Interview #3 – Anders Hellström about Nordic Populism

Anders Hellström

Anders Hellström

Why populism in Scandinavia seems to be more and more successful? What can explain the presence of right-wing populist parties in governing coalitions in Finland, Denmark, and Norway, while in Sweden Sverigedemokraterna doubled its consensus from last elections becoming the third party?

In order to answer these questions, POP decided to interview Anders Hellström. He is associate professor in political science, currently based at the Malmö Institute for studies of diversity, migration and welfare. He chairs a comparative project on Nordic populism, funded by NOS-HS in the period 2013–2015. A new book will be published by Berghahn Books later this year. It will be titled “Trust Us: Reproducing the Nation and the Scandinavian Nationalist Populist Parties“. He has written several books and articles about Populism and nationalism in relation to European integration, identity politics, discourse theory and the nationalist populist parties in Sweden and elsewhere.

  •  nordic populismLast March took place in Copenhagen the final network meeting of the Research network on Nordic Populism (NOPO). What can you tell us about the state of the art concerning the research on Nordic populism?

* I would say there is an obvious shift between researchers that (a) focus on the overall structure of political competition, and focus in particular on these parties and (b) the key concepts and current happenings, involving these parties, such as the recent terrorist attacks and the meaning of the term “freedom of speech”. Both these strands are doing quite well and there is lot of interesting research emanating form these, but I think it would be mutually beneficial if they learn to speak even more with one- another, over countries and academic disciplines.

  • Homann Map of Scandinavia, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland and the Baltics

    Homann Map of Scandinavia, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland and the Baltics

    The Sweden Democrats, the Danish People’s Party, the Progress Party (Norway) and the Finns Party: Scandinavia shows many right-wing populist parties. Is their electoral success a new phenomenon? How can we evaluate the policy influence of these parties in the respective countries?

* No, it is not a completely new phenomenon and it is interesting to study the continuity. You can say that there is re-freezing of the political balance in the Nordic countries, between a mainstream left-bloc, a mainstream right bloc and a bloc represented by these parties; referred to in the literature as radical populist right. Maybe it was “new” in the early 1970s. But today. I would say no.  For instance, the Progress Party in Norway has been around for more than forty years.

All these parties that you mention operate in distinct national contexts. In order to affect domestic politics, they need to tap into the cultural codes of each particular national context; in other words they need to balance the tightrope right between radicalism and extremism. Relating to this issue, the SD (Swedish Democrats) is less accepted than the other parties in domestic politics, even if they are equally electorally strong nowadays.

Jimmie Åkesson, Sverigedemokraterna party leader

Jimmie Åkesson, Sverigedemokraterna party leader

The four countries are similar in terms of e.g. socio-economic development (e. g. the universal welfare state), but also different in terms of discourses and policies of immigration. There are obvious fissures in the population, between those who fully embrace diversity and those who instead wish a tighter connection between the nation, the state and the (national) people. These parties offer a demand for voters from the latter category that wish to restore the national state, and having both an active welfare state for the natives and cultural conformism.

The debate around the role and position of the nationalist populist parties in the Nordic countries poses an even larger question about how we do about to live together in increasingly diverse societies; how do the Scandinavian universal welfare states with historically homogenous populations tackle challenges of ethnic diversity? Are the ideals of multi culturalism compatible with the welfare states’ aims of equal redistribution, bounded by the territorial limits of the national state? I write about these issues in a forthcoming book, published by Berghahn Books, titled “Trust Us”[1].

  • Election Poster of the Danish Social Democrats, end of 40s early 50s

    Election Poster of the Danish Social Democrats, end of 40s early 50s

    One may link the crisis of representative democracy to phenomena such as populism or technocracy, but in Scandinavia there is a stunning success of populist parties while democracy continues to perform pretty well. What can explain this apparent inconsistency?

* Yes, this creates tensions and frustration in the population. There is an obvious discrepancy between the elite and the people, in this regard. Naturally, this is about democracy. And this is also about populism and its ambivalent relation to democracy, because it concerns the role of the people in representative governance.

These parties offer a demand that is, from the voters’ perspective, not enough addressed by the so-called mainstream parties. These parties mobilize on this particular cleavage structure; pitting “the common man” against the cultural, economic and political elites in the society. What I would like to emphasize, however, is that it is an ongoing struggle about what constitutes the “common man” in the first place. In other words, it is thus not simply a vertical opposition of (the elite) against the people, but also a (horizontal opposition); people versus people in civil society.

  • Is it possible to explain the success of right-wing populist parties in Scandinavia analyzing the opportunity offered by the current economic crisis combined with issues such as European integration?

* No. The current economic crisis amplifies differences of positions, attitudes and reactions towards migration into Europe, both within the nation states and at the European level. While some welcomes ethnic and demographic diversification, there is growing concern about the effects of immigration on the economy, on the labor market and on welfare. These anxieties relate to the cultural impact of migration on national identity. But no matter the premises, positions often translate into curbing and controlling migration flows and in demands for political action directed against refugees, asylum-seeker and labor migrants.

Siv Jensen, leader of the Progress Party (Norway)

Siv Jensen, leader of the Progress Party (Norway)

But it is apparently not enough to focus on the economic crisis to explaining these parties’ electoral fortunes. For these parties, in general, economy is not a priority issue or rather you need to emphasize how issues of culture impede economical issues. And also when the economical issues gain priority in election campaigns (as in the current Danish elections, coming up shortly), Danish People’s remains strong in the election polls.

  • What can we learn about Nordic populism from an historic perspective? More in particular, how did the ‘exceptional’ welfare state and gender regimes shape the forms and evolution of populism in Scandinavia?

* In order to fully comprehend the development of populist parties and their electoral fortunes and potential impact on domestic politics in their countries, we need to carefully consider how the parties’ rhetoric tap into popular beliefs and historical experience of each particular country. As I said before, these parties need to be radical, and not be as extreme (and in this regard the SD has comparatively a much more extremist historical legacy, compared to the others), in order to provide an impact on domestic politics. In order to analyze this balancing act, history needs to be taken into account.

9th of April 1940. Front-side of a leaflet dropped from a Nazi-German aircraft bomber on the day of invasion. The Danish government capitulated later the same day

9th of April 1940. Front-side of a leaflet dropped from a Nazi-German aircraft bomber on the day of invasion. The Danish government capitulated later the same day

Both Denmark and Norway were occupied by the Nazi-regime during the Second World War, Finland fought against the Soviet Union and Sweden remained neutral in this period. In neither of the countries, the Nazi-style parties came close to a parliamentary breakthrough. Instead, the ideology of Social Democracy was the most successful ideology of the twentieth century. It has been stronger in Sweden than in the other countries. The Social Democratic leaders of the past are the heroes of the nation, according to the SD, while the current Social Democrats are traitors of the nation. This dislike is, however, mutual.

The countries also differ in terms of opportunities for new political parties to challenge the established party hierarchies. If the workers movement together with the liberals in Sweden, the urbanized farmers in Norway and Denmark and the smallholders in Finland, dominated the political development in the early phases of national conciliation, this situation look, naturally, very different today; as in the rest of Europe.

Kristian Thulesen Dahls, Danish People's Party leader

Kristian Thulesen Dahls, Danish People’s Party leader (in the middle)

In the art of reproducing the nation, the population shows divergent and even polarised opinions towards borders and national identity. This polarison transmutes into changing party political preferences.

Initially, the differences between them were huge. Not anymore. The differences, as I see it, is paricularly large, comparing the discussion climate in each particular context, not between the parties as such.

Timo Soini (party leader of The True Finns) has recently become Foreign Minister in Finland; just imagine him and Margot Wallström (Foreign Minister from the Social Democratic party in Sweden) stand next to each other and you can quickly understand that the discussion climate is different between Finland and Sweden. Moreover, when it comes to the demographic composition, these two countries are very different. In Sweden, in 2014, 53.503 applied for asylum and 31220 were accepted. The corresponding figure in Finland is 3.706, and 1.346 accepted.

Election posters, Finland

Election posters, Finland

Another difference concerns the attitudes to the state. The SD is much more prone to accept the state than the PP, for instance. But it can be added that the anti-statism of the PP is never against the state as such or transformed for a plead for a new state, but rather a proliferation of a state on the side of the common man against ’the other’ and too much state intervention in the private sphere.

  • How do the media react to the success of these parties? Is there a similar reaction in all the countries concerned?

* I have together with colleagues from Norway, Denmark and Finland concluded that on the editorial pages in mainstream media, the tone towards the SD is much more negative, compared to the others. I would like to add, however, that in in the study of the media reactions, to understand the attractiveness of these parties it is important to recognize the pluriverse of opinionated material in different chamber of the public debate.

  • Do you think that populism in the Nordic countries is here to stay, or is it just an episodic manifestation of widespread discontent?

* The issue of national identity and diversity – what we are in relation to what we are not -, is a hot topic all across Europe. How ought it to look like in the future. These parties offer a vision, even if it is nostalgic, what the future society should look like.

There is no Nordic exception, in this regard. The current demographic changes in these countries provoke different kinds of reactions and these parties answer to a particular demand in the electorate. As long as this demand exist, there is more likely than not that these parties are here to stay.

[1] See here:

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