Grueso, Gadea Mendez & Sezer, Julide (2022). “Mapping European Populism: Panel 3 – Scandinavia Under Magnifier: Populist Radical Right Parties and the End of Nordic Exceptionalism?” European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS).June 17, 2022. https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0006
This report is based on the third panel of ECPS’s monthly panel series called “Mapping European Populism” which was held online in Brussels on April 28, 2022. The panel brought together top-notch populism scholars from four Scandinavian countries, namely Sweden, Finland, Norway, and Denmark. As a by-product of this fruitful panel the report consists of brief summaries of the speeches delivered by the speakers.
ECPS organizes a panel series composed of 10 monthly sessions to map European populism, bringing scholars together every month to discuss the state of political populism in a different region of Europe. This report is prepared based on the third panel of the series focusing on Scandinavian countries on the theme of “Scandinavia under magnifier: Populist radical right parties and the end of Nordic exceptionalism” which was held online on April 28, 2022.
The panel is moderated by Dr Liv Sunnercrantz, Department of Media and Social Sciences, University of Stavanger, Norway, and included the following speakers; Dr Anders Hellström, Department of Global Political Studies, Malmö University, Sweden; Marie Cazes, Doctoral Researcher, University of Jyväskylä, Finland; Dr Lise Lund Bjånesøy, Department of Administration and Organization Theory, University of Bergen, Norway; Dr Susi Meret, Department of Politics and Society, University of Aalborg, Denmark.
Dr Anders Hellström: “The Sweden Democrats in Swedish politics – The Mainstreaming of Extremism”
“In general, there has been a ‘mainstreaming of extremism’ (in Sweden) as theorised by Ruth Wodak: What was depicted as extreme to say in the area of immigration one decade ago is considered normal today. The difference between the mainstream right and the populist right has, in that sense, vaporised.”
Dr Anders Hellström introduced how extremism has been mainstreamed in Swedish politics with the case of Sweden Democrats (SD). The main themes he addressed are: the nine stages in the development of the Sweden Democrats (SD) within Swedish politics, the ‘mainstreaming of extremism,’ the discussion about going ‘beyond’ Swedish exceptionalism, and what ‘the new normal’ may come to mean in Swedish politics.
According to Dr Hellström, there have been nine stages in the development of the Sweden Democrats. Before 2006 (1), the SD received very little media exposure, and when they were mentioned in the press, they were, at best, referred to as ‘devils in disguise’ or as ‘fascists in uniforms.’ Between 2006 and 2010 (2), the media interest in the SD escalated, and the other parties gradually abandoned their ‘cordon sanitaire’ approach to the party; but, even if these other parties wanted to attract SD voters, SD politicians were still referred to, in the political debate and the media, as either racists or ‘political clowns,’ sometimes both. In the third stage, between 2010 and 2014 (3), the SD got into the national parliament, and the national debate on Swedish identity issues, as a result, became highly polarised; the party gained a lot of media attention, and the public debate was rife with discussions around this ‘new’ political party. Between 2014 and 2018 (4), the party space in Sweden became significantly more multi-dimensional: instead of just a left-right socio-economic-political divide, there was now also a socio-cultural divide. Before this period, it was ‘the SD against the rest,’ in terms of political parties, but afterwards, the SD’s positions on certain topics like immigration became more eligible. In 2019 (5), the SD was getting increasingly tamed, and their policy positions thus came to be seen as normal by other political actors, and it became less shameful among the electorate to vote for the SD. Before the pandemic, the SD had, in fact, become the largest party in the Swedish national parliament.
However, the 2020 pandemic marked a sixth stage (6) in the SD’s development, and the SD lost voting support (the SD is now approximately 10% behind the Social Democrats). The theme of how Sweden handled (or mishandled) the pandemic was seen as something exceptional, not only by the SD but by many others in the public debate. For instance, Ebba Busch Thor, the leader of the Christian Democrats (KD), declared that the government had “with relieved courage” allowed a high spread of infection, which had severely negatively affected the old people in Sweden; at the same time, Jimmie Åkesson, the leader of the SD, had said that the government had conducted a “massacre” on the elders. Many other political actors besides the SD thus verbalised a similar criticism against the government.
In 2021-2022 (7), the SD became part of a bloc, together with the Christian Democrats, the Moderate Party (M) (which are mainstream right parties), and the Liberal Party (L), to pursue an anti-liberal agenda (the presence of the Liberal Party, in that sense, may seem ironic). The idea was to form a new conservative government to replace the Social Democratic government. But after the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022 (8), far-right parties in Sweden (and elsewhere) suffered from their previous admiration of Putin. The Social Democrats benefitted from this and are now getting very high poll figures. Whereas before, immigration was their only relevant political issue, their rhetoric has shifted significantly when compared to their view of the topic of Syria in 2015, and the SD now speaks of the need to protect and allow Ukrainian refugees into Sweden (which was not the case for Syrian refugees). The national elections that will take place in September 2022 (9) will tell whether the political debate will foremost be on defense (and the issue of NATO membership), the climate or gang violence.
Dr Hellström interpreted the rise of the SD as an end to ‘Swedish exceptionalism.’ Indeed, he referred to the work by Jens Rydgren, who said that his explanations as to why Sweden did not have a leading anti-immigration party (like Denmark and Norway had) no longer apply. Working-class voters (and voters in the southern parts of Sweden and middle-aged men) have turned to the SD; and the salience of the socio-economic policy dimension in political competition is no longer hegemonic, as the political is now also about culture and identity. Moreover, there is today a growing consensus between the Left and the Right, as there has been a ‘moralisation of politics.’
In general, there has been a ‘mainstreaming of extremism’ as theorised by Ruth Wodak: what was depicted as extreme to say in the area of immigration one decade ago is considered normal today. The difference between the mainstream right and the populist right has, in that sense, vaporised.
According to Dr Hellström, there was, a decade ago, a meta-debate in Swedish politics, in which all the mainstream parties agreed that they should debate with the SD (even if they were deplorable). The consequence was that the average voter, who probably had not heard of the party, suddenly became aware of its existence thanks to the exposure awarded by that debate. Thus, Hellström remarked, such parties benefit from the truth contained in Oscar Wilde’s aphorism that “There is only one thing worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”
But all is not lost yet, Dr Hellström reminds us: to understand what is happening around us, we need to understand both regressive and progressive sentiments. When we build toward a new normality, we should remember that “the future points in both progressive and regressive directions simultaneously”—and it is up to us to decide which comes to fruition.
Reported by Gadea Mendez Grueso
Marie Cazes: “From Rural to Radical Right: A Brief Perspective on Finnish Populism”
Despite populism has always been present in the Finnish Parliament ever since the 1960s the support for the Finns Party seems to be dropping. Several reasons may be cited: their new leader seems to not be as charismatic and attractive to voters, the coronavirus crisis has negatively impacted voter’s trust in the party, and the Russia-Ukraine war has had a huge impact on the party, which has been forced to completely review its position on NATO adhesion.
Marie Cazes presented a historical approach to populism in Finland, a country with a long relationship to the topic. She presented the main Finnish populist parties: the Finnish Rural Party (Suomen Maaseudun Puolue, SMP), which was created by Veikko Vennamo in 1959 under the name of Suomen Pientalonpoikien Puolue (Finnish Party of Small Peasants), came into the government in the 1980s and became bankrupt in the 1990s; and the Finns Party (Perussuomalaiset), which was created in 1995 after the bankruptcy of the Finnish Rural Party and became very successful, winning its first major electoral victory in 2011 (from 4,1 percent to 19,1 percent of the vote), and taking part in the Sipilä government (Centre, National coalition) in 2015. In June 2017, the Finns Party split after the election of Jussi Halla-aho, who was considered too radical and even condemned for hate speech, as chairperson; thus, ‘Blue Reform’ was created.
As Cazes explained, the origins of Finnish populism were very rural, and it was a form of agrarian populism. The Finnish Rural Party was itself created in 1959 by Veikko Vennamo as a split from the Agrarian Union, due to divergences of opinion with then-president Urho Kaleva Kekkonen regarding the countryside: Kekkonen had a more conservative idea in favour of preserving traditional social rurality ‘as it was before,’ even though Finland was facing a deep rural/agricultural crisis in the 1950s-60s.
Thus, Finnish populism, linked to ancient agrarianism ideology, rose by presenting itself as the ‘defender of the forgotten people’ from the countryside, who had supposedly been neglected by the ‘elites’ in Helsinki. As such, it was constructed in opposition to other parties (and to Kekkonen, who had been president for 24 years), with a very strong anti-communist rhetoric. Some researchers have talked about these parties as “hegemony challengers” (see Palonen & Sunnercrantz).
Cazes then described the rise and fall of the Finnish Rural Party (SMP): after having some electoral success in the 1970s, it collapsed, and rose again in the 1980s, when, in 1983, it got a second breakthrough in the parliamentary elections. That time, its narrative had changed, and the party presented itself as a critic of corruption, as its main concern became less focused on rurality, and its electorate changed too, becoming a bit more urban (as there were cases of corruption in several big cities, for instance concerning the construction of the subway in Helsinki). Because Kekkonen was no longer president, and because the image of the party changed, so that Finnish politicians no longer considered the SMP as an extreme-right party, it ended up being part of two governments, from 1983 to 1987, and from 1987 to 1991, which fomented tensions within the party. In the end, the Finnish Rural Party only had 1 MP in the 1995 election, and finally went bankrupt.
Four members of the SMP decided to create a new party, and thus, the Perussuomalaiset, or Finns Party, was born. Until the 2000s, the party was following the heritage of the Finnish Rural Party, and its agenda of the critique of elites. In 2003, the party had 3 MPs, including Tony Halme (a former famous wrestler and actor), a charismatic character with ‘colourful’ rhetoric who opened the door to critiquing immigration, making homophobic statements, etc. This ‘turning point’ led to the incorporation of new members affiliated with nationalist associations, and to the prominent critique of immigration.
But the real breakthrough of the Finns Party was in the parliamentary elections of 2011 when they gained 15 percent of the vote (from 4 percent previously). One of the main reasons for this success was not only the criticism of immigration but also a deep Euroscepticism (with a strong reticence to helping countries like Greece through the EU). They accessed the government in 2015, which resulted in a dramatic loss of voter support, as they could no longer credibly criticise the policy of the government regarding the migration crisis. The split of 2017 and the election of Halla-aho as the leader showed the radicality of the party, which had undergone a steady radicalisation process through the 2010s decade: after this turning point, the party could no longer be characterised as a moderate populist party, and it truly became the anti-immigration, nationalist, nativist, welfare chauvinist party that we know today.
Currently, the support for the Finns Party in view of next year’s parliamentary elections seems to be dropping. Several reasons may be cited: their new leader seems to not be as charismatic and attractive to voters, the coronavirus crisis has negatively impacted voter’s trust in the party, and the Russia-Ukraine war has had a huge impact on the party, which has been forced to completely review its position on NATO adhesion (of which they had been very critical in the past). Finally, Marie Cazes reviewed the main features of Finnish populism: its strong rural roots (which is still prevalent in Finnish nationalism), and the fact that populism (Finns Party and Finnish Rural Party) has always been present in the national parliament, ever since the 1960s.
Reported by Gadea Mendez Grueso
Dr Lise Bjånesøy: “Public perceptions of the populist radical right in Norway”
The Progress Party is considered a borderline case in terms of classification that there is no scholarly agreement on defining it as a populist radical right party. The data from Norwegian Election Studies shows that voters consistently associate the party with exclusionary policies against immigration and immigrants in Norway while the party has a large portfolio including many different issues beyond immigration.
Dr Lise Bjånesøy presented public perceptions of the populist radical right in Norway with a case study of the Progress Party (Fremskrittspartiet, FRP). Bjånesøy started with a brief history of FRP stating that the party was established in 1973 by Anders Lange and in the late 1980s, it made strong anti-immigration policies part of its program and then started gaining more support. The party entered government for the first time in the fall of 2013 as the junior partner of the Conservative Party, stayed in the government coalition until 2020 and chose to leave the coalition just before the pandemic.
Dr Bjånesøy noted that the Progress Party is considered a borderline case in terms of classification that there is no scholarly agreement on defining it as a populist radical right party. The data from Norwegian Election Studies shows that voters consistently associate the party with exclusionary policies against immigration and immigrants in Norway while the party has a large portfolio including many different issues beyond immigration. They have political candidates who are primarily concerned with other issues than immigration and minorities although policies for immigration and minorities remain very important for the party. What is interesting about the Progress Party, according to Dr Bjånesøy, is that there are two different wings in the party; one is a more libertarian wing, and the other is a clear populist radical right-wing, a situation which makes it difficult to label the party as populist radical right.
In the second part of her speech, Bjånesøy presented some results from two different studies in which Progress Party is included. Both studies using different concepts focus on different aspects of public perceptions of the populist radical right. One is political tolerance and the other one is negative partisanship. Political tolerance implies the willingness to put up with things that one rejects or opposes, and in this study, whether or not people allow the expression of opinions that they dislike is taken as the test for tolerance. The second study is related to negative partisanship, and this is concerned with negative effects or repulsion towards a political party. Negative partisanship reflects voting behaviour that one would never consider voting for that party.
As Dr Bjånesøy explained, the first study is designed to put political tolerance to the test in five different countries, inspired by a real-life scenario from 2010 related to the populist radical right party in Sweden; Sweden Democrats faced difficulty to find a venue for their election night gathering and they had to lie about the purpose of the event to secure the venue. In the experimental setting, they asked people about four different groups (mainstream right party, populist radical right party, one anti-Islamic group, and one neo-Nazi group) from five countries (Norway, the Netherlands, France, Germany and Sweden). They told people to imagine that one of these four groups has asked to rent a community centre to host a meeting for its members and asked how much they agree or disagree to rent it to these groups. The results show that everyone wills to rent the centre to centre-right parties, for the two extra-parliamentary groups; 80 percent of people disagree renting the centre to neo-Nazi groups and 50 percent disagree to rent it to an anti-Islamic group. The study included Progress Party in Norway, PPV in the Netherlands, FN in France, AfD in Germany and SD in Sweden to the list as populist radical right parties. The results show that there are large variations in public political tolerance of the populist radical right in European democracies and that tolerance does not only depend on the far-right in terms of ideology but also the party institutionalization matters; for example, the inclusion of populist radical right in the government brings in higher tolerance as is the case in Norway.
In the second study, Dr Bjånesøy investigates why many people would not consider voting for the populist radical right. The studies have found that populist radical right parties have a particularly high negative share of partisanship, and it seems that negative partisanship is an interesting tool to look at concerning populist radical right. Bjånesøy says, in her study, she takes Norwegian Progress Party as the case study and reminds us of the results of the first study she explained before (political tolerance) that Progress Party is the populist radical right party with the highest political tolerance. Using the data from Norwegian Citizen Panel, Dr Bjånesøy asked people if they would vote for Progress Party, and more than 50 percent said they would never consider voting for this party. While voters are asked to explain their reasons in their own words, four different categories have emerged: blank rejection; they strongly disagree with the party without stating a particular reason for it, immigration policy issues; they describe the party as prejudiced to migrants and racist, other policy issues; the voters pointed at the party’s stance on environmental issue and economic issues, political style; they expressed their dislike of the behaviour of the candidates and the tone used in the political debates.
Bjånesøy concludes her presentation by pinpointing that the Progress Party can be considered a borderline case in terms of being a member of the populist radical right party family. The voters strongly and consistently associate the party with exclusionary policies towards immigration and immigrants, but the policy issues it highlights are beyond the area of immigration. The party is fully tolerated by the public and, at the same time, it is the most disliked party with a high share of negative partisanship.
Reported by Julide Sezer
Dr Susi Meret: “From success to failure? The recent developments of the radical and populist right in Denmark”
“Denmark has female leaders for the far-right populist parties which seems contractionary concerning the power structures. Voters’ profiles show that the higher the education level the less likely it is to vote for the Danish People’s Party (DF) and that the rate of white people with manual skills and unskilled is high among the supporters of the party. Statistics show that the voters of right-wing populist parties and radical left-wing parties earn less than the ones who vote for centre-right and liberals. In terms of geographical distribution, electoral support for DF is high in non-urban southern Denmark.”
Dr Susi Meret started her presentation by highlighting four points to explain why the Danish case is particularly important in terms of the populist radical right. In this line, Dr Meret mentioned: 1) Denmark is an established liberal post-war democracy with a developed welfare state system and with higher levels of wealth and wellbeing in comparison to the rest of Europe and is also known for high levels of trust and happiness. 2) Populist radical right parties fared well since 2000 and until recently, with the Danish People’s Party (DF), the main radical right-wing populist (RRWP) party in Denmark, consolidating its position within the parliament. 3) Electoral support for DF is rising in the years 2001-2015, reaching average levels between 15-20 percent. 3) DF has considerable political influence; it acted as a support for the minority cabinet (DK) between 2001-2011 and between 2015-2019, and now they are in opposition. 4) The issues on the agenda of DF are similar to the ones on the agenda of other RRWP parties in other Scandinavian countries; welfare-nationalism, anti-immigration and anti-Islam politics, Euroscepticism and pro-NATO.
Dr Meret continued by pinpointing sentences from DF’s principal program which reflect the party’s populist radical right views; “The party’s overall goal is to re-establish Denmark’s sovereignty and freedom and to secure the Danish nation and the monarchy’s existence.” The program also has a strong anti-immigration stance; “Denmark is not and has never been an immigration country and DF is against the development of Denmark into a multicultural society. (…) to the extent immigrants can maintain themselves and their families, they can get a temporary permit to stay and to work (…) Refugees must not be turned into immigrants.” As seen from the party program, Dr Meret explains, DF is against immigration and holds an anti-Islam position for which the party’s strong opposition to the Syrian refugees’ permanent stay in Denmark is an example. DF was pushing hard for sending them back to Syria but met with resistance from civil society organisations. Per economic policy, it maintains a welfare-nationalist chauvinist approach and holds a critical position towards European politics, in particular against Schengen, free movement and the monetary union.
Then, Dr Meret focused on the question of what explains the rise and the consolidation of DF. In this regard, she pointed to the growing salience of value politics in the form of the old and new left and right, and particularly national identity, migration and recently climate change. Since the 1980s, electoral volatility/fluctuation has increased, and loyalty to political parties has diminished, which increased support for DF. Also, socio-economic and other divides are exacerbated and attention towards social cohesion and welfare nationalism has risen vis-à-vis increasing migration flows. From the 1990s onwards, as a consequence of bloc politics, the proportional electoral system has donated small parties with relatively strong power in the political structure, which also prepared a convenient context for the rise of DF. Dr Meret highlighted that the legitimization of populist radical right by Liberals in 2001 and by Social Democrats from 2015 onwards also helped in the increase of support for DF.
Dr Meret also discussed voting trends for populist radical right examining voters in terms of gender, education, class and income. While populist radical right gains more votes from white male voters and women are still left-wing leaning; the gap is closing between the two as RRWP has become more mainstreamed and normalized. Meret added that Denmark has female leaders for the far-right populist parties which seems contractionary concerning the power structures. Voters’ profiles show that the higher the education level the less likely it is to vote for DF and that the rate of white people with manual skills and unskilled is high among the supporters of the party. Statistics show that the voters of right-wing populist parties and radical left-wing parties earn less than the ones who vote for centre-right and liberals. In terms of geographical distribution, electoral support for DF is high in non-urban southern Denmark.
Dr Meret indicated that radical right-wing populists in Denmark perform exclusionary populism; they stand against the elite, against the establishment and for “the people,” which are considered common denominators of populism, and the anti-immigration approach is coming as an additional denominator from the polls in the country. The definition of “the people” comes from an ethno-nationalist understanding of community and the people with a narrative of common roots encompassing belonging, shared history, and the same values with an emphasis on Christian values lately. The idea of “our Denmark,” in their understanding, refers to whites, which gets criticism from the civil society organizations. RRWP describes Denmark as a homogenous community whose grounds are challenged by globalization, Europeanization and migration flows and refugees. The anti-gender aspect of RRWP, Dr Meret argues, is an interesting and concerning development in Denmark and it has an emphasis on the Muslim veil. Concerning the LGBTQ issues, DF does not hold a contrasting position, but it expresses that the issue should have a limit and must not dictate the agenda.
Dr Meret says that DF’s new leader Morten Messerschmidt who held the office in January 2022 is internally challenged by the party members on the ground that he is not a good fit for the party, particularly in these times when the party is in crisis. The other right-wing populist party, New Right has also a female leader and follows a very conservative approach such that they present a hard-line anti-immigration agenda wanting to stop asylum altogether, on the other hand, they pursue an ultra-liberal economic agenda which is different from DF. Dr Meret also mentions the extra-parliamentary radical right-wing party “Hard Line” led by Rasmus Paludan, which run for the 2019 elections but could not get enough votes to enter the parliament. The party’s worldview is ethno-nationalist, racist and strongly Islamophobic defending the prohibition of Islam in Denmark. The party often uses social media and has a social media channel named “the Voice of Freedom” to mobilize the youth, they live-stream their demonstrations on online channels to get more attention, for example, they encouraged people to burn Quran in public spaces, which happened in Denmark before Sweden.
As another form of the populist radical right, Dr Meret talked about a transnational movement “Nordic Resistance Movement (Nordfront)” which derives from Sweden in 1997 and is represented in most of the Nordic countries. Their worldview encompasses racism, neo-Nazism, antisemitism, and rallying for a ‘racially pure’ Nordic region against the extinction of the white autochthonous population. The movement, as it is written on their website, organizes “revolutionary national socialist combat organization.” They use vandalism and violent attacks as forms of their action repertoire for which bomb attacks on refugee housing and vandalism against Jewish graveyards are examples.
Dr Meret concluded her presentation by underlining the main takeaways from the case of RRWP in Denmark. The rise and electoral consolidation of RRWP (especially DF) should be considered in the long durée and in the light of the mainstream reactions. The current wave of RRWP emphasizes ethnic homogeneity and assimilationist models, and ethnic and religious groups are increasingly racialized, also by government policies. Extra parliamentary far-right milieus have proliferated in recent years but seem still weaker than in other countries. Far-right repertoires of action and organization are different, inspired by groups and organizations outside Denmark but also exporting their own products.
Reported by Julide Sezer
 Jens Rydgren, and Sara van der Meiden,“The Radical Right and the End of Swedish Exceptionalism,” European Political Science 18, no. 3 (2019): 439–455
 Ruth Wodak, “‘The Boundaries of What Can Be Said Have Shifted’: An Expert Interview with Ruth Wodak (Questions posed by Andreas Schulz),” Discourse & Society 31, no. 2 (2020): 235–244, doi:10.1177/0957926519889109.
 Ruth Wodak, “‘The Boundaries of What Can Be Said Have Shifted’: An Expert Interview with Ruth Wodak (Questions posed by Andreas Schulz),” Discourse & Society 31, no. 2 (2020): 235–244, doi:10.1177/0957926519889109.