as possible. Therefore, Dagens Nyheter’s editorial argues “that’s why he smiles. He knows that it is not enough to channel people’s anger and fear. If the SD is to be the biggest, it must be popular for real. He should approach power step by step. He is a wolf in lamb’s wool sweater” (Ledarredaktion, 2018).


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The Sweden Democrats: Killer of Swedish Exceptionalism

Kenes, Bulent (2020). “The Sweden Democrats: Killer of Swedish Exceptionalism.” ECPS Party Profiles. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). August 3, 2020. https://doi.org/10.55271/op0001


Like all liberal democracies, Sweden also faces challenges associated with globalization, international migration, and growing inequality. Despite its reputation as a moral superpower, Sweden is not immune to racism, nationalism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, and anti-immigrant sentiment. Sweden Democrats (SD), which originated from an extreme right-wing milieu, represents populist radical-right in Sweden. Since the party had its roots in Swedish fascism and white nationalism, the SD has failed to present a respectable façade so far.

By Bulent Kenes

Like many regions around the world, Europe has witnessed a resurgence of populist, radical-right (PRR) parties over the past three decades. These parties share an emphasis on ethno-nationalism, and their programs are directed toward making the nation more ethnically homogeneous. They also tend to accuse elites of favoring internationalism and cosmopolitanism over the nation and of putting their own interests ahead of the interests of the people (Rydgren & van der Meiden, 2019). Hence, the core message of PRR parties is a mixture of ethnic nationalism (nativism), authoritarianism, and populism (Mudde 2007).

Nativism, which overlaps with the boundaries of the modern state and those of the native ethnic majority population (Norocel, 2017), is defined as “an ideology, which holds that states should be inhabited exclusively by members of the native group (‘the nation’) and that non-native elements are fundamentally threatening to the ethnic purity and the homogenous nation-state” (Mudde, 2007; Norocel, 2017). This feature is related to the protection of national values and traditions, welfare chauvinism, and opposition to immigration, Islam, and the European Union (EU) (Backlund & Jungar, 2019). Authoritarianism pertains to a punitive interpretation of conventional ethics coupled with a strict enforcement of law and order (Norris, 2005) in which infringements of authority are to be punished severely (Mudde, 2007). This feature most notably relates to an uncompromising approach to combatting crime and terrorism. Meanwhile, populism is understood as a “vision of democracy” that favors the fulfilment of the unmediated will of the people (Backlund & Jungar, 2019).

PRR parties usually mobilize support by their claiming that mainstream political parties are unresponsive to the voters’ demands, together with a promise to bridge the gap between the people and the political establishment by providing voters with neglected policy alternatives (Mudde & Kaltwasser, 2012). In this context, the PRR vote has been driven mainly by policy concerns, primarily on the issue of immigration (Backlund & Jungar, 2019). Despite immigration having been a political concern agenda in Sweden for decades, the country was exceptional for lacking a PRR party in parliament until the beginning of last decade. With the partial exception of the 1991 election, when the newly formed New Democracy garnered 6.7 percent of the vote but did not get re-elected in 1994 and dissolved shortly thereafter (Taggart, 1996), no Swedish radical right-wing party had come close to winning a parliamentary seat until the 2010 election (Rydgren & van der Meiden, 2019). 

The political sociologist Rydgren (2002) posited four main explanations for why Sweden was exceptional in regards to PRR parties: i) Social class still mattered more in Sweden than elsewhere; ii) Partly as a result of this, socio-economic issues still structured most politics in Sweden, and issues belonging to the sociocultural dimension – most importantly immigration – were of low salience to the voters; iii) There was a relatively low degree of convergence between the major mainstream parties, and voters still perceived clear policy alternatives across the left-right divide; and iv) The leading radical right-wing alternative, the Sweden Democrats (Sverigedemokraterna, SD), was perceived as being too extreme (Rydgren, 2002). Compared to its Nordic neighbors, the realignment process in Sweden was delayed. Socioeconomic politics still dominated the agenda, and voters prioritized these over sociocultural political issues. Although class voting declined slowly in Sweden, it remained fairly high throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, especially among the working classes. However, this has begun to change in the 2010s (Rydgren & van der Meiden, 2019).

The SD Founded Over Neo-Nazi Ground

The SD was founded in 1988 (Rydgren, 2006) as a successor to The Sweden Party (Sverigepartiet), which was founded in 1986 as a result of the merger between the Progress Party (Framstegspartiet) and the racist and far-right political group Keep Sweden Swedish (Bevara Sverige Svenskt) (Jungar & Jupskås 2014; Elgenius & Rydgren 2019). The SD originated from an extreme right-wing milieu and was long viewed as morally and politically illegitimate by a large segment of voters and by mainstream parties. Since the party originally had its roots in Swedish fascism (Rydgren, 2006) and white nationalism (Rothwell, 2018), the SD failed to present a respectable façade (Peterson 2016; Rydgren 2002). 

The SD’s ambivalent relationship to neo-Nazis and other openly right-wing extremists has been a recurrent problem for the party. During the first half of the 1990s, the boundaries between these groups and the SD were blurred. Around the mid-1990s, the new party leadership banned political uniforms at SD demonstrations (Rydgren & van der Meiden, 2019). The SD began a process of transformation as it sought to become a democratically legitimate party; however, success at the polls was not immediate. The SD struggled to gain traction in part because of the nationalist-populist party New Democracy (NyD), with its political rhetoric based on an anti-establishment, anti-immigration, anti-taxes and anti-bureaucracy worldview (Westlind, 1996). There was little space for the SD to consolidate its position in Swedish politics. Even though NyD more or less dissolved during the 1994 general elections, the SD was unable to attract more than 14,000 votes (Hellström & Nilsson, 2010).

Despite its efforts at legitimization, it was still not uncommon to find SD activists who had connections to neo-Nazi environments, including members in relatively prominent positions. The party has increasingly tried to distance itself from the extra-parliamentary extreme right. These efforts began when one of the party’s hard-line factions left the party to form the National Democrats. Ahead of the 2002 election, the SD managed to recruit the Conservative party deputy Sten Christer Andersson to join the party; this signaled an increased legitimacy. However, the SD still received only 1.4 percent of the votes in the 2002 election (Rydgren & van der Meiden, 2019).

Sweden Democrats’ Square Meeting in Umeå. Jimmie Åkesson speaks to the people on the city square where opposition left-wingers have formed a chain and protest in Umeå, Sweden on August 14, 2018.

During the 2000s the SD’s so-called “Scania gang” – also known as the “Gang of Four” and which consisted of the youth wing chair Jimmie Åkesson, Björn Söder, Mattias Karlsson, and Richard Jomshof – continued and expanded the SD’s moderation policy, which included ousting openly extremist members and reshaping the SD’s platform. In 2003, the party declared the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to be a cornerstone of its policies (Rydgren, 2006). In 2005, Åkesson defeated Mikael Jansson in a leadership contest. Shortly after, the party changed its logo from the flaming torch to one featuring an Anemone hepatica, reminiscent of the party’s very first, but short-lived logo (Sweden Democrats, 2005).

Efforts at creating a more credible image intensified after Åkesson assumed leadership of the party and may have contributed to the party’s relative success in the 2006 election, in which the SD managed to increase its voter share to almost 3 percent. When the SD entered Parliament with 5.7 percent of the votes in 2010, Sweden was no longer exceptional in not having had an electorally successful PRR party (Rydgren & van der Meiden, 2019). Immigration and law & order were the two most important issues for voters who cast their ballot for the SD in the 2010 elections according to an electoral survey conducted by Swedish public television (SVT) (Holmberg et al, 2010). 

The SD’s ambivalent relationship to neo-Nazis and other openly right-wing extremists has been a recurrent problem for the party. During the first half of the 1990s, the boundaries between these groups and the SD were blurred. Around the mid-1990s, the new party leadership banned political uniforms at SD demonstrations.

The political mainstream and media’s reaction against the success of the SD was one of profound shock. Nevertheless, most commentators were, in general, careful not to blame the voters. A strong faith in rationality was reflected in the texts, in the sense that voters were considered to be rational but not racists; therefore, they must have had other reasons for voting SD (Hellström & Nilsson, 2010). The election result was also interpreted as precipitating: i) The decline of class politics in Sweden; ii) The growing salience of sociocultural politics, and in particular the politicization of the immigration issue; iii) The increased convergence caused by a double move toward the center by the Social Democratic party and the Conservative Party, leaving voters confused about policy alternatives; iv) The successful process by which the SD tried to distance itself from its neo-fascist past and erect a more respectable façade.

The decline of class voting has been explained by major societal changes – e.g., modernization and globalization – and increased educational levels as well as to changes in people’s value structures. The overall left-right polarization in the Swedish party system also seems to affect class voting (Jansen et al. 2012), meaning that ideological convergence between mainstream parties may decrease class voting as well. As social democratic parties move toward the center in order to win middle-class voters, the effect may be weakened alignments with working-class voters. In addition, the position of social democratic parties on sociocultural issues influences class voting: as these parties increasingly tried to mobilize based on left-liberal sociocultural policies that were predominantly embraced by the new middle classes, they may have alienated some working-class voters who on average share more traditional and authoritarian values (Kitschelt, 2012). In any case, a decrease in left-right distinctions leaves room for other cleavages to be politicized (Rydgren & van der Meiden, 2019). 

At the same time, trade union membership has declined in Sweden since the beginning of 1990s. In 2015, 71 percent of all employees were members of a trade union, and the share among workers was 65 percent. Twenty years earlier, 88 percent of all workers were union members (Larsson, 2015). This decline is important, since the support for PRR parties tends to be higher among non-unionized workers than among unionized working-class voters (Rydgren & van der Meiden, 2019). Nevertheless, 24 percent of unionized working-class voters supported the SD in 2015, making it the second most popular party among this voting bloc (SCB, 2015).

As is the case for most PRR parties in most other European countries, the SD receives its strongest support from the established working class, in spite of the high degree of class voting and left-right mobilization which used to characterize Swedish politics (Oskarson & Demker, 2015). Several studies point to social marginalization and economic risk exposure as important determinants for working-class support for PRR parties, linked to a model of globalization where a group of “losers” competes against a group of “winners” (Betz, 2004 & Rydgren, 2007). Due to modernization and globalization, people in low-skilled jobs or in traditional sectors and with low levels of educational attainment risk losing out when competition for jobs and resources becomes global due to open borders and migration (Oskarson & Demker, 2015). These workers – those excluded from the transition toward a knowledge and service society – have been successfully recruited by PRR parties (Oesch, 2008).


The SD Has Become a New Shelter for the Working Class

Moreover, the lower educated and unemployed are more likely to vote for xenophobic PRR parties. Many studies have found strong correlations between low levels of education and support for nationalist PRR parties, along with more authoritarian ideological leanings (Hainmueller & Hiscox, 2007). As education is very closely associated with class position, this could indicate that the critical factor behind working-class support for PRR parties isn’t class but education (Ivarsflaten & Stubager, 2013). 

This pattern holds true in Sweden (Holmberg, 2007). Class differences as well as authoritarian leanings can largely be explained by differences in education (Bengtsson et al., 2013). As a result, two-thirds of the total support for the SD came from the working class, of which 28 percent came from the “lower technical” and 27 percent from the “lower sales and service” categories. In comparison, the Social Democrats received just over half (51 percent) of their votes from the working class (Oskarson & Demker, 2015).

Meanwhile, Swedish election data shows that layoff notifications among low-skilled native-born workers account for 31 percent of the increased vote share for the SD. The effect of layoff notifications on support for the SD is larger in areas with a high share of low-skilled immigrants and in areas with a low share of high-skilled immigrants. These findings are in line with theories suggesting that voters attribute their impaired economic status to immigration. For every second low-skilled native-born worker receiving a layoff notification, the SD gains, on average, one additional vote (Dehdari, 2018).

The SD has refused to situate itself on the left-right scale (Heinö, 2016) in the hopes of cherry-picking conflicting policies from both left and right (Timbro, 2019). This has allowed them to scoop up voters as the Swedish working class has de-aligned with the Social Democratic Party. In this dealignment, the SD saw an opportunity to mobilize underlying authoritarian ideological leanings and political distrust. 

These social cleavages present possible explanations for the labor class’s support of populist/nationalist parties like the SD. A first line of explanation sees working-class support of PRR parties as an expression of economic conflict in terms of competition with immigrants in the labor market (Oskarson & Demker, 2015). A second line of explanation focuses on the nationalist/traditionalist aspect of the parties and explains working-class support more in terms of a defense of traditionalist and authoritarian values (Napier & Jost, 2008). A third line of explanation sees the populist/nationalist parties as protest parties, opposing the “political establishment” in defense of “ordinary people”; this line of thought focuses more on the anti-political or anti-elite aspect of the parties (Abedi, 2004).

As it was mentioned above, another contributing factor to the success of PRR parties is the political opportunities that arise from the convergence of mainstream parties in political space (Kitschelt, 1995). When Swedish voters are asked, the overall left-right distance between the Social Democrats and the Conservatives was perceived to be larger in the 1970s than in more recent elections. The tendency of convergence is clearly visible and in the creation of the center-right electoral coalition, the Alliance (Alliansen) (Rydgren & van der Meiden, 2019). As left-right polarization in the traditional Swedish party system has decreased and most parties have moved towards a libertarian position, it has become possible to articulate an authoritarian ideological position, which the SD has done (Oskarson & Demker, 2015).

On the surface, the SD has a rather remarkable history, moving from a “party of skinheads” to “a party of older bald men.” However, considering the SD’s historical connections to nationalist fringe movements, one could argue the party has a hidden agenda, and that official party documents present one set of politics to gain legitimacy but would enact another set of “true” or preferred politics if in power.

Meanwhile, the SD officially changed its designation from nationalist to social conservative in 2011, and in 2012, the party introduced what it called “zero tolerance for racism,” which resulted in numerous expulsions of party members who had publicly expressed opinions deemed too racist (Widfeldt 2015). The SD has managed to quite radically transform their image in a democratically legitimate and credible direction. Thus, while the party in its early days was dismissed as consisting of racist criminals and hooligans, scholars and political commentators currently include the SD in the Western European family of new PRR parties (Strömblad & Malmberg, 2016). Nevertheless, one may argue that these expulsions were primarily cosmetic and designed to signal to voters that the SD had a serious desire to rid itself of its politically extreme past. These efforts likely helped to destigmatize the party in the eyes of many voters (Rydgren & van der Meiden, 2019).

On the surface, the SD has a rather remarkable history, moving from a “party of skinheads” to “a party of older bald men.” Survey data also shows that SD voters now tend to articulate rather mainstream opinions with regard to welfare policy, taxation, and so forth (Holmberg, 2007). However, qualitative assessments by experts estimate radical parties as being more extreme than their actual policies would suggest (Klingemann et al, 2006; Benoit & Laver 2006; Volkens, 2007), while supporters of radical parties tend to be less moderate than the parties themselves (Klingemann et al, 2006). Considering the SD’s historical connections to nationalist fringe movements, one could argue the party has a hidden agenda, and that official party documents present one set of politics to gain legitimacy but would enact another set of “true” or preferred politics if in power (Backlund, 2011). 

In the 2014 election, 12.9 percent of voters supported the SD (Elgenius & Rydgren 2019) despite the party being characterized as right-wing populist (Berezin, 2013), national-conservative, anti-immigrant, and far-right (Downs, 2012). Since this election, the SD has played a huge role in Swedish politics (Heinö, 2016). The party’s fortunes have continued to rise, and the SD enjoyed increased support in the 2018 general election, when it garnered 17.5 percent of all votes and secured 62 seats in Parliament, becoming Sweden’s third largest party (Deutsche Welle, 2018)

Thus, the SD has increased its support in every election since its formation. There is no other party in Europe, regardless of political affiliation, that has had the same kind of success. The SD’s success has created a rift within the formerly solid center-right alliance (Timbro, 2019). And while there is a popular perception that PRR parties draw support from the very young or the very old, SD voters are over-represented among middle-aged people. As the party’s popularity has grown, the typical SD-voter tends to be married, have a fairly strong household income, and live in an area that could be regarded as middle-class suburbia (Sannerstedt, 2008).


Jimmie Åkesson speaks to the people on the city square where opposition left-wingers have formed a chain and protest in Umeå, Sweden on August 14, 2018.

Racism & Xenophobia: The SD’s Two Main Characteristics to Hide

The SD held its first annual meeting in 1989 and elected Anders Klarström as the party’s president. Prior to this, Klarström had been a member of a neo-Nazi party (Nordiska Rikspartiet) and had a criminal record that included the stealing of ammunition, vandalism, and making illegal threats (Hellström & Nilsson, 2010). The SD’s first auditor, Gustaf Ekström, was a Waffen-SS veteran and had been a member of the national socialist party Svensk Socialistisk Samling in the 1940s (Widfeldt, 2010). In 1989, Ekström became a member of the SD’s national board. Other representatives of the party’s executive members had similar backgrounds. Some were members of violent extreme right movements such as the White Arian Resistance (Vitt Ariskt Motstånd) and Keep Sweden Swedish (Bevara Sverige Svenskt) (Hellström & Nilsson, 2010).  

Furthermore, some SD members have been involved in the growing industry of white power music and have sponsored music of the nationalist Viking rock band Ultima Thule. Various party officials have acknowledged that being fans of Ultima Thule’s music factored prominently in their decision to become politically engaged (Teitelbaum, 2013). And early in its existence, the SD recommended international connections to its members. These included the National Democratic Party of Germany, the American National Association for the Advancement of White People, and publications like the Nazi Nation Europa and Nouvelle École, a newspaper that advocates racial biology (Expo, 2014). In its members’ bulletin of 1989, the party also published a list of addresses of allies, i.e. the Front National in France, pro-apartheid newspapers in South Africa, a Ku Klux Klan affiliated journal in the US, and the journal Spearhead, published by the notorious neo-Nazi John Tydall in England. The SD’s logo from the 1990s until 2006 was a version of the torch used by the British National Front (Hellström & Nilsson, 2010; Larsson & Ekman 2001).

In the mid-1990s, the SD continued to attract members known to be associated with riots and Nazi groups, and the party continued its racist, extremist activities. For instance, SD organized a gathering in Stockholm on November 30, 1993, to celebrate the late king of Sweden, Karl XII. Approximately 1,000 people took part in the event, which ended in chaos and violence. At the front, the Nazi flag hung beside the Swedish flag. The entire city-center resonated with the crowd’s shouts of “Sieg Heil” (Tamas, 2003).

In 1995, the newly elected party president Mikael Jansson decided to bar extremists from the party and prohibited the wearing of uniforms during demonstrations. However, prior to the elections in 1998, the party did not hesitate to receive financial support from the French Front National of Jean Marie Le Pen and joined forces with the European nationalist network (Euro-Nat) (Hellström & Nilsson, 2010). 

But by the end of the decade, the party took further steps to moderate itself. In 1999, the SD left Euro-Nat although the youth wing remained affiliated until 2002 (Expo, 2010). In 2001, the most extreme faction was expelled from the SD, leading to the formation of the more radical National Democrats (Rydgren, 2006).

Some academicians, like Castells, attribute the emergence and rise of PRR parties like SD with the cultural identity crisis rocking European societies. According to him, supra-nationality leads to national identities becoming blurred and major cities getting more entangled. In this age of information overflow, people who feel insecure about who they are may turn to nationalist ideologies as a collectivist response to the neo-liberalization of the world (Castells, 1993). As such, there has been an upsurge in research on xenophobic populist or PRR parties during the last decades, mirroring their political successes. In the Swedish context, a country characterized by neoliberal restructuring has seen debates on issues of “race,” citizenship, and belonging. The tendency to define racism in terms of biological racism continues to be strong in Sweden. Instead of using the word “racism,” researchers often talk about migration sceptics, anti-migration, welfare-chauvinism, nativism, and xenophobia (Mulinari, et al. 2014) as issues defining the SD.

Many argue that traditional racism has lost much of its power in Western Europe and a new type of racism has emerged post-WWII (Barker, 1981 & Miles, 1989). This new form of racism is not based on biology and hierarchies, but on culture and difference. It does not argue that some races are superior or inferior, but rather stresses the insurmountable difference between culturally defined entities. According to the new cultural racism, a merging of different ethnic groups would lead to the abolition of the unique qualities that constitute the ethnicities, implying that different ethnic groups should be kept separated (Rydgren, 2008)

In this context, Teitelbaum has called the SD a radical nationalist party (Teitelbaum, 2013), and the party has been described by Rydgren and others as xenophobic, racist, and right-wing populist (Rydgren, 2008 & Mudde, 2007). In 2013 a Sveriges Radio journalist called the SD xenophobic, which resulted in a complaint lodged with the broadcasting regulator. The Swedish Broadcasting Commission determined that this description was acceptable (Mellgren, 2013).

Sociocultural authoritarianism and, more specifically, ethno-nationalism and xenophobia have been the most important niches for PRR parties seeking expanded political opportunities. (Elgenius & Rydgren, 2019). With its emphasis on sociocultural issues, the SD’s political profile is oriented to the populist radical right (PRR), at least as the concept was developed in France under the label “la Nouvelle Droite” (Declair, 1999). According to the official party doctrine, Swedishness is constituted by culture and not by race. The SD has switched its focus from ethnicity to an emphasis on culture and impermeable cultural differences (Hellström & Nilsson, 2010). The SD does not presuppose either that certain ethnic groups or cultures are superior or inferior to others, but rather holds that the difference between Swedes and non-Swedes is considered incommensurable. In this view, sometimes referred to as ethno-pluralism (Rydgren, 2007), all people are naturally attached to separate ethnic enclaves (Hellström & Nilsson, 2010).

Accordingly, the SD depicts multiculturalism as the source of all evil without denying other peoples’ right to reside in distinct cultural enclaves: “The party distances itself from multiculturalism, racism, and doctrines that predict ethnic origin to be the only determinant for national belonging” (Sverigedemokraterna, 2008). The SD argues that multiculturalism poses a threat to the shared values that constitute the cultural community of Sweden. The party defines what it means by Swedish identity: “Swedish applies to the one who has a principal Swedish identity and is from her own perspective and by others regarded as Swedish.” The rhetorical figure underpinning this message is: “Sweden belongs to the Swedes” (Hellström & Nilsson, 2010). Taking this into account, it is a reasonable assumption to say that many immigration-sceptic SD voters are also xenophobes – and that some of them are also racists (Rydgren, 2008).

The SD has shifted its ideological role models over time. Initially, the party was modelled after neo-right proponents (e.g. Le Pen and Haider); but now, it models itself after leading Social Democratic figures. In its rhetoric, the SD adheres to the more traditional version of Social Democracy. Its position could thus be summarized as, “We are the true Social Democrats.” In this context, the SD returns to Per-Albin Hansson (Swedish Prime Minister between 1932 and 1946) as a key inspiration for its politics. Hansson is regarded as the chief architect of the transformation of post-war Sweden to a “people’s home” (folkhemmet). In the 19th century, this metaphor was associated with the ideals of organic conservatism and nationalist romanticism (Hall, 1998), although since 1932, the “people’s home” has been used as a mobilizing metaphor for the Social Democratic project of administrating and realizing social reforms.

The folkhem is the quintessential concept of modern Swedish politics and society, representing a political and social project aimed at symbolically gathering together Swedish men and women under the protective roof of a collective home (Andersson, 2009). The concept embodies the “Swedish model,” a social-democratic welfare system that couples comprehensive welfare with democratic government on egalitarian principles under the stewardship of social-democratic governance. It specifically references the period 1932-76, when the Social Democrats governed Sweden. As a political concept its meanings have shifted over time This metaphor is now employed by the SD to summarize its nostalgic political vision of a homogeneous political system for all Swedish people. It is also a strategy of good-by-association(Hellström & Nilsson, 2010). Today, the SD claims to be the folkhem’s sole guardian (Norocel, 2017).

According to Norocel, the SD has exploited the folkhem’s conceptual salience to cement an image of Swedish society as the home reserved exclusively for “Swedish people” who are under constant threat at the hands of immediate “others.” Indeed, research evinces that such welfare chauvinist appeals were used to consolidate the SD’s ideological profile in its struggle for political legitimacy, in its confrontations with other Swedish Parliamentary parties, in its mediated interactions in Swedish mainstream media, and in its attempts to distil cultural racism into a rhetoric of care for their own ethnic group (Norocel, 2017).

The SD’s nostalgic appeal to an idealized and sanitized version of the Swedish welfare system (folkhem) and its references to the Swedish people, their culture, and their Christian (Lutheran) religion replaced former SD appeals to safeguard racial purity, reintroduce the death penalty, ban abortion, and stop non-European adoptions, albeit arguably in a “racializing manner that often recreates the content of biological racism through different words.”

People shop in Gamla Stan (Old Town) in Stockholm, Sweden on August 23, 2018.

Between Cultural Racism and Care Racism

SD leader Jimmie Åkesson’s speeches at Almedalen Week, an annual event taking place in Almedalen, a park on Gotland, consolidated an idealized vision of the folkhem as an exemplary welfare society based on the homogeneous national community of Swedish citizens. In doing so, Åkesson emphasized that the SD’s politics are about “unity and consensus, about a coherent, warm … Sweden”; and about a tightly knit society that makes no distinctions “between the privileged or the neglected; there are no sweethearts and no stepchildren. Not one of them despises the other.” 

In other words, the folkhem envisaged by Åkesson is one built on the ethnic and cultural homogeneity of the Swedish native majority, engaged in an intimate relationship characterized by warmth and solidarity towards one another, in a manner resembling a family united under the folkhem’s protective roof. By describing the folkhem’s inhabitants as family members, Åkesson attempted to enforce the idea that the Swedish native majority constitutes a homogeneous community of blood (Norocel, 2017). 

In other words, the SD’s nostalgic appeal to an idealized and sanitized version of the Swedish welfare system (folkhem) (Hellström, Nilsson, & Stoltz, 2012) and its references to the Swedish people, their culture, and their Christian (Lutheran) religion replaced former SD appeals to safeguard racial purity, reintroduce the death penalty, ban abortion, and stop non-European adoptions, albeit arguably in a “racializing manner that often recreates the content of biological racism through different words” (Mulinari & Neergaard, 2014). 

Mulinari et al. define the SD as a culturally racist party. One central feature of cultural racism is that racism is increasingly expressed in ways that do not use the word “race.” Instead, ethnicity, culture, and religion are used in a racializing manner that often recreates the content of biological racism through different words. This cultural racism, they argue, characterizes the SD, which reproduces and develops hierarchies between groups that are already established. The radical nature of the SD lies in how they present solutions and, through these solutions, develop their variant of racism. Their contention is that the hegemonic Swedish public and political discourse already contains similar racist elements, in moderate forms (Mulinari, Neergaard, Lewis, Kennedy-Macfoy, 2014 & Hellström and Nilsson, 2010).

Mulinari et al. also highlight the concept of “care racism.” According to their definition, care may be extended to the racialized other through arguing that their migration to Sweden is also bad for the migrants themselves. In this sense, care racism is formulated as helping migrants by sending them back to their “true” home. This creates two variants of care racism. The first and dominant form is caring selves, in which a racialized version of the Swedish self is constructed based on the aggregation of how the family is viewed. A second version of care racism is linked to what they see as an ethnopluralist understanding. Here caring also extends to the racialized other, albeit in the form of caring that they return to their home country, for their own good (Mulinari, Neergaard, Lewis, Kennedy-Macfoy, 2014).

Mulinari et al., also assert that racist parties provide an epistemic community where people care for each other. Members of racist parties use their time and resources for what they think are the common good, the caring of “their” people. Caring is the promise of the Swedish folkhem that the Social Democratic regime failed to provide. Furthermore, the SD supporters construct their exclusion and separation from the racialized other, not only as caring for the self, for our own, but also as caring for them, preserving their purity as the “other” (Mulinari, Neergaard, Lewis, Kennedy-Macfoy, 2014).

In an interview, Second Deputy Speaker of the Riksdag and then-party secretary Björn Söder elaborated on the SD party program with respect to its views on national identity by saying that he personally did not think people with dual national identities in Sweden would necessarily identify themselves as Swedish – even though an immigrant of any ethnic background in theory can become a Swedish citizen (Orrenius, 2014). Also, Teitelbaum writes that the SD is the foremost champion of cultural nationalism, or “open Swedishness.” According to him, the SD’s position creates a political agenda that is irreconcilable with ethno-nationalist forces. The party’s cultural politics, for example, aim to encourage immigrants to embrace Swedish traditions and values. Some party members advocate for a better geographic dispersion of ethnic minorities in the country so that those minorities may more easily form a Swedish identity. He writes that the SD is a threat to ethno-nationalists as long as it pursues its assimilation agenda (Teitelbaum, 2018).

Despite there being deep ideological and political divergences between the SD and more radical nationalists, SD proponents and more radical activists can meet in the same chat forum or at the same concert of “racist music” (Deland, Hertzberg & Hvitfeldt, 2010). Ekman and Poohl imply that culture and ideology can manifest as distinct phenomena in nationalist movements; they claim that the SD’s efforts to distance themselves from National Socialists are concerns of style more than ideas (Ekman, & Poohl, 2010).

The SD has, among all Swedish Parliamentary parties, had the largest share of elected municipal representatives resign since the 2010 elections (27.8 percent). Many of these resignations were brought on by racist statements or actions (Dagens Nyheter, 2011). This is further evidence to support the idea that today’s SD is “a changed party with the same ideology,” as Anna-Lena Lodenius writes (Teitelbaum, 2018). Indeed, outright racist views held by individual party members have been revealed in the media with some regularity (Bolin & Aylott, 2019).


Immigrants: From “Guest Workers” to “Fuel for the SD”

Immigration has been a major source of population growth throughout Sweden’s history, and since 2012, the number of immigrants to Sweden has increased while the number of emigrants has decreased. Today, about one-fifth of Sweden’s population has an immigrant background (World Population Review, 2020).

Since the 1930s, Sweden has always been a country of net immigration, despite passage of the restrictive Aliens Act (the country’s first immigration law) in 1927. This law remains the key piece of legislation for all aspects of migration, albeit with more recent modifications. The law’s two original aims were to protect the domestic labor force from foreign job competition and, heavily informed by theories of race and eugenics, to “control immigration of peoples that do not to our benefit allow themselves to meld with our population.” Such racialized language was later dropped, but a contradictory attitude toward immigration has been a mainstay in Swedish responses to immigrants and immigration (Skodo, 2018).

In the beginning, the Swedish state saw immigrants as temporary guest workers and assumed that they would eventually return home. Sweden began to regulate non-Nordic labor immigration in 1967, seeking to curb the arrival of guest workers and encourage those already present to leave. The economic crisis of the early 1970s and its aftermath ended demand for foreign labor in heavy industry, bringing the era of labor immigration to a halt. However, the assumption that the guest workers would return home proved false. Not only did most stay, but they also became citizens and began to apply for family reunification visas. Ironically, the restrictive 1967 law opened a new path to immigration through such family reunification. Today, the foreign born represent 18.5 percent of Sweden’s 10 million residents. Around 849,000 of all foreign born in Sweden come from Europe, while around 1 million are from non-European regions, in particular the Middle East and Asia (Skodo, 2018).

In 1975, Sweden became one of the first countries to officially adopt a policy of multiculturalism, embracing ethnic and religious diversity and state support to safeguard minority identities and culture. The state thus provided financial support for a range of activities, including state-funded minority cultural associations and mother-tongue instruction in primary schools. This policy lasted until measures were introduced in 1986 that moved Swedish integration policy away from targeting groups and toward individuals. In 1997, Sweden introduced a new integration policy according to which individual integration needs, such as employment, would be targeted (Skodo, 2018).

Meanwhile, increasing ethnic diversity has triggered different political responses in Sweden, as in many established democracies (Strömblad & Malmberg, 2016). For instance, reflecting the stance of the SD, Torbjörn Kastell (former party secretary) said in 2002 that the party wanted “a multicultural world, not a multicultural society” (Rydgren, 2008). Challenged by socioeconomic as well as socio-geographic cleavages, governments have searched for policy tools that may promote integration and “social cohesion” in an era of migration and globalization (Bay, Strömblad, & Bengtsson, 2010).

Another response to increasing ethnic diversity has been the emergence of political parties that share a clearly identifiable nationalistic agenda, favoring measures to reduce immigration and strongly opposing “multicultural policies.” PRR and xenophobic parties fitting such a profile are currently active in a wide array of democracies and have also managed to gain representation in a number of national parliaments (Arzheimer, 2009 & Rydgren, 2008). Moreover, there is a long-term trend towards increasing electoral support for these political parties, at least in Western Europe (Norris, 2005). 

Common denominators of xenophobic PRR parties tend to be that they have a nationalistic agenda and a highly critical and restrictive stance on issues concerning immigration and the integration of immigrants (Arzheimer, 2009 & Norris, 2005). Like most PRR parties in Europe, the SD mobilizes support by taking a harsh stance on immigration (Ivarsflaten, 2008; Rydgren 2008, 2018). However, the party’s growing strength is not due to generally increasing levels of immigration and negative attitudes among the Swedish electorate, as Swedes on average are now more tolerant towards foreigners of all kinds than in the 1990s (Oskarson & Demker, 2015). The proportion of people who think it is a good idea to reduce the number of refugees to Sweden has decreased from 65 percent in 1992 to 40 percent in 2015 (Rydgren & van der Meiden, 2019).

It is also a fact that the opposition to immigration and refugees among the voters of the SD is solid (Rydgren & van der Meiden, 2019). In 2015, 93 percent of the SD’s sympathizers agreed with the statement that it would be a good idea to reduce the number of refugees to Sweden. This should be compared to 42 percent of those sympathizing with the Conservative party, 29 percent of Social Democratic sympathizers, and 13 percent of those sympathizing with the Green Party (Demker and van der Meiden 2016).

To believe that anti‐immigration attitudes are a very important factor for explaining the electoral mobilization of PRR parties makes some intuitive sense. Although the anti‐immigration nexus is only a part of a wider web of issues (Mudde 1999), it is at the core of the PRR parties’ political programs and dominates the images voters have of these parties. Even if not all voters who are skeptical of immigration vote for radical right‐wing parties, most voters who do vote for those parties have such attitudes (Rydgren, 2008).

Nevertheless, the refugee crisis that hit Europe in 2015-16 has left a deep mark on Swedish politics. Immigration scored as one of the top issues in the 2014 and 2018 Swedish elections. Thanks to the SD’s success, it has become impossible for either of the two traditional blocs to form majority governments, since neither bloc wants to govern with the support of the SD. According to Emily Schultheis, the SD won an ideological victory in the 2018 elections, as it “effectively set the terms for debate” and forced its rivals to adopt immigration policies similar to its own (Schultheis, 2018).

This new situation may prompt a structural change to Swedish parliamentarianism. The SD has already pushed the major parties to adopt far-right rhetoric, increasingly associating asylum seekers with national-security threats, terrorism, and crime. Thus, another SD policy priority, “law and order,” is also linked to migration. This link is both implicit (stories of immigrant crime are often more prominent in media) and explicit (in, for example, the demand that more foreign criminals be deported) (Bolin & Aylott, 2019). Such rhetoric in turn has led to calls to further tighten border controls and increase Sweden’s ability to detain and deport asylum seekers. The electoral gains of the SD have led to the normalization of far-right migration discourse and convergence of restrictionist policies on immigration issues, including the temporary law of 2016, which received broad cross-bloc support (Skodo, 2018).

The mainstream Swedish parties rarely politicized immigration. Once the SD had won representation in Parliament, however, they worked to politicize immigration. Now, a substantial minority of Swedish voters want a tighter immigration and asylum policy and consider this issue more important than most other issues.

For many years, questions concerning immigration were of low importance in Swedish politics. With a few exceptions, it was largely a non-issue among the political mainstream parties until 2014 (Odmalm, 2011 & Widfeldt, 2015). However, immigration does gain importance when a political party mobilizes around the issue. In the national election of 1991, when the share of voters who thought that immigration and refugees were important issues when choosing a party increased sharply to 8 percent, the right-wing populist New Democracy party won Parliamentary representation. Anti-immigration was a part of their agenda; controversial, sometimes blatantly xenophobic, statements by party representatives contributed to bringing media attention to the issue. New Democracy imploded and was voted out of Parliament in the 1994 election (Rydgren & van der Meiden, 2019). 

However, immigration issues would intermittently become part of political campaigns. Less than two months before the 2002 election, the Liberal Party presented an immigration and integration policy package. Even if the proposals were arguably not designed to primarily reduce immigration, that was how voters interpreted them. In the election, the Liberals almost tripled their vote, and evidence suggests that the immigration package was a part of their success (Holmberg & Oscarsson, 2004; Widfeldt 2015). 

Although the SD has doubled their vote share in every election since 1998, the mainstream Swedish parties rarely politicized immigration. Once the SD had won representation in Parliament, however, they worked to politicize immigration. Now, a substantial minority of Swedish voters want a tighter immigration and asylum policy and consider this issue more important than most other issues. This continued politicization of immigration can partly explains why the SD has increased its vote share in every election since 2010 (Rydgren & van der Meiden, 2019).

After the SD won Parliamentary representation, the Alliance lost its majority but continued in government. Up until 2010, partly for coalition and strategic reasons, the mainstream right-wing parties used a dismissive strategy vis-à-vis the SD. This was successful for a long time, and likely one of the reasons why the SD’s electoral breakthrough took so long (Rydgren, 2010; Dahlström & Esaiasson, 2013). However, as the mainstream parties have converged on immigration issues, it has benefited the SD for at least two reasons: i) Liberalization of immigration policy contributed to the politicization of immigration and put the issue higher on the agenda; and ii) The increased convergence on the issue gave the SD a monopoly over offering a more restrictive immigration policy program (Loxbo, 2014; Rydgren & van der Meiden, 2019).


Immigrants: Approaching Doom, Decay, Enemies, and Threats

As immigration increased, the PRR party positions were linked to communitarian and nationalistic values, defining immigration as a threat to national values and culture. A study (Kriesi et al. 2006, 2008) shows that the potential political tension between the “losers” and the “winners” of globalization have been incorporated into the existing two-dimensional national political spaces. It is this split between socioeconomic winners and losers that has allowed PRR parties to use xenophobia to expand their bases of support. Such a shift allowed the SD to chip away voter from the Social Democrats’ traditional core group – the working class (Oskarson, Demker, 2015).

Certain groups have been left behind by globalization. This has resulted in a weak and insecure attachment to the labor market. Many members of these groups will seek out someone to blame. Their resentment might quite plausibly be directed toward asylum seekers or immigrants and, as a consequence, a party arguing for more restrictive immigration policies can become politically attractive (Strömblad & Malmberg, 2016). 

On the other hand, new PRR parties usually give priority to issues related to national identity. More specifically, the new radical right builds on the idea of ethno‐pluralism, an idea that largely agrees with right‐wing ideas going back to Herder (Berlin, 1976; Holmes, 2000) and that in modern times was elaborated by the French Nouvelle Droite. The notion of ethno‐pluralism states that in order to preserve the unique national characters of different peoples, they have to be kept separated; mixing different ethnicities only leads to cultural extinction (Griffin 2000; Minkenberg 1997). By employing an ethno‐pluralist ideology, PRR parties claim the right of European national cultures to protect their cultural identities. A further theme of this doctrine is that different cultures and ethnicities can never co‐exist peacefully. A peaceful society, according to ethno‐pluralists, requires an ethnically homogeneous population (Rydgren, 2008).

The PRR parties have framed immigrants as problems in four different ways: i) As a threat to ethno‐national identity; ii) As a major cause of criminality and other kinds of social insecurity; iii) As a cause of unemployment; iv) As abusers of the generosity of the welfare state, which results in fewer state subsidies and the like for “natives.” Only the first two of these frames can be treated as a manifestation of the ethno‐pluralist doctrine, whereas the latter two can be treated as part of a welfare chauvinist doctrine in which immigrants and “natives” are depicted as competing for limited economic resources (Rydgren, 2008). In such a state of conflict, immigrants are portrayed as illegitimate competitors. Immigration is seen as a zero‐sum game in which one side always loses what the other side gains. In addressing welfare chauvinist frames, the new PRR parties have used the idea of “national preference”: Giving “natives” priority in jobs, housing, health care, and so on – a proposal that can be characterized as “reversed affirmative action” (Zaslove, 2004; Rydgren, 2003).

In the Swedish setting, natives’ increased support for radical right-wing populists can be interpreted as an expression of anti-immigrant sentiments. The group position theory would suggest that natives identify with an in-group consisting of native Swedes and consider immigrants part of the out-group. Natives’ increased anti-immigrant sentiments would then be a reaction to a perceived threat to their social position (Barmen, 2019). Typically formulated in terms of the likely result of a struggle over limited resources, conflict theory suggests that “in-groups” will regard “out-groups” with suspicion, or even hostility. Hence, immigrants may be regarded as a burden by native Swedes who feel themselves deprived and frustrated. When such people frequently observe immigrants in their own neighborhoods, their resentment may be translated into a willingness to support a xenophobic PRR party such as the SD (Strömblad & Malmberg, 2016).

The effect of the share of immigrants in a society on xenophobic PRR party support is conditioned by the overall level of unemployment (Arzheimer, 2009; Cochrane & Nevitte, 2014; Golder, 2003). Immigration does not directly promote xenophobia in settings where unemployment is low. However, immigrants may be scapegoated in times of economic crises and increasing unemployment rates (Strömblad & Malmberg, 2016).

The PRR parties’ ethno-nationalism is generally based on myths about history. Their programs are directed toward strengthening the nation by making it more ethnically homogeneous and by returning to traditional values. Overall, anti-immigration sentiments are the most critical reason as to why voters support the radical right (Rydgren, 2008). The perceived threat against national identity taps into sentiments of nostalgia, the loss of times bygone – of “not feeling at home anymore” – and is translated into ethnic and national terms. This raises the question of how PRR parties construct their ethno-nationalist message. (Elgenius & Rydgren, 2017).

The SD offers an apocalyptic rhetoric inspired by the reactionary conservatism of the late 1800s and early to mid-1900s; it also offers a rebranded version of the concept folkhemmet along ethnic lines. A Swedish Golden Age is pitted against the decline of the past 50 years. (Dahlqvist 2002; Elgenius &Rydgren, 2019). Sweden of the 1950s is portrayed as a safe, cohesive society with a homogeneous population – a symbol of traditional life. This image may attract voters with a conservative ethos. 

Yet, the SD shows some signs of repackaging and rebranding their rhetorical message over time. Approaching doom, decay, enemies, and threats posed by immigration with more caution in the party’s official literature has contributed to increasing its voter base. When it comes to the SD’s core ethno-nationalist ideology, the party shows considerable continuity, and it has ethnicized Swedish politics by merging the ideals of ethnic-nationalism with Swedish democracy. Such a merger is supposed to help the SD reconstruct a Swedish golden age in the future (Elgenius & Rydgren, 2017).

In the 1970s, Sweden began accepting growing numbers of immigrants, many of them refugees. Immigrants from countries such as Afghanistan, Chile, Iran, Iraq, Somalia, and Turkey started slowly but surely changing the country’s demographics in ways that made some Swedes uncomfortable (Ekman, 2018). Olof Palme, Swedish Prime Minister at the time, was identified as the primary villain and was accused of “rabid internationalization” and “senseless migration policies,” allegedly to strengthen the Social Democrats at the ballots. Meanwhile, the “politically correct elite” – socialists and liberals – were blamed for allowing non-European migration from “ethnically distant or remote places.” The elite were accused of failing the nation by embracing multicultural values and by promoting membership in the European Union (EU), resulting in the loss of Swedish sovereignty (Elgenius & Rydgren, 2017).

Since the 70s, there has been a slow but steady increase in the number of asylum seekers, with some notable spikes. The average number of asylum seekers per year in Sweden between 1984 and 2017 was 31,500. During the 1980s, most of the asylum seekers came from the Middle East and the horn of Africa. In the early 1990s, the Yugoslav wars released a wave of refugees, primarily Bosnians. Thus, the inflow of asylum seekers in Sweden rose sharply, peaking above 84,000 in 1992. During the late 1990s, the numbers dropped. They gradually rose again during the 2000s, reaching approximately 30,000 in 2011. After the onset of the war in Syria, the number of asylum seekers rose sharply and, in 2015, the number of asylum seekers reached almost 163,000 (Barmen, 2019). At that point, many Swedes decided they’d had enough. 

As a reaction to the asylum seekers, the Swedish Parliament decided to change the Swedish refugee migration regulations. Sweden went from having the most generous refugee migration regulations in Europe to adopting the minimum level required for an EU member state. As a consequence, the number of asylum seekers fell drastically again during 2016-2018 (Mottagandeutredningen, 2018). Of the asylum seekers that arrived during the wave of 2015, 78 percent were from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Eritrea, or Somalia. (Mehic, 2019). The SD singled out migration from non-European countries as the cause of moral decay and as especially harmful to Swedish cohesion, claiming it results in “high crime numbers, divorces and broken homes, abortions and low Swedish nativity.” The rhetoric of decay includes the destruction of a distinct Swedish culture, common cultural roots, collective memories, and cultural homogeneity. Thus, non-European immigrants threaten Swedish interests. This is contrasted with the SD’s version of the “inherited essence” of Swedish identity and culture – one of a mixed Western and European heritage. This “heritage” is propagated with the sole purpose of raising boundaries against non-European and Muslim countries (Elgenius & Rydgren, 2017).

The SD offers Swedish nationalism as a remedy to the perceived threats. The party claims it will restore authenticity, ethnic and cultural homogeneity, and social solidarity. Swedish authenticity is positioned in the golden age of the 1950s, with the nostalgia for civic egalitarianism rhetorically rebranded as a period pre-immigration.

Kent Ekeroth, Member of Parliament, took the SD’s arguments further at a demonstration against refugees in 2015, saying that immigration has been the “destruction” of Sweden and declaring the audience “members of a resistance movement” and “a spearhead… to take our country back” (Expo, 2015). The SD offers Swedish nationalism as a remedy to the perceived threats. The party claims it will restore authenticity, ethnic and cultural homogeneity, and social solidarity. Swedish authenticity is positioned in the golden age of the 1950s, with the nostalgia for civic egalitarianism rhetorically rebranded as a period pre-immigration (Elgenius & Rydgren, 2017).

Despite the party’s rhetoric, its popularity has risen amongst Swedes with non-native backgrounds and was officially at 8 percent in May 2015 (Statistics Sweden, 2015). Intriguingly, more than a tenth of respondents who had grown up outside Europe, or whose parents had, also voted for the SD in the 2018 elections (Aylott & Bolin, 2019). Since 2014 the SD has substantially increased its support among both foreign-born and foreign-background voters, becoming the third largest party in Sweden among this demographic by 2017 (Wernersson, 2017). According to Aftonbladet, 14 percent of SD members are of immigrant origin (Sköld, 2010). Therefore, it is almost normal to see the SD leader Jimmie Åkesson accompanied by two other SD members – one, a man of Sri Lankan descent, and another a woman with a South Korean background – strongly denounce racism in a campaign film ahead of the 2014 elections (Pettersson et al, 2016). 

Meanwhile, SD politicians from immigrant backgrounds often use their personal history to deny the existence of structural racism in Swedish society. They also claim that other parties deny the legitimacy of their SD membership. These claims serve the function of efficiently reversing the racist label and attaching it to the SD’s political opponents. Perhaps even more importantly, these members maintain the SD’s anti-immigrant political agenda while serving as “proof” of the party having rid itself of its racist past. Thus, politicians with an immigrant or other minority background may become powerful political weapons of an anti-immigration PRR party (Pettersson et al, 2016).


Muslim preacher raising funds in the Drottninggatan (Queen’s) street in Stockholm.

Muslims As A “Universal Out-group,” Islam As An “Open Threat”

Sweden has experienced a record influx of asylum seekers fleeing conflicts such as Syria and other predominantly Muslim countries. This wave of Muslim migrants has raised concerns about the current and future number of Muslims in Sweden. In 2016, it was estimated that there are 810,000 Muslims in Sweden, or 8.1 percent of the total population. According to Pew estimations, the number of Muslims in Sweden in 2050 is going to be 1,130,000 (11.1 percent of the population) under a zero-migration scenario; 2,470,000 (20.5 percent of the population) under a medium-migration scenario; or 4,450,000 (30.6 percent of the population) under a high-migration scenario (Pew Research Center, 2017). A report from the Swedish Agency for Support to Faith Communities in 2017 showed that 170,915 of all Muslims in Sweden practice their religion regularly (Statistik, 2017). 

On the other hand, since Muslim representation in Sweden encompasses a large variety of ethnic, sectarian, and political outlooks as well as a wide range of language variations, it is impossible to speak of the Swedish Muslim community in static, homogeneous terms. Islam in Sweden is represented by a highly diverse population, which includes Turks, Palestinians, Syrians, Kurds, Moroccans, Iranians, Iraqis, Pakistanis, Bosnians, Kosovars, Somalis, and Afghans, as well as a number of Swedish converts (Berglund, 2015).

Muslim immigration to Sweden began in earnest in the 1950s and 1960s with labor migration and continued into the 1980s with the establishment of a liberal refugee policy. Although the refugee policy has somewhat tightened since the eighties, Sweden accepted a larger proportion of refugees than any other country in the EU in 2013. (Remember that in the 2014 election, the SD received nearly 13 percent of the vote, making it the third largest party in the country (Berglund, 2015)).

As in most European countries, Muslim immigrants in Sweden have also emerged as the “universal out-group” – meaning, the most culturally distant group that is often the focus of debates on issues of immigration and integration (Müller et al, 2016). On this fertile anti-Islam ground, the SD’s leader Åkesson has argued that the minaret, a tangible symbol for the “new” multicultural Sweden, generates a feeling of insecurity among the Swedish people (Hellström & Nilsson, 2010). A 2018 poll by Sifo also showed that 60 percent of the 1000 participants wanted to ban the Islamic call to prayer from loudspeakers in the country, while 21 percent responded this should be allowed; 19 percent were undecided (Göteborgs-Posten, 2018).

According to Brubaker, there is a “partial shift from nationalism to ‘civilizationism’” in the Western world, and this shift is driven by “a striking convergence in the last 15 years around the notion of a civilizational threat from Islam” (Brubaker, 2017). This shift has promoted the rise of an identarian Christianity. 

In its early years, the SD party programs described immigration in terms of “suicide politics”: this meant policies that promoted migration, internationalization, and the “Islamification” of Sweden. The party spent the next decade warning about the “dying nation,” its “terrible plight,” and the “dark future ahead.”

Civilizationism has come to constitute an increasingly important part of the rhetorical nexus of exclusion and competition within ethno-nationalism. More generally, the resonance of anti-Muslim messages became more pointed after September 11, 2001, and in connection to recurrent Islamist terror attacks (Kallis, 2018). In many countries, after September 11, criticizing Islam abroad and at home became a socially acceptable alternative to more openly xenophobic statements (Arzheimer, 2018).

Under these circumstances PRR parties and movements have found opportunities to mobilize people on the basis of both national and religious identities, defending what they call the Judeo-Christian identity against the threat of Islam (Minkenberg, 2018). In the case of the SD, the rhetoric and discourse of Swedish homogeneity, culture, and identity highlights the considerable complexity and contradictions of the ethno-nationalist argument: Swedish homogeneity is simultaneously proposed to be an integral part of the European, Western, and Christian cultural communities. (Elgenius, Rydgren, 2019).

In its early years, the SD party programs described immigration in terms of “suicide politics”: this meant policies that promoted migration, internationalization, and the “Islamification” of Sweden. The party spent the next decade warning about the “dying nation,” its “terrible plight,” and the “dark future ahead” (SD Kuriren, 1996; 2001; 2003). Since the SD worldview assumes and warns about clashes between peoples with different cultural values and with peoples of “remote cultures,” these conflicts are avoided by these groups living separately. Such cultural segregation constitutes a basis of the SD’s prognostic frame. Thus, the SD introduced its approach to Swedish identity and nationality as an open form of Swedishness (Elgenius, Rydgren, 2019).

A vignette study conducted shortly before and after the 2014 national election helps to analyze the social distance between the majority population and the Muslim minority in Sweden. Study’s results showed that: i) Anti-minority attitudes, held by 36 percent of the population, predict increased social distance from Muslims and even towards persons that having a foreign-sounding name; ii) SD voters hold drastically more negative views than any voting bloc about Muslims; iii) A vote for the SD was purely driven by anti-minority – and not anti-establishment – sentiments. Namely, while the SD might present its cause in the language of anti-establishment populism, and their voters might legitimize their voting choice by this principle, SD voters’ intentions have been fundamentally rooted in xenophobia, specifically anti-Islam xenophobia. In the same study, around 35 percent of respondents agreed somewhat or strongly with the view that minorities’ rights are given too much weight at the expense of the general population. SD voters were more likely than supporters of other parties to agree with this sentiment; and they were less likely to accept a Muslim as a neighbor, caretaker, or family member (Müller et al, 2016).

Muslims were the least accepted bloc in the country, across all dimensions; according to Müller et al (2016) this could be due to negative attributes that are part of stereotypes but unrelated to the cultural content ascribed to that stereotype. For instance, respondents might have held more negative attitudes towards Muslims because Muslims are perceived as “foreign” or more religious (religiosity being viewed with suspicion), or as having a lower socio-economic status (indicated by a lower education level). The only characteristic that mattered in the evaluation across the general population was the description of a person as “Muslim.” Meanwhile, Muslims that were described as volunteering for a secular cause were perceived as more favorable than those volunteering for a mosque. However, Christians that volunteered for a church did not suffer from more negative evaluations (Müller et al, 2016).

The social distance toward Muslims among SD voters was higher in 2010 when compared to 2014, which would support the hypothesis of an increased variation within their electorate in the recent elections. But for respondents who voted for the SD in 2014, only 40 percent were willing to accept a Muslim as their neighbor; 50 percent would approve if a Muslim cared for their elderly parents; and only 20 percent would accept a Muslim who married into their family. Among the other voter groups, around 85 percent would accept a Muslim as neighbor or nurse, while 60 percent would accept having the person as a family memberThe results confirm that SD voters hold drastically more negative views towards Muslims than voters of other Swedish parties (Müller et al, 2016).

The study indicated that the choice to vote for the SD is driven by anti-minority, specifically anti-Muslim, sentiments; and that SD voters are ideologically motivated (as opposed to being protest voters) (Müller et al, 2016). SD voters also agreed with the sentiment that migrants in general, and Muslims in particular, were a burden to the Swedish welfare state, because “they do not work, they cheat and misuse the resources of the welfare state.” They agreed strongly with the idea that Muslim migrants were a threat to the Swedish nation, due to their perceived background in patriarchal cultures and religions, and to their resistance to assimilation (Mulinari et al, 2014). Swedish media has often depicted Islam in a negative light, with Muslim immigrants regularly portrayed as being backward and resistant to democracy, secularization, and the separation of religion and state (Berglund, 2015). 

According to another survey conducted in 2006-2007, fundamentalist newspaper Världen idag and the SD’s official newspaper SD-Kuriren tended to describe Muslims and Islam as threatening, and “our” elite as retreating. In these two media outlets, Muslims were consistently described as aggressive and the cause of social and political problems. In both, Muslims were correlated to negative behavior; good Muslim behavior was constantly disregarded, while bad behavior was assumed to reflect their true character. Världen idag also claimed that Islam is incompatible with democracy. Meanwhile, liberal Dagens Nyheter and Evangelical Dagen avoided describing Muslims and Islam as a threat and more often sought constructive solutions to different problems. Moreover, Dagens Nyheter described conflicts between Muslim and Christian actors in political, not religious, terms (Steiner, 2014).

Actors in the anti-Muslim landscape have an especially strong online presence, with their own digital news media, blogs, podcasts, Facebook groups, YouTube channels, and keyboard warriors (Gardell & Muftee, 2018). Among social media users, the SD dominates among all parties in parliament, engaging 29 percent of Facebook users and 42 percent of Twitters (Hagberg, 2017). By constantly recycling certain themes (e.g. that Muslims are inherently violent, constitute a demographic threat, and infiltrate society by strategies of stealth jihad and creeping sharia) they have pushed the limits of what is considered acceptable public speech about Muslims in an effort to facilitate more space for anti-Muslim political actors, decision- and policymaking (Ekman, 2015).

A 2017 study Det vita hatet (The White Hate) analyzed prominent Swedish “hate sites” Nordfront, Avpixlat, Motgift, Nordisk ungdom, Nya tider, and Nyheter idag with a special focus on the two largest forums, Avpixlat (today Samhällsnytt, and with links to the SD) and Nordfront (associated with the Nordic Resistance Movement). A recurring theme was the narrative about Swedish female victimization to alien Muslim male offenders (Kaati, et al. 2017).

Islamophobia Works Better Without Muslims

Furthermore, a varied body of research indicates that Islamophobia and hate crimes are on the rise in Swedish society. Reports of hate crimes based on Islamophobia grew from 278 in 2011 to 439 in 2016. Discrimination based on religion and ethnicity remains a significant social problem in labor recruitment (Skodo, 2018). Some other studies, however, show that over the years, there has been a decrease in the number of Swedes who believe that the country contains “too many foreigners,” as well as a steady show of support for the free expression of religion. In a study concerning non-Muslim views on Muslims and Islam, it was found that when non-Muslim Swedes come to know their Muslim neighbors, many of their apparent prejudices and misgivings diminish (Berglund, 2015).

Islamophobic propaganda works best in rural or small-town areas with no or few Muslim residents. This is congruent with the fact that the anti-Muslim SD draws most of its support from voting districts with no or few Muslim residents. Islamophobia works better without Muslims (Gardell & Muftee, 2018). Another study by a Swedish public agency (Integrationsverket) showed in 2007 that 55 percent of respondents expressed reservations about moving to districts where many Muslims lived (Integrationsbarometer, 2007).

Islamophobic propaganda works best in rural or small-town areas with no or few Muslim residents. This is congruent with the fact that the anti-Muslim SD draws most of its support from voting districts with no or few Muslim residents. Islamophobia works better without Muslims.

By employing an ethno-pluralist ideology, the PRR parties claimed the right of European national cultures to protect their cultural identities. Parties like the SD claim that there are several “threats” to their national identity, of which the alleged “invasion” of immigrants is the most important; immigrants from the Muslim countries are singled out as particularly threatening to European values. (Zaslove, 2004; Rydgren, 2008). Most Swedes – and most media and political parties – have accepted this demographic and the resulting societal shifts, despite a significant Muslim minority only developing in recent decades. The SD has been the most important exception, and stands as proof that Sweden is still divided; there is a chasm between those accepting change and those who do not (Steiner, 2014). 

In 2005, the Danish daily newspaper Jyllands-Posten published twelve cartoons allegedly depicting the Prophet Muhammad. They did so under the guise of freedom of speech. The SD gave the paper their unreserved support, stating that it saw no reason why a Danish newspaper should be forced to abide by Muslim rules and prohibitions regarding expression. When a boycott of Danish products was launched in the Middle East, the SD launched a “Buy Danish” campaign (Sverigedemokraterna.se). The SD also directly took part in the cartoon debate in 2006, publishing a cartoon depicting Prophet Muhammad on its youth league (SDU) and SD-Kuriren websites (Holender & Svahn, 2006).

The publication attracted the attention of the Swedish government, which informed internet service provider Levonline about the SD’s publications; Levonline shut down the SD’s webpage. The Minister for Foreign Affairs Laila Freivalds condemned the publication as a provocation (Hamrud, 2006; Kihlström, 2006), though she denied any direct interference in the case. However, Freivalds had to resign after being accused of dishonesty and interference with press freedom (Sveriges Radio, 2006). 

Meanwhile, the SD also had a hate speech charge filed against it due to the caricature (Janhunen, 2006). Similar hate speech charges were also filed against other Swedish publishers who had depicted Prophet Muhammad. But these charges were immediately deemed to be unfounded by the Swedish Chancellor of Justice (Justitiekanslern) (Svenska Dagbladet, 2006). The SD also planned originally to publish a set of cartoons in SD-Kuriren. After the controversy erupted, party leader Åkesson issued a statement on the SD’s website, on February 9, 2006, stating that they would refrain from further publications, due to concerns that publishing might spur hostile actions against Swedes and Swedish interests (SD Kuriren, 2006 & Sydsvenskan, 2006). 

In a strange twist, the SD has historically criticized what it calls a “Homosexual Lobby”; SD-Kuriren regularly published articles attacking LGBT events and describing homosexuality as “perversion” (SD-Kuriren. 2007a & SD-Kuriren, 2007b), and Åkesson expressed concern that what he describes as the Islamization of Sweden will eventually lead to the rights of sexual minorities being violated (Brandel, 2010). Yet, SD member and former party magazine editor Jan Sjunnesson organized gay pride parades in the Stockholm suburbs of Tensta and Husby, two areas with large Muslim populations. The event was disavowed by the official Stockholm Pride organization and the Swedish Federation for LGBT Rights; in a joint statement both organizations called Sjunnesson “a person who’s spreading hatred towards Muslims on social media and who’s not supporting LGBT rights” (Naib, 2015 & Montelius, 2017). The event showed the convoluted logic of the SD’s various forms of bigotry. 

During his post-2010 speeches at Almadalen, SD leader Jimmy Åkesson has attempted to enforce the idea that the Swedish native majority constitutes a homogeneous community of blood. Åkesson operated a discursive distinction between those migrant “others” that assimilated into Swedish society and embraced the “Swedish values” underpinning the “Christian, democratic world” that Sweden is part of and those migrant others who failed to integrate and instead had willingly joined “the world’s Islamists” (Norocel, 2017). In other words, “becoming Swedish,” according to the SD, is not a mere matter of fulfilling the administrative citizenship requirements; rather, it entails a more profound process, which hinges on “cultural commensurability with respect to the foundational values that define Europe’s cultural heritage” (Betz & Meret, 2009). 

While acknowledging the difference between Muslim faith and Islamist ideology, Åkesson underlined Christianity and its moral values as central cornerstones of the folkhem. This may indicate a thinly veiled assumption that Muslim faith by itself – described by Åkesson as a deeply patriarchal religion of “genital mutilation of completely healthy children” and of “violence and oppression in the name of honor” – constitutes a hindrance for the migrant Muslim other in their efforts to become a full-fledged and law-abiding citizen of the folkhem, which “had been built on democracy and a thousand-year-old Christian foundation” (Norocel, 2017).


Scenic summer evening view of the Parliament House (Riksdaghuset) in Stockholm, Sweden.

Cordon Sanitaire: Containment of the SD

Despite earning 17.5 percent of the votes in the 2018 general election and securing 62 seats in Parliament (becoming the third largest party), the SD has been remained isolated in the Riksdag because the other parties have staunchly maintained a policy of refusing to cooperate with it (Radio Sweden, 2014). As the main reason for their distance, they have cited the party’s strong preferences for a very restrictive refugee migration policy (Nationalencyklopedin, 2019). A political cordon sanitaire was spontaneously constructed around the party, beginning with its breakthrough results in the 2010 election (Bolin & Aylott, 2019).

According to the mainstream parties and most of the public, the SD represents a “devil in disguise.” Despite the SD employing a strategy of moderation, the political establishment rebuts its claims to democratic legitimacy and claims that the SD cannot be trusted to act in accordance with formal democratic procedures. Other actors bring the SD’s deplorable past to the fore, exposing its Nazi leanings and criminal records. The political establishment claims that though the SD has constructed a democratic façade, beneath the surface it remains undemocratic, racist, and violent. Political representatives from the established parties have sought to reveal the party’s diffuse past and show constituents the “true nature” of its ideology; the SD is thus guilty-by-association (Hellström & Nilsson, 2010).

With this rhetoric, mainstream parties seek to justify their means of counteraction, promoting the view that the SD cannot be accommodated in an open and democratic society. Since it is racist, and probably an enemy of democracy, it does not deserve the same respect as other parties. Unfortunately, this strategy of shaming the SD has become counterproductive and reinforced the perception of politics as a matter for elites. The SD exploits its marginalized position to sustain a perception of Swedish politics as divided between a consensual political elite alienated from the people and the SD as a party that safeguards the interests of ordinary people. Thus, the SD aspires to act as “the true heir of a long tradition of protecting people” (Hellström & Nilsson, 2010).

Indeed, media interest in the SD and its politics has grown significantly since the 2006 general election. Prior to the election, the SD was not invited to take part in public debates, nor did it run much of a campaign. This followed a long period of describing the SD as an immature and aggressive organization with neo-Nazi tinges (Larsson & Ekman, 2001). As a result of its success in the 2006 vote, there was reason now pay closer attention to SD as a potential force in Swedish politics. However, the party continued to experience fierce criticism from all the established parties (Hellström & Nilsson, 2010). 

The perception that the SD represents an anomaly in an otherwise consensual political milieu in Sweden is, in a wider European perspective, already outdated (Mudde, 2007). Peter Mair (2002) points out that the political identities of the mainstream parties have become increasingly blurred. This invites new political actors to occupy an underdog position in relation to the established elites (Mouffe, 2005).

In his 2007 speech at the SD annual meeting, Åkesson talked about his experience of being denied access to channels of political information and the problems this caused in his constituency. He claimed that the other parties sought to ridicule the SD, neglecting the fact that SD representatives faced daily discrimination in their political work. He also talked about SD meetings obstructed by violent protests, during which several party members were injured. In his speech, Åkesson concluded that “we are the underdogs,” underlining the frequently adopted rhetorical figure: “We are the democratic victims” (Åkesson, 2007).

According to SD pundits, in the process of transforming the party along more moderate lines, the SD has committed to democratic norms; however, none of the other parties have worked with them. Thus, SD representatives have been able to nurture their position as democratic underdogs (Hellström & Nilsson, 2010). They have portrayed themselves as friends of the people and, at the same time, sharp critics of a consensual elite that refuses to engage in dialogue and deliberation with the SD. On the party’s website, a list of “objective” criteria is presented to help the reader assess the political actors according to democratic standards. In this regard, the SD’s message is underpinned by another rhetorical flourish: “We are the true democrats” (Rydgren, 2002). Its view is that the established parties promote neither dialogue nor freedom of speech. The SD further argues that the democratic system has become increasingly bureaucratized, making it an affair for the political elite. The SD vision is that the people should enjoy strong direct political involvement as a complement to existing representative politics (Taggart, 2000). The strategy of ostracizing the SD not only allows the party to play the victim, but also risks belittling SD voters, triggering feelings of frustration among the electorate and sustaining an elitist perception of Swedish politics (Hellström & Nilsson, 2010).

To understand the processes in which radical right-wing parties gain increased legitimacy, one needs to consider mass media (Andersson, 2010 & Ellinas, 2010). Media coverage is important not only because it contributes to the visibility of the party, which is crucial for new parties lacking economic resources, but also because it may contribute to increased legitimacy and respectability as well as name recognition (Ellinas 2010). In the run-up to the 2010 election, for example, the SD received more media publicity than some established parties, such as the Christian Democrats and the Left party. This was immensely important for a small party lacking economic resources, even though much of the coverage was negative. 

Seemingly, PRR parties are less sensitive to negative publicity, compared to mainstream parties (Ellinas, 2010). One potential explanation is that the mass media are seen as a part of “the political establishment,” which is believed to be conspiring against the populist radical right (Andersson, 2010). The SD has also complained about difficulties buying advertising space due to the media banning the party from advertisement (BHHR, 2002). On June 16, 2006, the papers Dagens Nyheter and Svenska Dagbladet decided to end their boycott. 14 years later, Expressen still retains a ban on SD advertising (Letmark, 2006). 

This has contributed to a widespread distrust of the media among SD supporters. Among them, for example, 93 percent believe that Swedish media does not tell the truth about immigration (Demker, 2015). In addition, over the past decade, alternative, online-based news media have become increasingly important, and the SD has been successful in, directly or indirectly, launching such media advocating for its political program (Krzyzanowski et al. 2016; Rydgren & van der Meiden, 2019).

Gaining political legitimacy has allowed the party to sidestep some of the media’s reluctance to cover it. Almedalen week is a gathering of political parties, lobby groups and businesses, public administration representatives, and journalists on the island of Gotland. All political parties represented in the Swedish Parliament are also granted their own “party day” at this “political spectacle” (Wendt, 2012); the high point of this one-day political action is represented by the party’s chairperson delivering their speech (Norocel, 2017). Since the SD passed the Parliamentary threshold in the 2010 election, it has been included in Almedalen week. Consequently, Åkesson has delivered speeches summing up “the SD day,” effectively bypassing the cordon sanitaire that the Swedish media had previously attempted to maintain around the SD and its leader (Loxbo, 2015).

Still, the media and rival political parties have maintained their strategy of ostracizing the SD whenever possible. The success of this strategy is debatable: the SD has increased its vote share in both the 2014 and 2018 elections. Shifts in political alignment have also benefitted the SD. The left has been damaged by the dissolution of the traditional class-based, left-right divide. This has been replaced by what is known as the GAL-TAN divide: Green­Alternative-Liberal versus Tradition-Authoritarian-Nationalist. This is a new political landscape in which traditional economic issues, to a large extent, are replaced by lifestyle and identity issues. From a sociological perspective, most of the people who used to vote for the Social Democrats – blue-collar workers and the lower middle class – now vote for the SD (Rothstein, 2014).

The SD’s vote increased by nearly five percentage points in the 2018 election ant it became the second-biggest party among men, among blue-collar workers, and among members of blue-collar trade unions; it won about a quarter of the vote in each category.

Despite the SD’s electoral success – and despite the center-right prime minister acknowledging in 2014 that immigration had become an expensive policy choice for Sweden – no mainstream party has defected from the policy of cordon sanitaire with regards to the SD. This left the SD as the only party voicing any skepticism about immigration (Backlund, 2016). Only in late 2015, a year in which 163,000 asylum-seekers poured into Sweden, did mainstream parties finally agree to tighten immigration policy. However, because the cordon sanitaire endured in the parliamentary arena, stable majorities that included the SD were ruled out, too. Indeed, after the 2014 election, mainstream parties formed a formal cartel designed to maintain the SD’s isolation (Bjereld et al, 2016).

There followed weeks of sparring between the new government and the Alliance, ostensibly over the budget but more essentially over how they were to handle the disruptive presence of the SD (Aylott & Bolin, 2019). Stefan Löfven, the prime minister, dramatically called a new election. Equally dramatically, he then called it off. His Social Democrats, the Greens, and the Alliance parties instead reached the 2014 “December agreement” (Bjereld et al, 2016). The agreement was made possible by an extraordinary innovation: Each of the two blocs agreed to allow the bigger one to form a government and get its budget through parliament (Aylott & Bolin, 2019). The aim was clear: to construct a cartel that would exclude the SD from all influence. It was almost as if the parliamentary arena was to be truncated, with seven parties acting as if the eighth was not there (Kinberg Batra et al, 2014). The party system was fundamentally changed. Far from a two-party system, competition now resembled “polarized pluralism” (Sartori, 2005).

For decades, it was received wisdom that Swedish elections were fought over economic distribution. In 2014-2018 such issues became augmented, and even supplanted, by others: immigration, the social integration of newcomers and, not least, law and order. The media began to associate rises in levels of violence and crime with migration. Tension rose further after an Islamist terror attack in Stockholm in April 2017, in which five people died. Under these circumstances,the Moderates sought to pull the Alliance towards a quite different strategy, in which the cordon sanitaire around the SD would be relaxed. This was enormously controversial; for many in the other Alliance parties, any accommodation with the SD was unthinkable (Aylott & Bolin, 2019).

The SD’s vote increased by nearly five percentage points in the 2018 election. In an election in which, according to the exit poll, two in five voters switched their preference from the previous election, the SD retained nine in ten of its voters from 2014. In 2018, the SD became the second-biggest party among men, among blue-collar workers, and among members of blue-collar trade unions; it won about a quarter of the vote in each category. There was speculation, too, that the party’s growth could also have contributed to another striking result: that turnout rose for the fourth consecutive election, to over 87 percent. The SD might have mobilized voters who would otherwise have abstained (Aylott & Bolin, 2019).

The 2018 election induced profound change in the Swedish party system. The fragmented format became more evident (Bolin, 2018). Above all, the bloc-based, bipolar competition that had (with periodic exceptions) characterized politics since the 1970s, and which reached a peak of formalization in 2010, disappeared as the Alliance collapsed. The Center refused to compromise on the founding motivation for the 2014 December agreement: ostracism of the SD. The new government meant that the Center and the Liberals had maintained the cordon sanitaire, but the diverse Parliamentary majority has little to unite it beyond antipathy to the SD (Aylott & Bolin, 2019)

A majority of Swedes share the mainstream parties’ disdain for the SD. According to a 2016 survey, more than half – approximately 51 percent – of the respondents said that they prefer the SD least among all parties. Even with the SD’s evolution, there remains a large resistance to the party. The survey also suggested that only two parties could eventually form a coalition with the SD: Moderates (M) and the Christian Democrats (KD). The majority of these parties’ supporters did not identify rate the SD lowest in preference (Eger & Hjerm, 2018).

As predicted, the cordon sanitaire was breaking down by spring 2019 (Bolin & Aylott, 2019). First, the SD was blurring some of its economic positions, partly to facilitate cooperation with established parties; and later Åkesson, began to talk hopefully of a new “conservative bloc” comprising the SD, the Moderates, and the Christian Democrats (Bolin & Aylott, 2019). As he expected, Christian Democratic leader Ebba Busch Thor announced in March 2019 that her party was ready to start negotiations with the SD (Hamidi-Nia, 2019). In December 2019, Moderate Party leader Ulf Kristersson also held an official meeting with the SD leadership for the first time. This led to speculation that the SD could be included in a new center-right group to replace the Alliance, which had collapsed after the Center Party and the Liberal Party chose to support the Social Democratic-led government (Financial Times, 2019).


The SD Follow the Line of Other PRR Parties: Euroscepticism

When the three Nordic states – Finland, Norway, and Sweden – applied for EU membership in the early 1990s, several commentators expected that they would pursue rather similar integration policies. However, as Norwegians rejected membership two times, Swedish EU policy could be described as cautious and hesitant, with the Swedes rejecting the single currency in a referendum in 2003. Only Finland has acted, contrary to the expectations, consistently in favour of deeper integration (Raunio, 2007). In contrast, even the referendum on EU membership in Sweden was highly divisive, with a very narrow majority in favour of joining the Union. Moreover, all parties are divided over further integration (Bolin & Aylott, 2019).

Eurosceptic strategies are quite attractive to PRR parties. Over the years, the SD has called for a “Sweden where the Swedish people has the power to decide” their own policies; a Swedish Parliament that constitutes the highest authority; and a country freed from interference. The discourse of lost sovereignty echoes the call to “take our country back.”

Eurosceptic strategies are quite attractive to PRR parties because they present an effective method for carving out political space. In national elections, the EU issue is often seen as a comparatively cost-free strategy for populist parties to articulate their opposition to the political mainstream. Therefore, Euroscepticism plays an important role in the explanation of the variable fortunes of PRR parties in the Nordic countries (Ketola, & Nordensvärd, 2012). Complying with the line of other PRR parties, the SD has been a fierce critic of the EU since the party was founded, and it has always been against further integration. The party also rejects joining the Economic and Monetary Union (EMU), aims to renegotiate Swedish membership in the Schengen Agreement, reduce Swedish financial contributions to Brussels, and is opposed to creating a combined European defense budget (Radosevich, 2018). 

It is obvious that, like many other PRR parties, the SD favors a Europe of sovereign nations (Widfeldt, 2000). They argue that the EU should be based on more of a co-operative model rather than on a federal state. The SD wants to re-negotiate the EU treatment, but there are no official demands to leave the Union. The party has rather explored the political opportunity of nationalism where it focuses on Sweden’s national identity (Rydgren, 2003). Since the SD put a focus on the nation state (Ketola, & Nordensvärd, 2012), the party’s action program states that, “Sweden should be a sovereign and an independent state. … abolishing a nation state and jeopardizing the survival of a culture is too awful” (Hellström & Nilsson, 2010).

Moreover, the SD blames the Social Democrats and the Liberals for undermining Swedish solidarity and cohesion through the internationalization and multicultural values that they promote. Along similar lines, the “politically correct elite” is accused of failing Sweden by embracing membership in the EU, resulting in a loss of Swedish sovereignty and “the national independence and freedom we held for centuries.” Over the years, the SD has called for a “Sweden where the Swedish people ha[ve] the power to decide” their own policies; a Swedish Parliament that constitutes the highest authority; and a country freed from interference (Elgenius, Rydgren, 2019). The discourse of lost sovereignty echoes the call to “take our country back” (Bhambra 2017).

Most attempts to uncover links between parties like the SD and more radical actors in Europe search for ideological common denominators. Undoubtedly, the most famous theory comes from historian Roger Griffin, who claims that many anti-immigrant forces in Europe share a fascist ideology (Teitelbaum, 2018). However, following the European election of 2014, the SD elected not to join other far-right movements and instead became a member of the more moderate right-wing Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy group, along with the UK Independence Party (UKIP). 

In 2015, the SD began forging closer relations with the neighbouring Danish People’s Party and in 2018 announced an official cooperation pact with the Finns Party (The Local, 2015 & Yle, 2018). In 2018, the SD joined both the European Conservatives and Reformists group in the European Parliament and the European Conservatives and Reformists Party in which it sits alongside the British Conservative Party. Åkesson said concerns over Russia would make it very hard for the SD to cooperate with some other right-wing parties “that are more or less Putin friendly” (Ahlander, 2019). 

A poll by Statistics Sweden (SCB) published in June 2019 showed that Swedes prefer the status quo in the present relationship with the EU: Nearly 62 percent supported Swedish EU membership (EIU, 2019). The SD’s Euroscepticism, meanwhile, which had previously involved advocacy of a renegotiation of Sweden’s EU membership and possible departure, was toned down in light of Britain’s troubled exit from the Union (Åkesson, 2019); the “Swexit” agenda lost its momentum. Citing uncertainty over Brexit and the growing resistance to federalism in many other European parties, Åkesson said that the SD now hoped to change the EU from within. “We will not make any demands for leaving the EU or conducting a referendum,” Åkesson said in an interview. “We want to be part of the EU internal market. We should cooperate in areas which benefit Sweden, but we need to get away from supra-nationalism.” (Ahlander, 2019).


Like all liberal democracies in the 21st century, Sweden also faces challenges associated with globalization, international migration, and growing inequality. Despite its reputation as a moral superpower, Sweden is not uniquely immune to racism, nationalism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, and anti-immigrant sentiment. Yet the picture is perhaps not so dark: although the SD’s message may appeal to 1 in 5 voters, it does not appeal to the vast majority of Swedes. More than 50 percent of the public rate the SD lowest among their party preferences. The SD is unique in this regard. On average, other Swedish parties only receive 4 percent of the “least liked” vote (Eger & Hjerm, 2018).  

Moreover, the Sweden Democrats, in lines with other parties of the populist radical right (PRR) across Europe, have shown some signs of moderation, repackaging and rebranding of their rhetorical message over time. For instance, today the party avoids nostalgia for the 1930s, a notable characteristic of early members in the party’s formative years. The party also approaches doom and decay, threats to the nation, enemies within or without, justifications for political action, and solutions to identified problems with more caution in official party literature, which has contributed to increasing its voter base (Elgenius & Rydgren, 2019).

Yet, by polishing its message, the party has considerably ethnicized Swedish politics through a rhetoric based on ethnic nationalism, Swedish democracy, and a contradictory promotion of the nation as an ethnic democracy (Elgenius and Rydgren 2017). With the ethno-nationalist message in mind, one can argue that there is a considerable continuity regarding the diagnostic frames used by the Sweden Democrats over the past 20 years, even as the party presents itself in less-radical ways (Elgenius & Rydgren, 2019).


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Viktor Orbán: Past to Present

Kenes, Bulent. (2020). “Viktor Orbán: Past to Present.” ECPS Leader Profiles. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). August 2, 2020. https://doi.org/10.55271/lp0001


Today, Hungary could be defined as, at best, an “illiberal democracy.” Some even argue that the country is now a crude autocracy. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is personally described as “irredentist,” “right-wing populist,” “authoritarian,” “autocratic,” and “Putinist.” He’s also been called a “strongman” and a “dictator.” Orbán has outmaneuvered his opponents and tightened his clutch on power. He makes no secret of his plans to rule Hungary for the foreseeable future.

By Bulent Kenes

On June 16, 1989, over 200,000 Hungarians filled Heroes’ Square in Budapest. They gathered for a memorial observance leading to the reburial of Imre Nagy, the leader of the failed 1956 Revolution. Nagy was a staunch Communist, but he had not lost his national pride; Hungarians had looked to him as a reformer capable of freeing them from the Stalinist grip of Matyas Rakosi. Nagy had been tried in secret, hanged on June 16, 1958, and buried in an unmarked grave (Congdon, 2018). 

The mass gathering, which was a mix of ceremony and demonstration, was broadcast live on Hungarian television and ended with six speeches. The final speech was delivered by Viktor Mihály Orbán, a little-known 26-year old activist sporting a scruffy beard. He spoke for only seven minutes but electrified the crowd and the people watching at home (Lendvai, 2019). At the time, there were still 70,000 Soviet troops occupying Hungary; despite their presence, Orbán gave the most courageous speech of the gathering:

“Today, 33 years after the Hungarian Revolution and 31 years after the execution of the last responsible Hungarian prime minister, we have a chance to achieve by peaceful means everything that the ’56 revolutionaries gained in a bloody battle, if only for a few days. If we believe in our own strength, we are capable of bringing the communist dictatorship to an end. If we are determined enough, we can compel the ruling party to submit to free elections. If we have not lost sight of the ideas of ’56, we can vote for a government that will immediately enter into negotiations leading to the immediate beginning of Russian troop withdrawals,” (Magyar Nemzet2014). 

An Idealist or a Budding Opportunist?

According to Paul Lendvai, Orbán, whose rhetoric so stirred Hungarians in 1989, was no idealist; he was, rather, a budding opportunist getting an early taste of power. Gabor Fodor, an Orbán rival who was once his close friend, observed that even as a young man, Viktor Orbán “was already possessed of those domineering, intolerant ways of thinking and behaving that are all too evident in him today.” But, Fodor noted, “he was, in addition to all of this, sincere and likable.” It is a combination of traits that suggests a certain ambivalence in Orbán’s character, which perhaps helps explain the ease with which he transformed his political persona later in life (Lendvai, 2019).

Viktor Orbán was born in Szekesfehervar, in Hungary’s Transdanubia region, but he grew up in the nearby villages of Alcsutdoboz and the somewhat larger Felcsut (Congdon, 2018). Initially, his family lived in the cramped house of his paternal grandparents. When Orbán was ten, as a consequence of arguments between his mother and grandmother, the family moved to a dilapidated house at the end of Felcsut’s main street. The circumstances in which he grew up were orderly but very poor. Orbán has recalled how hard he and his siblings worked in the fields as young children: pulling beets, sorting potatoes, feeding the pigs and chickens. The house had no running water. Years later, Orbán described the “unforgettable experience” of using a bathroom for the first time, at age 15 and getting hot water by simply turning on a faucet (Lendvai, 2019).

According to Paul Lendvai, Viktor Orbán, whose rhetoric so stirred Hungarians in 1989, was no idealist; he was, rather, a budding opportunist getting an early taste of power. Gabor Fodor, an Orbán rival who was once his close friend, observed that even as a young man, Viktor Orbán “was already possessed of those domineering, intolerant ways of thinking and behaving that are all too evident in him today.”

The Orbán family’s fortunes improved in the 1970s and 1980s, as his father earned a university degree and climbed the ranks of the ruling Socialist Workers’ Party. Orbán was a bright student, and his parents sent him to a selective grammar school. But years later, he described himself in an interview as an “unbelievably bad child. Badly misbehaved, cheeky, violent. Not at all likable.” He added: “At home, I had constant problems with discipline; my father beat me once or twice a year.” Throughout his youth, his brief compulsory stint in the military, and his university years, his maxim remained unaltered: “If I’m hit once, then I hit back twice” (Lendvai, 2019).

After completing gymnasium studies in Szekesfehervar in 1981, he performed one year of military duty before enrolling as a law student at Eotvos Lorand (Budapest) University. He was among those who founded the Istvan Bibo Special College in 1983, where young scholars studied law and politics. One of the college’s patrons was the Hungarian-born American investor and philanthropist Gyorgy (George) Soros, who also generously subsidized a student-run journal, language courses, and trips overseas. At the college, Orbán became part of a tightly knit group of liberals. He even found a part-time job in Soros’s organization, which later became the Open Society Foundations (Lendvai, 2019 & Congdon, 2018).

Orbán began to work for the Ministry of Food and Agriculture after completing his degree in 1987. On March 30, 1988, he and thirty-six other Bibo College fellows founded Fidesz (Fiatal Demokratak Szovetsege — Alliance of Young Democrats) as an independent organization aimed at regime change. In 1989, three months after his famous speech at Nagy’s reburial, Soros’s foundation awarded Orbán a scholarship to study politics and conduct research on the idea of civil society in European political philosophy at Pembroke College, Oxford. At the time of his arrival in England, Margaret Thatcher, the uncompromising “Iron Lady,” was prime minister – and a role model for the young Hungarian (Lendvai, 2019 & Congdon, 2018).

A Long and Bumpy Political Journey Begins

In October 1989, Orbán took part in the Fidesz congress that voted to transform the youth organization into a political party, allowing it to participate in the free elections scheduled for the following spring. Although his scholarship was good for nine months, he, his wife Aniko Levai, and their four-month-old daughter permanently returned to Budapest in January 1990. In the April elections, Fidesz won 22 of 386 seats in parliament, while the Magyar Szocialista Part (the Socialist Party, the successor to the Communist Party) took 33. The conservative Magyar Demokrata Forum captured 165 seats and formed Hungary’s first freely elected government under Jozsef Antall, a man of character who had eked out a living as a librarian and editor after playing an active role in the 1956 Revolution (Congdon, 2018).

In opposition, Fidesz remained true to its youthful image: Orbán and other politicians in the party kept their beards, long hair, jeans, and open-neck shirts. They advocated liberal reforms and were quick to condemn nationalist and antisemitic undercurrents in the governing coalition. Orbán himself scoffed at the populist rhetoric of the ruling parties, whose leaders “reject criticism of government policy by suggesting the opposition or media are undermining the standing of Hungary, are attacking the Hungarian nation itself,” he said. This was a fair description of some elements in the Antall government and a prescient foreshadowing of the populist style that Orbán himself would later adopt (Lendvai, 2019).

Lendvai wrote that despite their avowed liberalism, Orbán and his Fidesz circle had an uneasy relationship with an older generation of liberals, especially those of the Alliance of Free Democrats, many of whom were academics from bourgeois (and often Jewish) families. They were well-read, open to the world, and fluent in foreign languages – a stark contrast to the Fidesz leaders, who were mostly lawyers from rural areas or small towns. Orbán and his friends initially admired the older liberals but soon came to see them as overweening. 

Eleven years after his marriage by simple registry, Viktor Orbán and his wife consecrated their union in a church ceremony. There is ample evidence that Orbán’s religious conversion was genuine, but it is also true that his contacts with his countrymen had convinced him of the national importance of Christianity.

In 1991, a poll showed that Orbán, who was not yet 30, was the third most popular politician in Hungary. Two years later, he became the president of Fidesz. However, in the 1994 elections, the party suffered a crushing defeat. The former communists of the Hungarian Socialist Party quintupled the number of votes they had received in the prior election and formed a coalition with the Free Democrats; together, the two parties held over 72 percent of the seats in Parliament. In contrast, Fidesz had become the smallest party in Parliament, with only 20 seats. Seeing no other path to political survival, Orbán committed himself and the party to a rightward political shift. The erstwhile rebels of Fidesz began dressing conservatively and styling their hair neatly. Their speeches were now peppered with professions of faith in the nation, in Magyar tradition, in the homeland, in national interests, in respectability, in middle-class values, in the family, and in the love of the mother country (Lendvai, 2019).

“This was the first major step in Orbán’s decades-long transformation into an autocratic right-wing populist. There seemed to be no deep ideological soul-searching involved – just clear-eyed calculations about what it would require to win power,” wrote Lendvai (Lendvai, 2019). Orbán even changed his party’s name to Fidesz – Magyar Polgari Part, or “Fidesz, the Hungarian Civic Party,” in April 1995. Furthermore, two years later, and eleven years after his marriage by a simple registry, he and his wife consecrated their union in a church ceremony. There is ample evidence that Orbán’s religious conversion was genuine, but it is also true that his contacts with his countrymen had convinced him of the national importance of Christianity (Congdon, 2018).

Meanwhile, the Socialist-Free Democrat government struggled under the weight of an unpopular package of economic reforms and a corruption scandal. In the elections of 1998, Fidesz triumphed with 29.48 percent of the vote, which assured the party 148 seats in Parliament. Orbán became prime minister. As the youngest prime minister in Hungarian history, Orbán led Hungary into NATO (1999) and moved Fidesz from the Liberal International bloc in European politics to the center-right European People’s Party (EPP), founded in 1976 by several Christian Democratic parties. For the next four years, the Hungarian economy performed reasonably well, and Orbán remained extremely popular. In 2000, the European Union (EU) agreed to admit Hungary on January 1, 2004. Despite the improving economy and EU accession, Fidesz, to the surprise of many, lost the 2002 elections. Partly, the upset followed from Orbán’s failure to clearly distance the party from extreme right-wing groups, which openly trafficked in antisemitic rhetoric and even celebrated the Nazi-allied regime that had ruled Hungary in the 1940s. The Socialist-Free Democrat coalition returned to power (Lendvai, 2019 & Congdon, 2018).

During both the 2002 and 2006 campaigns, exorbitant social promises took center stage. The Medgyessy-cabinet (2002-2004) propagated its fiscal expansion under the slogan of a “welfare transition,” hinting at the end of hardships and promising that Hungary’s economic fortunes would quickly catch up to Western Europe after EU-accession (Deák, 2013). Orbán and his party spent the next four years in opposition and failed to win back power in the 2006 elections. Hungary had joined the EU with relative ease in 2004; within Europe, the country’s social and economic standing was improving. However, among the populace, there was a growing distrust of the government (Timmer, Sery, Connable, & Billinson, 2018).

“Lie Speech,” Image-Making, and Viktor’s Victory

A few months later after the elections, a political bombshell exploded in Hungary. An audio recording emerged in September 2006, on which the Socialist prime minister, Ferenc Gyurcsány, could be heard delivering an internal, obscenity-laced tirade to fellow party members. He described the country and his political party in negative terms, hoping to convince party members that some painful economic reforms had been unavoidable (Lendvai, 2019 & Buzogány, 2017). In this rant, Gyurcsány even admitted to lying to the public. 

This leaked speech became the spark that ignited the powder keg of social, economic, and political tensions that had been primed and ready to explode throughout Hungary. Protestors from all over the country flooded into Budapest. Wall-to-wall media coverage of what became known as Gyurcsány’s “lie speech” fueled a massive and passionate attack by the opposition, with Orbán leading the charge against what he called an “illegitimate” government (Lendvai, 2019). Fidesz and the right-wing party Jobbik capitalized upon the protests and unrest, moving their platform further to the radical right. Fidesz especially rhetorically aligned themselves with the will of “the people” – the protestors (Timmer, Sery, Connable, & Billinson, 2018).

Despite public outcry and increasingly radical, violent protests on the streets of Budapest, Gyurcsány managed to stay in power for several years. However, the domestic political crisis was aggravated by the consequences of the 2008 global economic crisis and pressure from the EU to end deficit spending. Moreover, the population had had enough of technocratic reforms and permanent austerity without any context or end in sight. The 2008 crisis ushered in an era when an already disgruntled population was wary of reforms. Orbán became the last hope of a populace seeking change. Fidesz successfully combined social paternalism with the promise of large-scale tax reductions and a pro-market orientation. Thus, Orbán strengthened his claim on power, calling for an overhaul of the political system (Deák, 2013 & Buzogány, 2017).

Poster from political party Fidesz showing the opponents of Hungarian PM Viktor Orban surrounding billionaire philanthropist George Soros, Budapest, April 8, 2017.

In 2008, Orbán also hired American-Republican strategist Arthur Finkelstein to re-create the flailing Fidesz’s image. Finkelstein made a simple suggestion: exploit the ugliest legacies of Hungary’s past. Orbán gleefully took up the charge, embracing the blood-and-soil rhetoric of Hungarian nationalism and laying into Jewish philanthropist George Soros as the symbol of all things globalized and sinister – even though he had worked for Soros’s Open Society Foundations in the 1980s, back when he still had long hair, claimed he didn’t believe in God and spoke out against nationalist bigotries (Sammon, 2019). They were well-positioned to easily sweep the parliamentary elections in 2010 (Timmer, Sery, Connable, & Billinson, 2018).

Following the change in citizens’ party preferences, the Hungarian party system, formerly composed of two poles of nearly equal strength, collapsed. In the 2010 elections, Fidesz and its partner won 57 percent of the popular vote and gained an unprecedented two-thirds majority in Parliament (263 seats) (Illés, Körösényi & Metz, 2018). This was a first in the history of democratic Hungary. In the nearly decade since, Orbán has used this supermajority to transform Hungary’s constitution, institutions, economy, foreign policy, and society. After what he deemed a “revolution at the ballot box,” Orbán proudly announced the drafting of an entirely new constitution, called the Fundamental Law of Hungary, despite never mentioning constitutional reform during the electoral campaign (Lendvai, 2019) and despite opinion polls showing that less than one-third of the Hungarian population saw the need for a new constitution (Illés, Körösényi & Metz, 2018).

According to a joint article by Illés, Körösényi, and Metz, Orbán’s aims with constitution-making were multiple. First, the new constitution became a symbolic expression of revolutionary change and the founding moment of a new regime. In addition to representing a dramatic break with the post-communist regime, the new constitution also incorporated such potent symbols as the Hungarian “Holy Crown.” Second, it represented a break with the “legal constitutionalist” (Bellamy, 2007) approach which had characterized the previous regime and supported the supremacy of judicial review over politics. Third, constitution-making became Orbán’s means of weakening and de-legitimizing authorities which were interwoven with the status quo, such as the constitutional court, the “ombudsman,” media authorities, and the central bank (Illés, Körösényi & Metz, 2018).

In 2011, the new constitution was rushed through parliament in nine days without any input from the public, much less a referendum. The main victim of the new constitution was the judiciary, especially the Constitutional Court. Previously, the powers of the executive branch were limited by a high number of constitutional laws and their extensive interpretation; this meant giving the opposition a check on the majority’s power (Deák, 2013). Now, the justices of the Constitutional Court would be selected not as they had been before, through an all-party parliamentary committee, but directly by Parliament. With Fidesz holding a supermajority in parliament, Orbán could pack the court with sympathetic judges.

The chamber of the Lower House of the Hungarian Parliament in Budapest.

Legislative Tsunami & Invasion of Party Apparatchiks

According to some observers, Orbán’s constitution-building efforts were designed to re-affirm some of the common values and constitutional traditions shared by the community in the past or which he sought to create anew through the new constitution. First, the constitutional discourse of Orbán’s party recalled the Christian and national traditions that were prevalent in Hungary prior to the communist era. Second, the Hungarian nation is defined in an ethnocentric way in the Fundamental Law, which not only symbolically embraces the ethnic Hungarians of neighboring countries in the constitution, but enfranchises them to participate in Hungarian general elections through a newly introduced dual-citizenship scheme (Illés, Körösényi & Metz, 2018).

Furthermore, Parliament also legislated 365 new laws (an average of one every 1.5 working days) through early 2012, among others the new constitution and all 25 constitutional laws. This was an unprecedented legislative tsunami, not comparable even to the transition from communism (Deák, 2013). Orbán also chipped away at the top court’s authority: among other assaults, in 2013, the Fidesz-dominated Parliament voted to strip the Constitutional Court of the ability to review laws concerning state finances and wrote directly into the constitution a number of Fidesz-backed laws that the court had previously overturned (Lendvai, 2019). Orbán also handed personal friends and loyal party apparatchiks long-term posts in the corridors of power, including the President of the State, the State Audit Office, and the Constitutional Court, as well as top positions in cultural institutions such as the state media, the film industry, and state universities (Fabry, A., & Sandbeck, S. 2019).

A number of post-2010 laws and policies went against European political standards. Therefore, Hungary confronted fierce criticism from the EU governing bodies as well as Western constitutional experts. Observers assessed that Hungary made a “sharp U-turn” in its political development and is “retreating from democracy” towards “a one-party state” under the rule of Orbán.

The process lasted from 2010 to 2015 and became an essential part of the political struggle between Orbán’s legislative majority and the constitutional forces representing the status quo, including the Parliamentary opposition, the Constitutional Court, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and prominent constitutional lawyers. Clashes with international actors such as the EU Commission, the European Parliament, the Venice Commission, and the US government, who all expressed concern about certain changes in the constitution, were perceived and framed in Orbán’s political discourse as part of his cabinet’s “freedom fight” – an effort to regain Hungarian national sovereignty (Illés, Körösényi & Metz, 2018).

A number of post-2010 laws and policies went against European political standards (Batory, 2015). Hungary confronted fierce criticism from the EU governing bodies as well as Western constitutional experts. According to some vocal opponents of the post-2010 developments, the Orbán government “have downgraded or done away with the checks and balances that are widely considered essential for the rule of law” (Rupnik, 2012) and departed from the norms of democratic pluralism (Kovacs and Toth, 2011 & Bayer, 2013). Other observers are even more pessimistic, arguing that Hungary made a “sharp U-turn” in its political development and is “retreating from democracy” (Kornai, 2015) towards “a one-party state” (Scheppele, 2014) under the rule of Orbán (Shevchenko, 2018).

The European Parliament’s Hungary Rapporteur Judith Sargentini (Sargentini, 2018), a Dutch MEP, also noted in a detailed report, released on Sept. 11, 2018, numerous problematic institutional changes in Hungary. According to the report, the freedom and independence of the judicial system are threatened. The first constitution written on an iPad has curtailed the role of the Constitutional Court. Meanwhile, a new and less independent court system is being introduced which will deal with legal cases brought against the government. The government has also limited the people’s right to strike and to protest, and media freedom is under pressure as the government advertises exclusively in loyal media outlets (Zsuzsanna, 2019).

Sargentini also documents Orbán’s other transgressions, from widespread corruption to the forced sterilization of Roma women. She took to the floor of the European Parliament and called on her colleagues to choose: “Will you ensure the value of this union is more than just words written on a piece of paper?” Supporters of the Hungarian populist, including Nigel Farage, the chief cheerleader for Brexit, came to Orbán’s aid (The Economist, 2018). However, in September 2018, the European Parliament responded to the report that condemned the regime’s anti-democratic policies by voting 448-197 (with 48 abstentions) to invoke seldom-used Article 7, also called the “nuclear option,” against Hungary, launching proceedings that could lead to sanctions against the country, including suspension of its voting rights in the European Council (Encyclopædia Britannica, 2020).

In doing so they collectively stated that Orbán’s government posed a “systemic threat” to democracy and the rule of law. However, Orbán did not care all that much about the vote. His primary audience in Strasbourg was not MEPs but domestic voters, and the defeat will only serve to boost his popularity, as he presents himself as a valiant defender of the beleaguered Hungarian nation against hostile external forces. “These debates help him to mobilize his own camp and will work much more at a domestic level,” said Andras Biro-Nagy of Policy Solutions, a Budapest think-tank. Fidesz’s lead in the polls is unassailable. More than 50 percent of Hungarians back it against a fractured opposition (The Economist, 2018).

Newsstand with newspapers in Hungarian in the center of Gyor, Hungary on November 3, 2017.

Hungarian Media Monopolized and Silenced

The media have always been in Orbán’s sights. He blamed his party’s defeat in 2002 on the publicly funded media networks and had long dreamed of hobbling them. With his majority support in Parliament, he brought together all the government-funded television and radio networks under a new conglomerate run by Fidesz supporters. Later, he also established a centralized media authority – the National Media and Info-communications Authority – with the responsibility to regulate the media industry and media content. Its five-member council is elected with a two-thirds supermajority by the Fidesz-dominated Parliament. The organization, which has received widespread criticism for jeopardizing the freedom of the press, has the right to deny media outlets their licenses and impose heavy fines of up to 200 million forints ($860,000) on journalists and media outlets for publishing articles with “improper content.” As a result, the public networks are more tightly supervised by Fidesz today than they were in the final period of the communist regime. Such control is made possible because the majority of Hungarians get their news from television (Lendvai, 2019; Fabry & Sandbeck, 2019 & Timmer, Sery, Connable, Billinson, 2018). Thus, Hungary’s position on the World Press Freedom Index, compiled by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), has plummeted from 23rd in 2010, when Orbán took power, to 89th in 2020 (RSF, 2020).

Further erosion of press freedom occurred in 2018 when all pro-Fidesz media owners “donated” their holdings to a new structure run by three of Orbán’s most trusted lieutenants. Dubbed the Central European Press and Media Foundation, the organization now consists of 476 media outlets. The government has exempted it from legal scrutiny and from regulations governing the concentration of media holdings (Lendvai, 2019). Today, Orbán has a far greater ability to control the Hungarian mediascape, and justifies his control of media outlets, claiming that unchecked they become “enemies of the state” (Timmer, Sery, Connable & Billinson, 2018). Except for one television station owned by a German company (RTL), a small radio station heard only in Budapest, and a few culture-focused weeklies, every single media outlet in the country is now controlled by people close to the regime. So, the government’s introduction of the latest tax on advertising revenue appeared to have been specifically targeted at handcuffing the commercial broadcaster RTL (Encyclopædia Britannica, 2020).

Media researcher Péter Bajomi-Lazar has explained that in a plural landscape, media doesn’t have much of an impact, but in Hungary, media have been put in the service of a majoritarian government dedicated to establishing ideological hegemony in an attempt to change long-term public opinion and voting behavior, thus cementing its power (Howden 2016). According to Hungarian media observers, the government control of the media is successful because the mediascape is small, limited in scope, and relatively homogenous. Furthermore, Orbán is able to manipulate media messages to create the illusion of openness. There are only three broadcasting services in Hungary. The national station, MTVA, is essentially the mouthpiece of the government. Of the other two commercial stations, TV2 is now basically turning into another governmental channel. As mentioned previously, RTL is still standing but is under constant pressure (Timmer, Sery, Connable & Billinson, 2018).

Control of the media, however, is not limited to control of broadcast television. Print and online journalists also have found themselves under attack. In an article for the Web site Refugees Deeply, Daniel Howden provided examples of journalists from origo.hu (a well-known left-leaning online news source) and the Budapest Business Journal, who felt pressured to alter their stories or resign (Howden 2016). In both cases, the journalists resigned rather than compromise their ethics. In 2011, Klubrádió, news and talk radio station, known to be the voice of left/liberal opposition, was denied renewal of their license; they’d begun broadcasting in 1999. This led to a fairly long legal battle which Klubrádió eventually won in 2013 (Timmer, Sery, Connable & Billinson, 2018). As Tamás Bodoky of Átlátszó (Transparent), a civil watchdog organization asserted, “there are fewer and fewer workplaces for journalists willing to expose corruption and they mostly exist on the internet” (Bienvenu 2016).

Perhaps the most notable example of the government’s overreach is the sudden closure of the country’s long-standing newspaper, Népszabadság. On September 30, 2015, the paper, one of the premier leftist national newspapers, was suddenly shut down. The owner cited loss of readership and loss of revenue, but employees saw the closing as Orbán’s doing. Journalists showed up to work only to find they were out of a job. Online readers logged on that morning to find a letter explaining the closure. Even the archives were removed. The closure of Népszabadság is seen as highly symbolic. The word ‘népszabadság’ means the people’s liberty. The paper was founded during the 1956 Revolution and is associated with the spirit of the people’s rebellion (Timmer, Sery, Connable & Billinson, 2018).

Hungarian policemen watching the Serbian Hungarian border fence in Kelebija, Serbia on September 10, 2016. This wall was built in 2015 to stop the refugees passing through Serbia and the Balkans Route.

Immigrants: An Opportunity to Create a New Enemy

In 2015, when the European migrant crisis erupted, Orbán saw an opportunity to create a new enemy. Illegal immigrants hoping to transit to western Europe flooded from the Balkans to Hungary. More than 200,000 refugees and economic migrants besieged the external border of the EU (Rydliński, 2018). At one point, about a thousand migrants were trying to board trains for Germany. The sight of the chaos frightened Hungarians, and Orbán’s government has done everything in its power to keep this fear alive (Zsuzsanna, 2019). Dysfunctional European crisis management and a series of terrorist attacks and other related incidents provided space for Orbán to create a narrative of fear around immigration (Huysmans, 2000 & Szalai A., Gőbl G. 2015). In response, his government offered the Hungarian people security.  

Through populist rhetoric, Orbán raised the stakes of the crisis, making a clear connection between illegal immigration, organized crime, and terrorism. Initially, his crisis narrative (Metz, 2017) focused on the impact of immigration on the economy, culture, and public safety; then, over time, he focused more on the lack of confidence, leadership, and democracy in the EU, and the collapse of a European Christian identity. In addition, he strongly opposed the European liberal and left-wing political elite, namely “Brusselian bureaucrats” and civil activists. To support this narrative, Orbán, with support from Slovakia, initiated legal action against the EU’s plan for migrant re-settlement at the European Court of Justice in December 2015. His government claimed that the decision infringed upon established EU law (Illés, Körösényi & Metz, 2018). However, Prime Minister Orbán was not satisfied with his diplomatic, political, and legal efforts. He ordered the erection of a metal fence on Hungary’s southern border. 

At present, the average number of migrants or refugees trying to enter the country in a week is only 10, but the propaganda against migration continues. There is a designated border patrol police unit, taking its name “határvadászok” or “border hunters” from a WWII military unit deployed to chase Serbian insurgents. This was meant to appeal to the followers of Jobbik, which long promised to bring back the Border Guards dismissed 25 years ago, with the fall of the Communist regime (Haraszti, 2015). The government also declared a state of emergency in 2015, which has been extended to the present. The public media, influenced by Fidesz, still broadcasts unfavorable news about immigrants and refugees. (Zsuzsanna, 2019).

The division into “us” and “them” used by Orbán has a quasi-religious character: Christianity has become one of the key state-building elements in Hungary, along with culture and language. In this context, the influx of immigrants – largely Muslim – is unequivocally interpreted as a threat to the existence of the state.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s “policy of open doors” has been met with heavy criticism within Central European countries, with Orbán as the undisputed leader of the backlash. Initially, Orbán used two main arguments. First, a legal one, concerning the Dublin Convention stating that the asylum motion should be decided on in the first EU country the refugee reaches. The second argument was political, and it concerned the threats to Hungary’s identity and security from Muslim migrants. From the legal perspective, Orbán’s point of view fits into the norms of abiding by international law. However, the use of language generating fear of Islam – or the use of outright Islamophobia – has a strictly illiberal character. As Dominik Héjj pointed out, the division into “us” and “them” used by Orbán also has a quasi-religious character: “Christianity has become one of the key state-building elements in Hungary, along with culture and language. In this context, the influx of immigrants – largely Muslim – is unequivocally interpreted as a threat to the existence of the state” (Illés, Körösényi & Metz, 2018).

Orbán utilized the well-known symbol of Central Europe as the “Bulwark of Christianity,” an important element of Central Europe’s regional identity. He wanted to prove that in the refugee crisis, Hungary was once again taking part in a historical “clash of civilizations,” and that as a special nation, it had to withstand not only attacks from outside of Europe but also from within (Illés, Körösényi & Metz, 2018). However, Orbán has had to walk a fine line. While he loudly campaigns against immigration, Hungary is in desperate need of additional labor. Hungarian companies offer work visas to Ukrainians and various Latin American nationals. Thus, the anti-immigration campaign in Hungary has become narrow in scope, and it has strong Islamophobic and racist undertones (Zsuzsanna, 2019).

This cynical attitude was not a secret. Orbán has time and again presented himself and his government as “the last defenders of a Europe based on the nation, family, and Christianity” (Lendvai, 2019). Orbán interpreted the migration crisis as an enormous threat, not just against the welfare state and public security, but also against Christian civilization, European values, and nation-states. One of the messages posted on a government billboard during a period of campaigning made this standpoint explicit: If you come to Hungary, respect our culture! Orbán provided a strong vision of a Christian Europe, contrasting this vision with Islamic culture and consciously promoting his own role as defender of the Schengen-area borders and of “old Europe” and “real” European values. According to Orbán’s vision, there is no need for the further integration of immigration policy, because only nation-states can manage the crisis effectively. He not only challenged the EU’s role in the country but also created broad public support for his policies. Orbán used the migration crisis to redefine and revitalize the role of nation-states (Illés, Körösényi & Metz, 2018).

It’s easy to understand Orbán’s intended audience by studying the billboards: they were written in Hungarian, a language that most asylum seekers from the Middle East and Northern Africa do not speak. Like the fence, these billboards sent a message to Hungarians: that they were under threat but that their government could protect them (Timmer, Sery, Connable & Billinson, 2018). Accordingly, the Hungarian Parliament tightened the legal framework for asylum seekers and illegal immigrants. On June 7, 2016, the governing alliance of Fidesz-KDNP and the right-wing opposition Jobbik approved the Sixth Amendment to the Fundamental Law, which widened the government’s emergency powers in the case of significant and direct risk of a terrorist attack (Illés, Körösényi & Metz, 2018)

Orbán’s government has made a life for migrants in Hungary extremely difficult. But this was not sufficient for Orbán. In 2017, Parliament passed another law forcing all asylum seekers into detention camps, with some of them housed in converted shipping containers. Amnesty International condemned the measures as “illegal and deeply inhuman” and “a flagrant violation of international law” (Amnesty International, 2017). A report issued by the Council of Europe (CoE) in 2019 charged that refugees in Hungary were being deprived of food and denied legal representation. The CoE’s Human Rights Commissioner, Dunja Mijatovic, said that the Orbán government’s anti-immigration stance was “fueling xenophobic attitudes, fear, and hatred among the population.” She reiterated that many asylum seekers held in transit zones had been deprived of food (BBC, 2019).

Anti Immigration poster from Viktor Orban government in the streets of Budapest during the 2018 general elections campaign.

Orbán’s anti-immigrant campaign took another turn when the EU tried to introduce a Common European Asylum System under which Hungary would have had to evaluate the asylum claims of a limited number of migrants who entered the EU from another country (Zsuzsanna, 2019). Orbán did not hesitate to cast the migrant influx as the product of a conspiracy among hostile foreigners and corrupt elites: “The most bizarre coalition in world history has arisen,” he declared, “one concluded among human smugglers, human rights activists, and Europe’s top politicians in order to deliver here many millions of migrants. Brussels must be stopped!” (Lendvai, 2019). Orbán started a countrywide “Stop Brussels” campaign, in which the government insinuated that the EU wanted to settle migrants in Hungary. However, this campaign was still somewhat vague. To personalize the enemy, he added his former sponsor George Soros as the mastermind behind the asylum plan. The billboards changed from the message “Stop Brussels” to “Stop Soros” with a picture of the Hungarian-born American billionaire (Zsuzsanna, 2019). Orbán also passed a “Stop Soros” law making it illegal to help migrants (Beauchamp, 2018).

In the domestic arena, Orbán put great emphasis on dominating public discourse and applied a plebiscitary strategy to support his messages. In April 2015, the government launched a so-called “national consultation” regarding the migrant crisis. This suggestive political questionnaire, mailed out to citizens, involved issues such as terrorism, the economic impacts of immigration, and the incompetent politics of the EU and resulted in the government raising the terror-threat level (Spike, 2017). To legitimize its anti-immigration policy, the government also initiated a referendum about the EU’s compulsory migrant resettlement quotas, which was held on October 2, 2016. The low turnout resulted in the invalidation of the referendum, although the overwhelming majority of voters rejected the EU proposal for a migrant quota (BBC, 2016). The turnout was only 44.04 percent, which did not reach the threshold for validity, 50 percent. In all, 98.36 percent of the participants rejected the EU’s quota proposal (National Election Office, 2016). Since Orbán’s migration narrative lacked a “brüte” ground – very few refugees desired to remain in Hungary – the “migration threat” emphasized by the government appeared imaginary to major segments of the population. This absence of migrants was probably one of the main factors which contributed to low voter turnout for the referendum (Haraszti, 2015; Illés, Körösényi & Metz, 2018)

Orbán did not stop his campaign. He continued to rage against both the “mostly Muslim” refugees and “Europe” that was “mentoring them.” He cast the refugees as profiteering pseudo-victims, many of them actual lawbreakers and some potential terrorists; at best, they were tools invited to Hungary by multinational capital and left-wingers in an effort to ruin Hungary through liberalism and multiculturalism. To Orbán’s supporters, the narrative was straightforward: “The EU and liberals hate us because we Hungarians are building an illiberal state and have never adopted multiculturalism, which has already ruined the West. And while we show the world how to remain migrant-free, culturally separate, and homogenous, we nevertheless also do this while defending European Christianity.” Orbán has weaponized latent xenophobia, one that had its roots in Hungary’s territorial losses after the 1918 collapse of the Habsburg commonwealth. To this day, he continues to generate new domestic and international conflicts, posturing as the defender of national interest (Haraszti, 2015).

Orbán’s focus on nationalism and his anti-immigrant rhetoric only escalated in the run-up to general elections in April 2018. He cast himself as the protector not only of Hungary but also of Christian Europe against a supposed invasion of “nefarious Islamic immigrants,” despite the reality that the wall on the country’s southern border virtually eliminated ingress into Hungary, for both migrants and refugeesOrbán has continued to claim that the opposition, Soros, the EU, and the United Nations (UN) are conspiring to transform Hungary into a country of immigrants. Fidesz and Orbán have used their dominance of the media to drive home this message with xenophobic fearmongering. As one political analyst claimed, “as long as migration is top of the agenda, Orbán’s and Fidesz’s popularity goes up. They have to keep up the momentum” (Howden 2016). 

Viktor Orban was in Brussels for a meeting with European Union leaders on June 22, 2017.

A Prototype of a Populist Eurosceptic

Since coming to power in 2010, Orbán has consistently disdained judicial independence, academic and media freedoms, and the rights of migrants. He has, in the view of many people, run roughshod over some of the EU’s core values. So far, however, the EU has done nothing solid to rein him or his government in (The Economist, 2018). Orbán’s authoritarian tendencies and hostility to liberalism are ironic, considering he came to power as part of Hungary’s dissident, anti-authoritarian movement. Even more ironic is his closeness to Russia and Vladimir Putin. Putin’s autocratic ethnic nationalism has become a model for the politics of Orbán and the Hungarian Right. Thus, a “greater Hungary” rhetoric that champions the rights of Hungarians outside the country’s borders and whips them into a fury has become an inseparable part of Orbán’s populist nationalism. This ethnic nationalism, which recalls the days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, is essential for creating a political consensus to underpin Orbán’s authoritarian ambitions (New Internationalist, 2014).

While ethnonationalism has rallied support at home, the migrant crisis has eroded support for the EU. Since Orbán came to power, Hungarian trust in the EU has decreased significantly; and by 2016, levels of xenophobia in Hungary had reached a record high (Illés, Körösényi & Metz, 2018). Although Orbán’s populist ethnic nationalism has taken a huge toll on people’s trust in the EU, things started to change even before he came to power: the share of respondents who think that the EU-accession proved useful fell from 71 percent to below 40 percent between 2001 and 2009. Those who perceive the EU as a negative entity rose from 7 percent to 22 percent during the same period. Today, skepticism has turned into open hostility, and national and European interests tend to be more and more differentiated (Deák, 2013).

Was this split inevitable

Although the EU has criticized the Orbán regime for dismantling liberal democratic institutions and state-sponsored corruption, it continues to provide much-needed financial assistance to Budapest in the form of EU Cohesion funds.

The situation cannot be understood without analyzing the historical context. The dissolution of the Hungarian Kingdom after WWI and the loss of two-thirds of the country’s territory are often cited as reasons for why Hungarians are skeptical of the West. Indeed, the Trianon Peace Treaty of June 4, 1920, is still perceived as unjustified and unfair by the overwhelming majority of the population (Deák, 2013). The mainstream historical narrative, believed especially by conservatives, is that much of the guilt lies with the Western powers’ realpolitik. For Hungary, the years after WWI were full of despair and anti-Western sentiments. Few Hungarians, liberal or conservative, have positive memories of the role of the Western powers, especially as far as the twentieth century is concerned. Thus, measures applied by the Orbán government, such as closing the southern borders and tightening immigration laws, had broad cross-party support. Meanwhile, constant criticism of his regime-building strengthened Orbán’s Eurosceptic position. 

Although the EU has criticized the Orbán regime for dismantling liberal democratic institutions and state-sponsored corruption, it continues to provide much-needed financial assistance to Budapest in the form of EU Cohesion funds. Brussels has also looked on haplessly at the Orbán regime’s has orchestrated closer ties with authoritarian regimes, such as Erdogan’s Turkey or Putin’s Russia, and pursued increasingly explicit overtures to the far-right in Hungary and abroad, including the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) and the Polish Law and Justice Party (PiS) (Buckley and Foy, 2016). There has been relentless speculation in the media about German Chancellor Angela Merkel losing patience with Orbán’s authoritarian policies and his open criticism of the German government’s “open-door” refugee policy (Werkhäuser, 2015), but up to present she has continued to support his party in the European Parliament where Fidesz sits together with the CDU-CSU in the European People’s Party, EPP (Fabry & Sandbeck, 2019).

On this fertile ground for nationalist populism, Orbán went a step further by calling for an illiberal society based on radical cuts in social services. He has also taken to celebrating “the wind from the east” blowing from “success stories” like Putin’s Russia and Erdogan’s Turkey, as well as China. This has been accompanied by the usual moral rhetoric of the populist Right: homophobia, restrictions on abortions, calls for social discipline, and scapegoating of ethnic and religious minorities. Meanwhile, the neo-fascist party Jobbik has organized paramilitary thugs who increasingly push Fidesz to the right, exacerbating the threat to Hungary’s Roma and Jews (New Internationalist, 2014).

Despite Orbán’s massive illiberal moves, Hungary is by default still a democracy due to its membership in the EU. In order to be considered for admission, prospective countries must demonstrate an adherence to EU values such as freedom of speech, religion, press, and movement. However, Prime Minister Orbán is miles away from these ideals, has unabashedly decried liberal democracy, and instead favors an illiberal nation. In a 2014 speech given in Băile Tuşnad, Romania, he proclaimed, “The Hungarian nation is not a simple sum of individuals, but a community that needs to be organized, strengthened and developed, and in this sense, the new state that we are building is an illiberal state, a non-liberal state” (Orbán, 2014).

A “Russian Trojan Horse” inside the EU and NATO?

In this speech, Orbán openly attacked liberal democracy, and he mentioned Singapore, China, India, Turkey, and, above all, Russia as examples to be followed. Subsequently, he has spoken of illiberal or Christian democracy. “Liberal democracy,” he has observed, “is no longer able to protect people’s dignity, provide freedom, guarantee physical security, or maintain Christian culture” (Congdon, 2018). Orbán recognizes that his policies are unaligned with democratic ideals but makes the argument he is acting in accord with the Hungarian community. In the same speech, Orbán explained, “systems that are not Western, not liberal, not liberal democracies and perhaps not even democracies, can nevertheless make their nations successful” (Timmer, Sery, Connable & Billinson, 2018). He continued, “Societies that are built on principles of liberal democracy will probably be incapable of maintaining their global competitiveness in the upcoming decades and will instead probably be scaled down unless they are capable of changing themselves significantly” (Orbán, 2014).

Orbán’s July 2014 speech garnered substantial attention both domestically and internationally. The Western political establishment was further shocked by his embracing the idea of an “illiberal state.” Fareed Zakaria, the author of a much-cited piece coining the term “illiberal democracy,” opined that Orbán was establishing a Hungarian-version of “Putinism” (Zakaria, 2014). Others saw the Hungarian government as a “Russian Trojan Horse” inside the EU and NATO. Academics wondered:” How can you sleep under your NATO Article 5 blanket at night while pushing ‘illiberal democracy’ by day; whipping up nationalism; restricting free press; or demonizing civil society?” charged Victoria Nuland, a US Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, in her keynote address to the October 2014 US-Central Europe Strategy Forum (Rettman, 2015). 

Despite the massive reactions he drew, Orbán reiterated his illiberal views during his State of the Nation address in February 2015 and spoke about the decline of the liberal Western model of political and economic development underscored by the 2008 financial crisis. He called for “breaking away from dogmas and ideologies recognized in Western Europe” and basing the Hungarian statehood on “national foundations.” Orbán argued that the goal of creating an efficient state capable of making a nation successful and globally competitive requires adopting political and economic institutions that might not conform to Western liberal democratic standards, and once again he cited the examples of Singapore, China, India, Turkey and Russia (Rydliński, B. 2018).

These words were not just political rhetoric. In an attempt to reduce Hungary’s excessive dependence on the EU and the US, he has steadily reoriented Hungary’s foreign policy, pulling the country away from the liberal democracies of western Europe and making common cause with other strongmen and populist parties. Indeed, there is barely a dictator in the world for whom Orbán does not have praise (Lendvai, 2019). He started to promote an “Eastern Opening,” a policy aimed at amplifying economic ties with Russia and the Asia-Pacific. Orbán, one of Russia’s harshest critics in Central Europe in the past, expanded bilateral ties and encouraged Russia to invest in the Hungarian economy. In 2014, just as the EU and the US were preparing to sanction Russia for its annexation of Crimea, and at a time when Brussels was urging EU member states to reduce their dependence on Russian energy (Lendvai, 2019), the Orbán government signed a number of long-term partnership agreements with Russia’s Gazprom. Hungary also opted for several large-scale investments involving major Russian companies; these include the public tender to modernize the Budapest metro, which was won by the Russian Metrovagonmash (Buzogány, 2017)

Orbán went on pursuing profitable deals with Moscow while avoiding strategic commitments and preserving both security ties with NATO and the economic benefits of the EU membership. Hungary also signed a long-term agreement with Russia’s Rosatom to expand Hungary’s single Soviet-era nuclear Paks plant, with the construction financed by $13.33 bn., a 30-year loan from Moscow (Rydliński, B. 2018). The contract was announced without any feasibility study or public tender, and the exact details remain hidden from the public. In sum, this suggests “that the Hungarian government’s desire to create domestic economic benefits takes precedence over its Euro-Atlantic orientation” (Buzogány, 2017).

Orbán has taken a step further and institutionalized his new orientation by establishing the “Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade” which was led by one of his young followers, Péter Szijjártó. He declared attracting investments and foreign trade to be the main priority of Hungarian diplomacy. Szijjártó was also assigned responsibility for the new “Eastern opening.” At the same time, the restructuring of the ministry, which was marked by establishing a department dealing exclusively with Chinese and Russian affairs, was paralleled by excessive purges in the diplomatic corps. Around 400 seasoned diplomats with strong Euro-Atlantic credentials were dismissed from the ministry and replaced by young professionals from Szijjártó’s entourage, most of them lacking a background in foreign policy.

Fidesz’s own foreign policy experts, most of them Atlanticists, lost influence, too. The Eastern opening has also brought back to the forefront sidelined pro-Russian diplomats, many of them Soviet-trained alumni of the elite diplomatic academy Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO). Among the newcomers designing the policy were some Russia “experts” with dubious credentials and alleged ties to the Russian criminal underworld. In any case, the influx of new personnel without a deep understanding of diplomatic practices made Hungarian diplomacy largely unable to assess the situation into which the country had maneuvered itself within the EU (Buzogány, 2017).

Hungary’s “Eastern turn” also becomes apparent when looking at statistics of Orbán’s foreign visits; Mideastern and far Eastern destinations gradually replaced meetings with Western or Central and Eastern European leaders. In July 2018, Orbán traveled to Turkey to attend the inauguration ceremony of re-elected Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (About Hungary, 2018). In April 2019, Orbán attended China’s “Belt and Road” forum in Beijing, where he met the Chinese President Xi Jinping (China Daily, 2019). Traveling to Central Asia in 2014 and 2015, Orbán was repeatedly cited praising political stability and the economic development in countries such as Kazakhstan, highlighting the common ethnic kin and genealogical differences between Hungarians and Western Europeans and making vague references to the “Turanian tradition” of interbellum fascist Hungarian political thought, which emphasizes Turkic and Asian elements in Hungary’s cultural heritage and is promoted excessively by the Hungarian radical right-wing (Buzogány, 2017).

Orbán’s opposition to immigration has further distanced him from Western Europe. He claims that his anti-immigrant stance is the only right and moral one. For example, in a March 15, 2016 speech, Orbán decried European policies of integration and tolerance (Timmer, Sery, Connable & Billinson, 2018). “Europe is not free,” he asserted, “Because freedom begins with speaking the truth. Today in Europe it is forbidden to speak the truth… It is forbidden to say that those arriving are not refugees, but that Europe is threatened by migration. It is forbidden to say that tens of millions are ready to set out in our direction. It is forbidden to say that that immigration brings crime and terror to our countries. It is forbidden to point out that the masses arriving from other civilizations endanger our way of life, our culture, our customs, and our Christian traditions” (Orbán, 2016). 

This issue may effectively tear Europe apart along an East-West divide. Orbán’s opposition to refugee quotas and his rhetoric about accepting only Christians has resonated also among the other three members of the Visegrad-4 (the V4 includes Hungary, the Czech Republic, Poland, and Slovakia). Meanwhile, Hungary’s relations with the EU and various member states are victims of Orbán’s nationalistic approach. Orbán, from the beginning, has been criticized by EU institutions, which have pointed out the undemocratic aspects of his policy changes and accused him of undermining the fundamental principles of the rule of law.

Humanitarians have faced threats from the Orbán administration. On June 13, 2017, a bill passed the Hungarian Parliament that requires additional measures for foreign backed NGOs, a move that has been called an “intimidation of civil society.

Central European University building or CEU in Budapest on 27 July 2018.

Orbán has, from his very first day in office, opposed Brussels’ interference in Hungary’s internal affairs. He claimed that his country had not opted for feudal relations between Brussels and Budapest when entering the EU. Orbán, however, has made a number of concessions and compromises in his relations with the EU and the European People’s Party (Fidesz is a member of the EPP). Ironically, Orbán is a member of the EPP, the EU’s center-right bloc. The EPP represents mostly Christian Democrats, whose ancestors were the architects of European integration in the 1950s. According to Jan-Werner Müller, not only are they now tolerating a far-right populist such as Orbán in their midst, but they are also blind to the fact that the Hungarian leader is making a bid for European leadership that could destroy Christian Democracy, and the EU, from the inside (Müller, 2017).

Humanitarians have faced threats from the Orbán administration. On June 13, 2017, a bill passed the Hungarian Parliament that requires additional measures for foreign-backed NGOs, a move that has been called an “intimidation of civil society.” NGO workers, humanitarians, and volunteers are also seen as being on the wrong side of public opinion (Timmer, Sery, Connable & Billinson, 2018). As part of this effort, Orbán and Fidesz have blitzed the Hungarian public with antisemitic attacks on George Soros in recent years, painting him as a behind-the-scenes manipulator bent on seeing his homeland overrun by migrants and refugees. In 2017, Parliament passed a law intended to force the closure of the Central European University, which was founded in 1991 with an endowment from Soros. CEU is technically an American institution. But it was by far Hungary’s most prestigious institute of higher education, led by Canadian human rights scholar Michael Ignatieff and boasting a distinguished faculty and 1,440 students from over 100 countries (including 400 students from Hungary). Despite the condemnation of academics around the world and a series of protests, the government went ahead with the plan, and in 2018, CEU announced that it was moving to Vienna (Lendvai, 2019).“It’s a warning,” Ignatieff told The Washington Post. “Once the rule of law is tampered with, no institution is safe. You can’t have academic freedom without the rule of law, and we’re in a lawless environment” (Witte, 2018).

Orbán has tried to interpret and present conflicts with internal and foreign actors as part of a pragmatic pattern, as conflicts of interest rather than values. He has portrayed his attacks on the EU as an extension of liberal and socialist complaints, including multinational corporations hurt by EU regulations and taxes. This strategy has been relatively efficient; the Hungarian public did not have clear expectations in regards to the EU. The population perceived the EU not so much as a union of values, i.e. a guarantee of democratic and civil rights, but rather as a source of welfare or, even more simply, as a source of subsidies. This made sense: successive governments had rooted their pro-European attitudes in economic arguments (Deák, 2013).

In his State of the Nation address, delivered in Budapest on February 19, 2018, Orbán did not avoid making clear that Hungary’s principal danger came from the political leaders of the West: “They want us to adopt their policies: the policies that made them immigrant countries and that opened the way for the decline of Christian culture and the expansion of Islam. They want us to also accept migrants and to also become countries with mixed populations… The true European, they say, ‘does not defend such obsolete medieval concepts as homeland and religion.’ … We shall never express solidarity with those European leaders who want to take Europe into a post-Christian and post-national era” (Visegrad Post, Feb. 20, 2018).

In the run-up to the May 2019 elections for the European Parliament, Fidesz undertook a media campaign featuring posters depicting Soros and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker that intimated that they had conspired on the EU’s migrant policy to threaten Hungarian security. In March, members of the EPP voted overwhelmingly to suspend (but not expel) Fidesz from the EPP. The group established a three-member panel to consider Fidesz’s future in the EPP and to evaluate its “respect for the rule of law” (Zalan, 2019). By distancing Hungary from EU values, Orbán also distanced it from liberal democracy itself. Rightfully, in 2015 Freedom House downgraded the country from a “consolidated democracy” to a “semi consolidated democracy” and in 2020 described Hungary as “partly free.” Freedom House’s Nations in Transit 2020 report reclassified Hungary from a democracy to a transitional or hybrid regime (Freedom House, 2020).  

Hungarian people living in Bristol, England marched silently through the streets on December 16, 2018 in a show of solidarity with protesters in Hungary against corruption and a new so-called “slave law”.

From “Crony Capitalism” to “Mafia State”

Viktor Orbán began his political career in the late 1980s, as an outspoken anti-communist and pro-market reformer (Fabry & Sandbeck, 2019). Following Fidesz’s landslide victory in the 2010 general elections, the UK’s Financial Times expressed cautious optimism regarding Hungary’s prospects, noting that “investors had favored a decisive Fidesz victory in the belief that a strong mandate would allow it to institute sweeping reforms including tackling the country’s unwieldy bureaucracy” (Bryant, 2010). However, less than three months later, cautious optimism had given way to the astonishment and stern criticism as the same newspaper scolded Orbán’s decision to walk out from negotiations with the IMF, labeling him a “maverick” and “populist” (Financial Times, July 20, 2010).

Orbán, who described the election victory as a “revolution in the polling booths,” has changed the “old Republic” dramatically. Not only have fundamental laws been rewritten, including the Constitution itself, but a new, “unorthodox” economic policy has been launched, with milestones like the forced nationalization of private pension funds and the excessive taxation of multinational companies in some selected sectors (Fabry & Sandbeck, 2019). An economically activist state has been a cornerstone of Orbán’s political discourse since at least 2010. In his opinion, only such a state can enforce the public interest against private interests and guarantee the primacy of the national interest against the “supranational elite” (Illés, Körösényi & Metz, 2018).

Still, in many ways, the basic pattern of Orbán’s economic mindset has been obviously neoconservative: the introduction of a new income tax, the liberalization of the labor market, and tightening the eligibility for social benefits (Deák, 2020). Such moves have led many commentators to describe the Orbán regime’s economic policies as “Orbánonomics,” which represents a Hungarian form of “economic patriotism” (Johnson and Barnes, 2015). Paradoxically, such views echo official propaganda in Budapest. 

In the light of “gulash capitalist” attitudes in the previous decades under sui generis communism, Hungarians’ main expectations from the transition under the Orbán administration were economic rather than political. Hungarians wanted welfare much more than freedom (Deák, 2020). Despite Hungary being hit hard by the Great Recession, with economic output contracting by 6.7 percent in 2009 (worse than the EU average of -4.4 percent), many people did not expect their lives to be personally impacted. The impact of the crisis was aggravated by the Hungarian economy’s dependence on Western markets (Fabry & Sandbeck, 2019), which were also in a deep crisis.

As the economy hit the wall, many borrowers were forced to sell their homes or cars, while others faced hefty hikes in mortgage payments. Nevertheless, the belief in upcoming economic growth was strong; thus, Orbán refrained from further cooperation with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in July 2010 because of the EU’s demands for austerity measures as a condition for a $25.1 bn. bailout package. This package was designed to save the country from defaulting on the massive debt accumulated by the Orbán government’s predecessors (Rydliński, 2018). The move led to a depreciation of the forint and eventually resulted in Hungarian bonds being downgraded to “junk” status. Despite these setbacks, Orbán stood firm, proclaiming that Hungary “would not accept diktats” from the IMF and the EU in the future, claiming that they are “not our bosses” (Than, 2010).

However, the second round of the economic crisis in the autumn of 2011 dried up Hungary’s financial markets. Orbán had to suffer the humiliation of asking for the IMF’s help again. Hungary slipped back into recession in 2012. The level of investments remained at a historical low, while the interest rates were almost at 2009 levels. Orbán’s rhetoric about “war against the debt” also failed to bring any concrete results (Deák, 2020). When Hungary paid off its remaining bailout debt ahead of schedule, the government called for the IMF to close its Budapest office in August 2013 (Rydliński, 2018).

The Orbán regime has been criticized for its decision to re-nationalize the country’s private pension system, which is worth more than $14 billion, as well as parts of the energy sector. It has also been criticized for its attempts to reorient the Hungarian economy towards China, Russia, India, and the Middle East. According to former Bulgarian Finance Minister Simeon Djankov, Orbán’s economic policies are moving Hungary towards “centrally planned capitalism, like the economic development model pursued in Russia and Turkey” (Djankov, 2015). To achieve this framework, virtually all segments of state-society relations underwent sweeping changes. Declaring Western liberalism and individualism alien to a country with an authoritarian history and collectivist political culture, Orbán called for a strong centralized and paternalist state and emphasized that the new Hungarian state should be “labor-based” (Buzogány, 2017).

In the field of state-market relations, this meant a strong orientation towards state-led economic nationalism, with Orbán declaring his intent to “build a country in which foreign banks and bureaucrats are not telling us what to do.” The Hungarian government also made efforts to re-acquire shares lost during the excessive privatization rounds of the 1990s in the sensitive banking, telecommunication, public utilities, and energy sectors and introduced “crisis-taxes” on mostly foreign-owned retailers and financial services. The government’s self-termed “unorthodox” economic policy has often evoked the term “freedom fight” (szabadságharc), as it is aimed at reducing external involvement and strengthening the middle class (Buzogány, 2017).

His goal has always been to build an economic coalition that supports the new regime. The Orbán government has redistributed resources to political loyalists not through property but through licenses and public procurements. The beneficiaries may be loyal oligarchs or minor players.

According to Orbán and his supporters, the aim of these measures is to “boost the competitiveness” of the Hungarian economy, strengthen the national bourgeoisie, and promote a “work-based society” that is supposed to create one million new jobs by 2020. However, as detailed by numerous studies, the Orbán regime’s economic policies have been characterized by systematic “cronyism” and have relentlessly benefitted the top sections of the national bourgeoisie (increasingly a synonym for loyal Fidesz politicians and oligarchs), while failing to improve financial conditions for ordinary Hungarians (Magyar, 2016). This is not surprising: such cronyism has always been part of Orbán’s strategy to create a socioeconomic elite that prospers from ties to Fidesz. Under his watch, the process of awarding government contracts has been corrupted to an astonishing degree, almost exclusively to the benefit of Fidesz-connected businesses (Lendvai, 2019).

The goal has always been to build an economic coalition that supports the new regime (Orbán, 2017). The Orbán government has redistributed resources to political loyalists not through the property but through licenses and public procurements. The beneficiaries may be loyal oligarchs (for instance, in the media), or minor players (for instance, in the case of the introduction of a state monopoly and the distribution of new licenses for tobacco sales) (Illés, Körösényi & Metz, 2018). In early December 2016, the Hungarian government withdrew from the Open Government Partnership (OGP), a multilateral initiative to promote transparency, empower citizens, fight corruption, and harness new technologies to strengthen governance (Novak, 2017). Meanwhile, Transparency International has reported that in 2018, about 40 percent of public procurements in Hungary featured only one bidder (The Brussels Times, 2020).

Balint Magyar has called Orbán’s Hungary “a post-communist mafia state, led not by a party, but by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s political-economic clan” in which Orbán acts as a modern-day Padrino, who uses his personal authority to promote his own economic interests and those of his actual and “adopted” family members, i.e. “oligarchs” who use their connections with the regime to accumulate their own wealth (Magyar, 2016; Fabry & Sandbeck, 2019). A sense of impunity has fueled this crony capitalism, as Fidesz has hollowed out law enforcement and judicial bodies that would normally investigate and prosecute such misconduct (Lendvai, 2019).

In 2016, the Hungarian opposition claimed that Orbán had a $750 million fortune (the Orbán government categorically denies these charges) (Sammon, 2019). However, there are many highly visible signs that “friends” of Orbán thrive under his governance. For instance, a football stadium with 3,800 seats was built in Orbán’s birth village, which has a total population of 1,700; a toy train runs between the two parts of the village, transporting tourists to the stadium. As another example, Orbán’s neighbor, Lorinc Meszaros, went from being a humble gas plumber to the second wealthiest man in Hungary in the span of 12 years. While some say Meszaros is a straw man for the Prime Minister, Orbán claims that his neighbor is simply a very good businessman. Recently, Orbán’s son-in-law, Istvan Tiborcz, also became involved in the business. He started off installing street bulbs in municipalities led by mayors from Orbán’s party, and at present, he is rapidly extending his business to hospitality (Zsuzsanna, 2019).

According to an article by David Csik, Laszlo Gulyas, and George Kampis, discussion of corruption in the Hungarian media seems to be endless. Most press articles attempt to track the movements of public funds by tracing the connections between oligarchs and politicians. The authors identified Peter Kiss, Zoltan Varga, Antal Nagy, Marton Szabo, Janos Bertalan, Zsolt Nyerges, Lajos Simicska, and Istvan Töröcskei as the eight most influential businessmen of the Fidesz/Orbán business network (Csik, Gulyas, & Kampis 2015).

Despite all the claims and accusations, Viktor Orbán asserts that he has been a good steward of the Hungarian economy. And, according to Paul Lendavi, it is true that under his government, some Hungarians have done very well. Economist Janos Kornai estimates that tens of thousands of Hungarians have enriched themselves by directly or indirectly exploiting ties to the Orbán regime. But despite Orbán’s claims to have revived Hungary’s economy, the economist Istvan Csillag has shown that without the funds Hungary receives from the EU, which amount to between 2.5 billion and 5 billion euros a year (the equivalent of 2.5 to 5 percent of GDP), the Hungarian economy would collapse. The irony is that even though his country and his political survival depend on EU funds, Orbán delights in thumbing his nose at Brussels, where handwringing over his autocratic abuses of power has not been accompanied by meaningful efforts to rein him in (Lendvai, 2019).

Some worried that Orbán’s corruption and nationalist economic policies would lead to massive capital flight, perhaps necessitating an economic Armageddon; this has not materialized. On the contrary, since 2010, the government has signed a number of high-profile “strategic co-operation agreements” with Audi, Coca-Cola, General Electric, Microsoft, Samsung, and Suzuki, amongst others (Magyar, 2016: 172); and in 2016, German car giant Mercedes announced its intention to invest 1 billion euros in order to build a new manufacturing factory in the south-eastern city of Kecskemet (Fabry & Sandbeck, 2019).


Since the end of Soviet dominance in 1989, never has the future for the norms and values of liberal democracy seemed so bleak: for tolerance, respect for the importance of fair debate, checked and balanced government, and objectivity and impartiality in media. In the 30 years that have passed since his speech at Imre Nagy’s reburial ceremony in 1989, a staggering reversal has taken place, as Viktor Orbán has transformed from one of the most promising defenders of Hungarian democracy into the chief author of its demise. 

Orbán and his acolytes disparage those who disagree with them as unpatriotic fearmongers and traitors to their country; government-controlled media outlets play on historical prejudices and ignorance, and the regime continues to blame the EU for its failings and mistakes. Even if the opposition develops more credible leadership in Hungary, it faces a long, hard road ahead. Because Orbán’s popularity seems to be stable despite all his missteps: in the election of April 8, 2018, his party received 47.4 percent of the popular vote, and for the third consecutive election managed to grab two-thirds of the legislative seats (Zsuzsanna, 2019).

Viktor Orbán has managed to keep his base by mobilizing them against a series of “enemies.” After losing the 2002 election, Orbán organized a solid base of supporters that he could always turn out to rally for him. First, the base protested the Socialist government. There was a strong sense of “us” and “them” in these rallies, where the “them” was the ruling (Socialist) elite with its neoliberal economic and liberal social ideals. The 2008 economic crisis and the leadership crisis in the Socialist Party led to Orbán’s supermajority win in 2010. The stage was set for populism. During the economic crisis, the enemy became a mixture of neoliberal economic ideals, global capital, and banks, all of them personified by Ferenc Gyurcsany. Orbán has not stopped finding new foes. The latest enemies are liberal values, liberal education, and liberal arts. Orbán even blames liberal values for Hungary’s declining fertility rate (Zsuzsanna, 2019).

One tool that Orbán uses to further his populist ends is the so-called “national consultation.” Since 2010, when the government wants to highlight a topic, it sends out to its citizens a questionnaire with a set of loaded questions. To date, there have been six national consultations and they correspond to the phases of Orbán’s populism: 2010, on pensions; 2011, on the constitution; 2011, again, on government spending (including the utility problem); 2012, on the economy; 2015, on immigration and terrorism; and 2017, on “Stop Brussels.” As these consultations are not official referendums, it is unclear how to interpret the results, but it seems to be a good tool for mobilizing the right-wing base around a topic while also conveying the government’s ideas. In each of these consultations, about 700,000 people sent in answers, which shows a rough approximation of the size of Orbán’s most dedicated base (Zsuzsanna, 2019).

Orbán’s discursive strategy of raising specific policy problems to a more general level, while also dramatizing them and making them more easily comprehensible, is a central part of his strategy to hold onto power. Specific technical policy problems thereby become attached to general normative concepts such as “independence,” “liberty,” and “sovereignty.” One method of legitimization Orbán often uses is to connect a government action to the Hungarian freedom fights of 1848–1849 (against the Habsburgs) and 1956 (against the Soviets). The foreign power in the current scenario is most often “Brussels,” which is sometimes explicitly compared to “Vienna and Moscow.” A second ploy is to appeal directly to individuals’ “sense of justice.” Orbán speaks a “neoconservative political language,” which employs easily understandable formulations and references to unchanging moral values and which contrasts strikingly with the rather technocratic discourse of the Hungarian Left (Illés, Körösényi & Metz, 2018).

As Lendvai noted in his article, Orbán has spent his decade in power systematically dismantling the country’s democratic institutions, undermining the rule of law, eliminating constitutional checks and balances, hobbling independent media, and building a kleptocratic system that rewards cronies while sidelining critics. His government does not depend on naked oppression. Rather, through the distribution of sinecures, he has assembled an army of devotees, one that extends far beyond the administration, the police, the secret services, and the military. 

In late March 2020, as the deadly coronavirus pandemic began to claim lives in Hungary, Parliament passed a bill that gave Orbán the emergency power to rule by decree, ostensibly to better address the health crisis confronting the country. The law, passed by the Fidesz-controlled Parliament over the strenuous objections of the opposition, suspended elections, mandated stringent penalties for spreading false news, and contained no end for Orbán’s expanded powers. “When this emergency ends, we will give back all powers, without exception,” Orbán promised the legislators (Kakissis, 2020); but critics argued that he was simply using the crisis as an excuse to extend his authoritarian reach. “This bill would create an indefinite and uncontrolled state of emergency and give Viktor Orbán and his government carte blanche to restrict human rights,” said Dávid Vig, Amnesty International’s Hungary director. “This is not the way to address the very real crisis that has been caused by the Covid-19 pandemic” (Walker & Rankin, 2020).

While racist, nationalist, and authoritarian ideas are on the rise throughout Europe and in other parts of the world (Leplat, 2015), for many, the Orbán regime represents a qualitative shift from these examples in that its drift towards the far-right is not merely rhetorical, but also includes a highly conscientious strengthening of state power and the ideological apparatuses of the state; this consolidation of power has happened along the lines that Nicos Poulantzas (1978: 203-250, 2008: 294-322) identified with “authoritarian statism.” According to Poulantzas, authoritarian statism is characterized by the decline of parliamentary democracy, increased power of the executive branch and the state bureaucracy, and the insulation of decision-making from democratic oversight (Fabry & Sandbeck, 2019). Howeverthe damage Orbán has inflicted on Hungary is not limited to its government institutions and economy. He has also degraded the country’s political culture by infusing it with forms of xenophobia, racism, and nationalism that could once be found only on the margins of society. Orbán has long toyed with such themes, and since the 2015 refugee crisis, they have become central parts of his political identity (Lendvai, 2019).

Today, Hungary could be defined as, at best, an “illiberal democracy” – a term Orbán has used numerous times to describe his vision for the country. Others argue that the country has left democratic governance behind altogether and is now a crude autocracy. Orbán is also personally described by his critics as “irredentist,” “right-wing populist,” “authoritarian,” “autocratic,” and “Putinist.” He’s also been called a “strongman” and a “dictator.” American senator John McCain even called Orbán “a neofascist dictator.” (Sammon, 2019). However, as Philip Stephens wrote, Orbán seems to imagine himself a pocket-sized version of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin (Stephens, 2017). We should accept that Orbán has played his hand with great skill, outmaneuvering his opponents and tightening his clutch on power. He makes no secret of his plans to rule the country for the foreseeable future. “I will remain in politics for the coming 15 to 20 years,” he told a German magazine in 2016. “Maybe in the front row, maybe in the third. Exactly where will be decided by the voters” (Lendvai, 2017).


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