Dr. Ann-Cathrine Jungar: Populists May Serve as Correctives, Amplifying Voices Underrepresented in Mainstream Politics

Dr. Ann-Cathrine Jungar, Associate Professor of Political Science at Södertörn University in Stockholm. Photo: Anna Hartwig.

Emphasizing that populist parties act as platforms for citizens with more critical perspectives, Professor Ann-Cathrine Jungar argues that these parties can serve as correctives for democracies, amplifying voices underrepresented in mainstream politics, even though not all their proposals may receive universal endorsement. While acknowledging that some supporters of populist parties may hold xenophobic views, she highlights the importance of distinguishing between exclusionary and inclusionary populism. Dr. Jungar notes that populist radical right parties typically fall into the exclusionary category due to their critical stance towards liberal democracy.

Interview by Selcuk Gultasli

In an exclusive interview with the European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS), Dr. Ann-Cathrine Jungar, Associate Professor of Political Science at Södertörn University in Stockholm, explores the intricate dynamics of populism in the Nordic region, focusing on Sweden and the rise of the Sweden Democrats. Dr. Jungar delves into the nuanced nature of populism, distinguishing between exclusionary and inclusionary forms, and highlighting the role populist parties play in amplifying the voices of citizens with critical perspectives.

Dr. Jungar argues that while populist parties, such as the Sweden Democrats, may garner support from individuals with xenophobic views, their voter base is diverse, and these parties can act as correctives in mainstream politics. She emphasizes the importance of understanding the distinctions between different populist movements, particularly in the context of radical right parties that often adopt a critical stance towards liberal democracy.

The interview addresses the specific case of the Sweden Democrats and their journey from isolation to becoming a significant force in Swedish politics. Dr. Jungar provides insights into the failures of the "cordon sanitaire" strategy, examining the complexities of government formation, shifting party dynamics, and the impact of the 2015 migration crisis on mainstream parties’ positions.

Furthermore, Dr. Jungar reflects on her upcoming book, which focuses on the Nordic radical right, tracing the historical development of populist movements in the region. She explores the ideological shifts within these parties, their approach to migration, and the impact of changing voter perspectives on the political landscape.

The discussion extends to the Finns Party in Finland, analyzing its performance in the presidential elections and its evolving positions on NATO membership and foreign policy. Dr. Jungar provides a nuanced assessment, considering the party’s role in Finnish politics and the implications of its leader’s background marked by hate speech convictions.

Dr. Jungar also shares her perspective on the global decline of democracy and the potential challenges facing Sweden’s democratic system. While acknowledging concerns about the populist right, she assesses the current state of democracy in Sweden, highlighting the enduring support for democratic values in the Nordic states.

The interview concludes with a discussion on the influence of right-wing radical parties in the European Parliament, anticipating their impact on decision-making processes and collaborations. Dr. Jungar also offers insights into the potential challenges arising from global political collaboration among right-wing radical parties, particularly in the context of the potential return of Donald Trump to power.

Here is the transcription of the interview with Professor Ann-Cathrine Jungar with some edits.

Mainstream Parties Have Adapted to the Sweden Democrats’ Positions

Why did the “cordon sanitaire” fail regarding the Sweden Democrats, whereas it was successful in the initial years of SD’s formation?

Ann-Cathrine Jungar: The isolation was implemented when the Sweden Democrats achieved electoral success in 2010. The Prime Minister and conservative politicians firmly declared that the Sweden Democrats should not influence policymaking, especially on migration. Other parties followed suit at that time. Then, the party secured 5.7 percent of the vote despite not being a relevant party for government formation, the previous majority conservative government, with a parliamentary majority from 2006 to 2010, could still control the plurality of seats and form a viable minority government. In Scandinavia we have had a lot of minority governments, and the isolation was not costly during this period.

However, in 2014 and 2018, the process of government formation became increasingly complex, signaling the gradual dissolution of isolation. The heightened intricacy in the creation of the government marked a shift, making the isolation less sustainable. In 2014, the SD garnered almost 13 percent of the votes, followed by a rise to 17 percent in 2018. By 2022, it had become the second-largest party, trailing only the Social Democratic party.

Unless the right-wing parties—the Conservative party, Moderates, the Liberals, and the Christian Democrats—were willing to collaborate with the Social Democrats, a noteworthy departure from the prevailing bloc politics, creating a viable government would be challenging. Swedish politics traditionally revolved around blocs, with the right pitted against the left concerning socio-economic policies. For a functional government, a cross-block coalition would have been necessary, introducing a complex dynamic. However, such a coalition would have been politically costly, as it would require substantial compromises on various issues and risked backlash from voters engaged in inter-party competition.

Ultimately, research indicates that isolationist pacts tend to unravel when center-right parties, particularly those desiring cabinet positions, grow weary of remaining in opposition and are unwilling to engage in cross-block coalitions. In the case of Sweden, this dynamic has presented a challenging situation, especially considering the strength of the pact against the Sweden Democrats. This pact was robustly formulated, with other parties characterizing the Sweden Democrats as having extremist roots, initially being a neo-Nazi party associated with skinheads. Over time, the Sweden Democrats underwent transformation, but the persistence of radical immigration policies further strained their compatibility with other parties’ stances on migration.

Following the 2015 migration crisis, mainstream parties, including the Social Democrats and the Conservatives, underwent significant shifts in their immigration policies, adopting a more restrictive stance. Notably, it was the Social Democrats, in coalition with the Green party, that implemented border controls in 2015. This marked a departure from the previous system of permanent residence permits, replaced instead by temporary measures along with various restrictions. Over time, these measures were extended and evolved into more stringent legislation within the Swedish context.

The second argument lacks substantial merit, as other parties adjusted to SD positions, albeit without embracing radicalism or employing the same level of nationalist rhetoric regarding the importance of a nationally homogeneous population. Instead, they began framing their immigration policies in a similar vein. Concerns about criminality attributed to immigration and threats against specific welfare institutions, rather than the broader welfare state, became common narratives. This aligning of perspectives with the Sweden Democrats indicates a mainstreaming of their policies and framing on migration.

However, exceptions exist within the left-wing spectrum, specifically with the Green Party and the Left Party, which have not fully embraced or adapted to this discourse. Consequently, the pact’s failure or demise can be attributed to the increasing cost of excluding the radical right party. In such cases, the pragmatic approach became one of inclusion, thus influencing the dynamics of the political equation.

As for the second aspect, the isolation did achieve success in keeping the Sweden Democrats out of the direct governance, but they now play a crucial support role and wielding significant influence. Regrettably, this isolation did not hinder the party’s electoral growth, and it even provided an opportunity for strategic positioning and potential blackmailing. During this period of adaptation, the Sweden Democrats managed to establish themselves as the primary voice on migration policy.

Post-2010, a discernible pattern emerged where other parties shifted towards more liberal positions on immigration policies, prompted by the isolation strategy. Remarkably, the Sweden Democrats remained the sole party advocating for more restrictive integration policies. In recent years, a diverse array of immigration policy positions has emerged among Swedish parties. The efficacy of the isolation strategy remains ambiguous – it neither unequivocally succeeded nor failed. Nevertheless, the Sweden Democrats currently possess issue ownership on matters related to migration. Voters perceive them as the most credible party on migration policies and, notably, criminal policies intertwined with immigration-related concerns.

Populist Parties Have Undergone Transformations That Mirror Trends

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. Photo: Shutterstock.

How do you explain the success of populist parties in the ‘North’ namely the Danish People’s Party, Sweden Democrats, the (true) Finns and the Progress Party of Norway?

Ann-Cathrine Jungar: I am currently finalizing a book set to be published by Routledge later this year, focusing on the Nordic radical right. The introductory section of the book highlights the longstanding presence of populist movements in the Nordic region. The initial wave included agrarian populist parties in Finland, as well as tax-based protest parties like the Progress Parties in Norway and Denmark, where the populism was predominantly linked to socioeconomic issues.

The narrative then shifts to the emergence of the second generation of populist parties, notably the Sweden Democrats, founded in 1988. This generation witnessed the transformation of old populist parties, such as the agrarian populist party in Finland evolving into the Finns Party, and the Danish Progress Party giving rise to splinter groups in 1995, all of which adopted Euroscepticism. Importantly, the Danish People’s Party incorporated an anti-immigration stance from its inception, while the Finns Party adopted this position a bit later.

The pivotal moment for the Finns Party occurred in 2008-2009 when they secured their first seats in the European Parliament. Subsequently, in 2011, they experienced a significant electoral triumph, quintupling their vote share from 4% to an impressive 19%.

The Progress Party also shifted its focus to immigration in 1990. These parties have undergone transformations that mirror trends seen in other European political entities, where migration and the EU became pivotal issues. While they have always maintained populist tendencies, a distinguishing factor in Nordic parties is the presence of proportional representation systems. Although Sweden has a higher electoral threshold at 4% compared to other Nordic countries, this alone does not explain the delayed parliamentary breakthrough of the Sweden Democrats.

The ideological legacy of the Sweden Democrats, originating in extremist environments, played a significant role in hindering their legitimacy as a viable party for voters. In contrast, other parties had a reputational shield, often citing their populist nature, and could point to historical precedents such as the predecessor of the Finns Party being in government in the 1980s, and the Progress Parties having different historical roots, which facilitated their electoral breakthroughs.

Examining the Nordic countries’ approach to migration, particularly Sweden, known for hosting one of the highest numbers of migrants, reveals a responsive electorate. The labor migration of the sixties and seventies, along with subsequent forms of migration in Denmark and Norway, shaped the voters’ perspectives. Additionally, growing distrust towards mainstream parties has contributed to the changing political landscape in the region.

Party identification has witnessed a decline, particularly notable in the Swedish case where traditional strong ties between labor voters and the Social Democratic Party weakened significantly over the last 10-15 years, contributing to the breakthrough of other political factions. While there may not be anything inherently unique about the Nordic countries regarding why this shift occurred, there are distinctive characteristics in how these successful parties operate and how they differ from other radical right parties in Europe, especially in their approach to the welfare state.

Despite their general support for the welfare state, observed through various welfare surveys, these Nordic radical right parties frame immigration as a potential threat to the universal Nordic welfare state, which is based on residence. Simultaneously, they have incorporated certain Nordic characteristics into their identity, emphasizing gender equality in terms of socioeconomic factors such as parental childcare and female employment. However, they maintain opposition, to some extent, to LGBTQ rights, not only concerning female and homo-nationalist issues but also encompassing more comprehensive topics like supporting same-sex marriage and adoption rights for gay individuals.

These stances highlight a paradox where these parties, rooted in more secular beliefs prevalent in the Nordic region, particularly in Sweden and Norway, express less acceptance in Finland and Denmark. The latter two countries exhibit comparatively more conservative attitudes in these areas compared to the former. 

What is your assessment of the Finns Party’s performance in Finnish Presidential Elections? How has it performed in the elections compared to other populist parties in the ‘North’?

Ann-Cathrine Jungar: Except for Iceland, Finland is the sole Nordic country with a presidential system featuring two rounds of voting. In the recent elections, Jussi Halla-aho

secured 19% of the votes, an outcome that was largely anticipated. Despite the Finns Party’s shift toward accepting NATO membership, a change prompted by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, they remain staunchly opposed to Putin. Unlike certain right-wing parties in Austria, Germany, or France, there is no disagreement on foreign policy and how Finland should respond.

However, as a radical right-wing party aligned with a more nationalist faction, the Finns Party has assumed a prominent role, particularly after the leader, with a background marked by hate speech convictions. This may raise concerns about his suitability as a representative for the entire country.

In the Finnish context, it holds significance for all parties to field their own presidential candidates to assert visibility and convey their policies, particularly in preparation for municipal and national elections. Notably, the Finns Party had a vigorous campaign during the parliamentary elections last year, targeting a younger demographic. Their leader utilized platforms like TikTok, emphasizing a strong presence on social media, especially among the youth branch of True Finns, to engage with and appeal to the younger population.

Populism Poses Potential Threat to Democracy

Krossa rasismen (fight racism) message on sign during demonstration in Orebro city, Sweden on May 1, 2013.

In your 2023 article for Svenska Dagbladet, you note the global decline of democracy and delve into the potential challenges facing Sweden’s democratic system. What key factors do you identify as having the most significant impact on democracy in Sweden? Additionally, how would you evaluate the risk of a democratic breakdown in Sweden in comparison to the global landscape?

Ann-Cathrine Jungar: Populism poses a potential threat to democracy, contingent on the strength of democratic institutions within each country. In the case of Sweden, I don’t perceive an immediate threat to democracy due to the Sweden Democrats’ (SD) role as a support party. While their proposed legislation, particularly concerning migration, may not align seamlessly with constitutional law, regulations, or international agreements Sweden has endorsed, the SD does not exhibit an inherently anti-democratic stance. This contrasts with situations in the United States where representatives for Trump or elements of the alt-right have actively questioned the legitimacy of democracy.

For instance, the SD’s emphasis on saving public funds by targeting public broadcasting companies raises questions about its impact on democracy. While acknowledging the importance of public television and radio in Sweden, the SD’s focus on cost-cutting may not necessarily jeopardize the core functions of public broadcasting. Their engagement in cultural politics, particularly concerning what type of cultural politics should be pursued, is another aspect. They express concern about supporting cultural politics aligned with the state or Swedish identity. Whether this stance is inherently democratic or not remains a question open to debate.

Of course, the Sweden Democrats are anti-liberal, challenging left-wing liberal ideas, particularly in media and traditions. However, I don’t perceive an immediate threat to Sweden’s well-functioning state. Instances of threats towards politicians are more prevalent among extreme right groups and movements in Sweden that resort to violence, seeking an alternative system to replace the democratic one.

While debates circulate about safeguarding certain aspects, such as the ease with which the Constitution in Sweden can be changed, there are various checks and balances within the system. The political landscape also features a broad range of policy alternatives, potentially contributing to what may be termed as polarization. Whether this polarization poses a democratic threat remains uncertain, but it is crucial to acknowledge the enduring support for democracy in the Nordic states, including Sweden.

Notably, trust in societies, historically high in the Nordic states and Sweden, is on the decline. This decreasing trust may be associated with the complex situations surrounding criminality and ongoing war around. However, it remains challenging to pinpoint a specific radical right party as the sole threat to democracy and communities in such a nuanced context.

Given your research focus on right-wing radical parties, how do you assess the influence of parties such as the Sweden Democrats on the core tenets of democracy, particularly in relation to their stances on migration, integration, and law enforcement? How have SD’s role in Swedish politics and their positions affected the political landscape in Sweden?

Ann-Cathrine Jungar: As mentioned earlier, this is the new mainstream and this perspective has become pervasive, with other parties aligning themselves closely, if not entirely, with these positions. The shift in adaptation began after the refugee crisis in 2015, with the government responding to 160,000 asylum seekers arriving in Sweden by the autumn of that year. In response, a temporary law was promptly formulated, leading to modifications in policy positions on migration, integration, and criminal policy by various parties, all trending towards more restrictive measures.

Initially, Denmark held the most restrictive positions among the Nordic countries, but now there is a striking similarity in immigration policies across the region. In collaboration with research colleague Jonas Hinnfors, I’ve authored a report covering the restrictive turn in immigration policies in the Nordic region over the last two decades. There is a prevailing perception among political parties that adopting more liberal migration policies, particularly on integration, might act as a pull factor. Consequently, there has been a race to the bottom, resulting in a convergence of migration policies across the Nordic countries.

The narrative framing immigration as a problem, tied to concerns about criminality and threats to welfare states, has become a pervasive theme in the Nordic countries. The Social Democratic Party, recognizing a perceived failure in their immigration policies, released a report before Christmas acknowledging a mistake in formulating policies that were deemed too liberal. In a recent debate, party leader Magdalena Andersson asserted that the Social Democratic Party has always been in favor of restrictive and responsible immigration policies. While similar debates have occurred cyclically in the past, such as during the collapse of Yugoslavia, the present discourse reflects a broader consensus on the necessity for adopting more restrictive immigration policies. 

The underlying issue often cited is labor migration, where Sweden has a surplus of unemployed labor for various reasons. Efforts to balance this situation include adjusting asylum-seeking and family reunification policies and introducing more stringent integration requirements such as language tests, kids have to go kindergarten and societal education. There is a growing consensus among political parties on these issues, with only the left-wing party, the Green Party, and the Center Party maintaining more liberal positions. The rest have shifted in the direction of greater restrictions.

Populist Radical Right Parties Are Commonly Exclusionary

In the Svenska Dagbladet article, you discuss right-wing populist parties portraying themselves as democracy saviors. What is your perspective on this claim? Are there instances where such parties have genuinely strengthened democracy? Populism is often negatively charged. How do you see the interplay between populism and democracy, and can populism serve as a democratic reset?

Ann-Cathrine Jungar: This debate revolves around whether populism, illiberalism, prejudice against migration, and hate speech from radical right-wing parties pose a potential threat to democracy, potentially infringing on basic human rights and questioning certain democratic institutions. These parties often adopt a critical stance towards liberal democracy, promoting their own interpretation of the democratic process. It is important to distinguish between exclusionary and inclusionary populism, with radical right parties commonly falling into the exclusionary category.

In the Nordic countries, particularly Finland and Sweden, where my expertise lies, radical right-wing parties have served as a platform for citizens expressing anti-immigration attitudes. This dynamic has played a role in enhancing political representation, addressing a gap in political discourse and providing a voice for those whose perspectives were not adequately addressed by mainstream parties.

For example, before the emergence of the Finns Party, there was no political entity distinctly voicing skeptical positions during the European Monetary Union (EMU) discussions. In the case of Finland, when the country joined the EMU, there was a five-party coalition, all favoring membership without much criticism—a process largely driven by elites. Populism has stimulated debate and mobilized issues that were not adequately addressed by mainstream parties. The parties in question have responded to a demand for skepticism, particularly during events like the euro crisis and the migration crisis, providing a platform for citizens with more critical views.

While acknowledging that some voters for these parties may hold xenophobic views, it’s essential to recognize that their support base is diverse. Studies on support for democracy, political satisfaction, and perceived influence on political decisions reveal that voters dissatisfied and less trusting of democracy and politicians often find increased support when these parties enter parliament or play a role in supporting the government. In this sense, these parties can act as correctives, amplifying voices that feel underrepresented in mainstream politics, even though not all their proposals may be universally endorsed.

Dynamics of the European Parliament Will Undergo a Change

European Parliament offices and European flags in Brussels, Belgium on July 20, 2020. Photo: Lena Wurm.

There is concern that populist right-wing radical parties may secure a quarter of the mandates in the upcoming EU election. How do you anticipate this impacting the political landscape within the EU?

Ann-Cathrine Jungar: The dynamics of the European Parliament will undergo a shift, contingent on how the parliamentary groups, particularly the Identity and Democracy (ID) and the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), are formed. In the Member States, we’ve observed center-right parties cooperating with the radical right, and the question arises whether a similar pattern will emerge in the European Parliament. This could manifest as the European People’s Party (EPP) cooperating with ECR but not with ID, or potentially a collaboration between ECR and ID.

The nature of these dynamics will significantly impact their influence and decision-making within the European Parliament. While it’s expected that their influence will grow, the extent of this progress will hinge on the interplay between these groups. Additionally, radical right parties hold considerable influence in the Council of Ministers due to their participation in various national governments, such as Italy, Finland, and support party in Sweden, and Eastern European nations. The changing dynamics in the European Parliament and the European Union have already become apparent, but the presence of radical right parties will bring a different dynamic, particularly during decision-making procedures and collaborations.

How do you assess the potential impact of global political collaboration among right-wing radical parties, especially in light of the potential return of Donald Trump to power in the upcoming fall? What could be the nature of populist political challenges globally in the wake of a second Trump mandate in the US?

Ann-Cathrine Jungar: We are aware that the European radical right is divided over Russia, creating a potential line of division between Identity and Democracy (ID) and the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR). Last year, the Finns Party transitioned from ID to ECR after parliamentary elections, driven in part by this division. The Finns Party’s closest international ally is the Sweden Democrats, who have cultivated links with the United States, particularly with Republican think tanks and organizations, aligning closely with Trump supporters.

Trump’s radicalization and his stance towards Russia pose challenges for European right-wing parties in taking a clear position in favor of Trump. The Sweden Democrats, among other Nordic radical right parties, have established connections and learned from these links. However, it remains problematic for the leadership, as evidenced by the Nordic parties condemning anti-democratic practices, including questioning electoral institutions.

When you attend a Sweden Democratic meeting or any Nordic Radical right party gathering, you’ll encounter individuals expressing favorable sentiments towards Trump. There is a grassroots appeal, a sentiment that resonates with a certain demographic. However, it becomes problematic for the leadership. It wouldn’t be accurate to claim an immediate and close connection. The Nordic parties, collectively, have taken a stand against anti-democratic tendencies, particularly rejecting challenges to electoral institutions and discourse around electoral fraud. This stance has not been an easy pill for these parties to swallow, given their dependence on prevailing circumstances.

The Nordic parties have faced difficulty accepting challenges to democratic norms. The potential support for Trump could pose a divisive issue within these parties, further complicating their internal dynamics. While grassroots sentiment may favor Trump, the leadership may find it challenging to navigate this terrain.

Indeed, the dynamics surrounding Trump’s potential support would vary among different radical right parties. Similar to their varying stances on Russia and Putin, supporting Trump would be impractical for Nordic radical right parties, especially those committed to securing European Union support for Ukraine and its stance against the war. This alignment might be feasible for more extreme right-wing parties, but mainstream parties would find it impossible.

We’ve observed a radical shift in Sweden Democrats’ approach to Ukrainian refugees, contrasting with their prior call for a complete halt to refugee immigration. How do you interpret the ideological adaptability of far-right parties adjusting to current circumstances and cultural distinctions? Can SD be characterized as a civilizationalist populist as well?

Nordic radical right parties, despite their anti-immigration stance, may express support for refugees from Ukraine as part of their geopolitical agenda, which revolves around ensuring European Union backing for Ukraine in its conflict with Russia. This backing doesn’t necessarily align with a more inclusive immigration policy but serves their strategic goals within the broader geopolitical context.

Their framing of the question revolves around the perception that refugees from Ukraine are seen as legitimate, fleeing from war, as opposed to what they label as "economic refugees" from the Middle East. Their argument is that Ukrainians are expected to return home when the war concludes, differentiating them from refugees from other parts of the world.

In response to the ongoing crisis, the Swedish Government is preparing a package to help Ukrainians return home when the conflict subsides. There has been a historical lack of support for Ukrainians in Sweden, with restrictions on their access to Swedish education. This may be attributed to integration challenges, including language barriers.

As the situation evolves and the labor shortage becomes apparent, there is a growing recognition of the education and skills of Ukrainian refugees. Civil society organizations and municipalities are stepping in, providing language education and other support to facilitate the integration of Ukrainian refugees.

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