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The Left’s Negative Campaigning Helped the Right Win in Sweden

A U.S.-style smear campaign suggesting that all conservatives condone fascism doomed the Social Democrats.

Braw-Elisabeth-foreign-policy-columnist3
Braw-Elisabeth-foreign-policy-columnist3
Elisabeth Braw
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
The leader of the Sweden Democrats, Jimmie Akesson, celebrates in Nacka, near Stockholm on Sept. 11.
The leader of the Sweden Democrats, Jimmie Akesson, celebrates in Nacka, near Stockholm on Sept. 11.
The leader of the Sweden Democrats, Jimmie Akesson, celebrates in Nacka, near Stockholm on Sept. 11. JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP via Getty Images

Sweden’s left-wing parties—the Social Democrats, the Greens, and the Left Party—don’t tend to admire the United States or mimic its politics. But in the campaign leading up to the country’s Sept. 11 parliamentary election, the first two parties in particular engaged in negative campaigning that would make the most experienced American mudslingers blush, consistently labeling the center-right bloc “brown.”

As every Swedish schoolchild who studied Nazi Germany knows, brown is a color associated with fascism. (The Sturmabteilung, the original Nazi paramilitary wing, was also known as Braunhemden, the brownshirts.) The smearing almost worked. Instead, their fascist-scare rhetoric propelled the far-right Sweden Democrats to a stunning result—taking nearly 21 percent of the vote and becoming the country’s second-largest party—and helped the center-right bloc win an unexpected victory.

“I stand between the blue-browns and power,” Green Party politician Marta Stenevi said in an interview this month. “Blue-brown” is an epithet the Greens’ co-leader frequently used when talking about Sweden’s center-right opposition parties, especially during the election campaign. So do other Greens, not to mention the Social Democrats. Even outgoing Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson, who was contesting her first general election as the Social Democrats’ leader and appeared stateswoman-like with Finnish President Sauli Niinisto to discuss Sweden’s and Finland’s NATO bids this spring, took to denouncing every party to the right of the center divide as “blue-brown.”

Sweden’s left-wing parties—the Social Democrats, the Greens, and the Left Party—don’t tend to admire the United States or mimic its politics. But in the campaign leading up to the country’s Sept. 11 parliamentary election, the first two parties in particular engaged in negative campaigning that would make the most experienced American mudslingers blush, consistently labeling the center-right bloc “brown.”

As every Swedish schoolchild who studied Nazi Germany knows, brown is a color associated with fascism. (The Sturmabteilung, the original Nazi paramilitary wing, was also known as Braunhemden, the brownshirts.) The smearing almost worked. Instead, their fascist-scare rhetoric propelled the far-right Sweden Democrats to a stunning result—taking nearly 21 percent of the vote and becoming the country’s second-largest party—and helped the center-right bloc win an unexpected victory.

“I stand between the blue-browns and power,” Green Party politician Marta Stenevi said in an interview this month. “Blue-brown” is an epithet the Greens’ co-leader frequently used when talking about Sweden’s center-right opposition parties, especially during the election campaign. So do other Greens, not to mention the Social Democrats. Even outgoing Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson, who was contesting her first general election as the Social Democrats’ leader and appeared stateswoman-like with Finnish President Sauli Niinisto to discuss Sweden’s and Finland’s NATO bids this spring, took to denouncing every party to the right of the center divide as “blue-brown.”

The left’s fascist-scare rhetoric propelled the far-right Sweden Democrats to a stunning result—taking nearly 21 percent of the vote and becoming the country’s second-largest party.

One of these parties, the Sweden Democrats, is what some would call far-right (that is, brown), though the Sweden Democrats themselves—whose signature position is a call for reduced immigration—consider themselves pragmatists. Indeed, throughout the Sweden Democrats’ rise through parliamentary power over the past 12 years, even the Social Democrats have adopted a more restrictive stance on immigration.

The other parties targeted with the blue-brown smear are market liberal-conservatives, market liberals, and Christian Democrats, respectively. (Their logos all use variations of the color blue.) But that didn’t matter; because the three parties had expressed a willingness to work with the Sweden Democrats, the Social Democrats and the Greens sensed an opportunity to tarnish them all as fascists. I have lived in many countries—all of them liberal democracies—but never have I seen one bloc consistently besmirch the opposition with such epithets.

One would have thought that given the fiendish problems Sweden faces, its governing parties—the Greens were the Social Democrats’ junior partner until last November—would have done their best to convince voters that if given another term in government, they’d present stellar solutions. Among the problems that need urgent attention is a gun violence epidemic that has been growing since 2013 despite gun violence having declined in the rest of Europe. In the roughly 38,000-person town of Kalmar, Sweden, for example, three people have been shot to death this year. The violence is mostly carried out among rival gangs in 61 heavily immigrant areas identified by the police, but it frequently harms innocent bystanders, including children. There’s, of course, also the energy crisis; there’s climate change; and Sweden’s schools and health care system need attention.

Until about 11 p.m. on election night, the negative campaigning seemed to have worked for the Social Democrats and the Greens. Together with the Left Party and the (formerly center-right) Centre Party, they were on track for a victory over the center-right bloc led by the Moderates’ leader, Ulf Kristersson. But then the balance tipped. By Wednesday night, with virtually all votes counted, Kristersson’s team had won 176 of the Riksdag’s 349 seats, with 173 seats for Andersson’s side. It’s a small margin—but a victory, and a surprise victory at that.

On Wednesday night local time, Andersson conceded, and Kristersson will now go about forming a government. It is unclear which role, if any, the Sweden Democrats will play in it, but even if the party doesn’t end up running any ministries, it will still play a crucial role in parliament. The previously shunned outfit that only entered parliament in the 2010 elections is, after all, now Sweden’s second-largest party.


The center-right win is a sign that U.S.-style negative campaigning isn’t a cure for lack of policy ideas. Yes, the “blue-brown” besmirching does appear to have weakened the Moderates—who won 19.1 percent of the vote, down by 0.7 percentage points from the 2018 elections—and the Christian Democrats, who won 5.3 percent of the vote, down by 1 percentage point. But the Sweden Democrats, the main target of the smearing, emerged unscathed; in fact, they were the election’s clear winner, winning a 20.5 percent share of the vote (up by 3 percentage points) and becoming the country’s second-largest party.

But despite the name-calling, the pro-market Liberals returned from an expected political death this year under a feisty new interim leader, Johan Pehrson, and won 4.6 percent of the vote (down just 0.9 percentage points after polling so badly this year that it seemed unlikely to reach the Riksdag’s 4 percent threshold).

Meanwhile, the Left and Centre Parties—who were also part of Andersson’s electoral coalition—slumped badly, each scoring 6.7 percent of the vote, down by 1.3 and 1.9 percentage points, respectively. Indeed, many former Social Democrat and Centre Party voters have defected to the Sweden Democrats in recent years. Especially in the case of the Centre Party, this election showed that its traditional rural voters no longer felt represented by top Centre politicians who mostly seemed to flirt with the metropolitan elite.

To be sure, the election wasn’t decided just by the Social Democrats and the Greens playing the fascist card. The parties presented different ideas about how to tackle the gun violence epidemic, how the school system should be set up, how to tackle climate change, and what to do about the energy crisis. The Christian Democrats, in particular, functioned as the blue trio’s vanguard, presenting innovative ideas—including how to tackle gang warfare, how to slash health care waiting times, and why Sweden should expand nuclear power—that the Moderates and Liberals could build on.

During the campaign, the Social Democrats’ dearth of ideas stood out.

Against this competition, the Social Democrats’ dearth of ideas stood out. Their top promise was to “turn over every stone” to defeat organized crime, which (of course) raises the question of why they haven’t done so during their eight years in power. Kristersson may have been too cautious in presenting new proposals lest they offend any given constituency. As a result, he cut a bit of a plain figure. But the lifelong free-market liberal is certainly not a fascist.

Now Kristersson has been handed a surprise victory. On Wednesday night, he promised to form a government that would swiftly tackle Sweden’s challenges, whereas the Moderate Party’s secretary highlighted NATO membership, the gun epidemic, and the energy crisis as priorities. If nothing else, the election winners will certainly approach their popular mandate with more humility than the Social Democrats, who have governed Sweden for so long that they seem to think it’s their right to do so.

If I had been the Social Democrats’ election guru, I would have told them this: Learn a few lessons from former U.S. President Bill Clinton. He spoke of a place called Hope while you frightened voters by invoking a fascist specter. Instead, the majority Swedes handed their votes to parties that presented policy solutions for their country.

Elisabeth Braw is a columnist at Foreign Policy and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where she focuses on defense against emerging national security challenges, such as hybrid and gray-zone threats. She is also a member of the U.K. National Preparedness Commission. Twitter: @elisabethbraw

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