Examining the rise of right-wing nationalism in Sweden and Italy.
Sweden and Italy. Two countries that, at first glance, have fairly little in common. Yet it turns out that Sweden and Italy are a lot more alike than initially thought – at least socially and politically. Whereas Sweden has always been known as a social-democratic country and Italy as a politically fluctuating country where (right-wing) independent parties and centre-democrats have called the shots in recent years, right-wing nationalism has now gained ground in both countries in recent elections.
Right-wing nationalism is on the rise in Europe, or perhaps even back from (never) being gone. This ideology combines right-wing ideas with nationalism, which is based on one’s own people. In this article, the first part of a duology on the rise of right-wing nationalism, you will read about how right-wing nationalism has grown in Sweden and Italy during the last elections. It zooms in on the Swedish and Italian elections, after which the overarching election themes are further highlighted and compared. Here, the focus is on migration and (the consequences of) the war in Ukraine. Part two, which will come online later this week, will then explore possible explanations for emerging right-wing nationalism in Europe, with Sweden and Italy again as case studies.
The Swedish and Italian elections
Riksdagvalet 2022: the Swedish elections
‘Right-wing in the lead after political landslide in Sweden’, headlined NOS, the Dutch national news agency, on Thursday 15 September 2022. The right-wing bloc won the national elections, which took place a few days earlier on 11 September, with the result that they will rule the country for the next few years. The elections turned out to be mainly a battle between Sveriges Socialdemokratiska Arbetareparti (Social Democratic Labour Party, S for short) led by the until then incumbent prime minister Magdalena Andersson, on the one hand, and the right-wing nationalist party Sverigedemokraterna (The Sweden Democrats, SD for short) led by Jimmie Åkesson, on the other. Besides these two parties, Swedes could choose from 77 (!) other parties, six of which were serious candidates to win (many) seats.
A special feature of Sweden is its unofficial block system. It has become customary for political parties to indicate beforehand which of the two blocs they might want to govern with: with the left-wing bloc ‘red greens’ or with the right-wing bloc ‘the alliance’. Parties do not actually have to govern after the elections if their bloc wins, but they do have to declare their position beforehand. So in Sweden, the two potential coalitions were known before any actual voting had taken place. S, the party of former prime minister Andersson, is affiliated with the left-wing block, together with the parties Vänsterpartiet (socialist, feminist), Miljöpartiet (green, left-wing) and Centerpartiet (originally an agrarian centrist party). SD is part of the right-wing block, along with Moderata samlingspartiet (Moderate Union Party, M for short), Kristdemokraterna (Christian Democrats) and Liberalerna (liberalism).
In the 2022 elections, S won 30.3% of the vote and SD 20.5%. Despite the fact that the Social Democrats became the largest party in the country, the right-wing bloc ‘the alliance’, narrowly won the election with 49.7 (176 seats) against 48.9 per cent (173 seats) of the votes. For this reason, the largest party will not enter the government and will also not deliver the prime minister. After the results were announced on 14 September, former prime minister Andersson immediately announced her resignation in response. SD has become the largest party in Sweden after S and is the largest party in the right-wing bloc. Past scandals involving neonazism among SD members ensured that other parties, also from the right-wing bloc, did not want to accept party leader Åkesson as prime minister. Therefore, Kristersson, leader of the third largest party the Moderates, took the lead in forming a new government. On 14 November, the new coalition was finally announced. SD is not part of the coalition, but lends support to a minority cabinet composed of the other parties of the right-wing bloc: the Moderates, the Christian Democrats and the Liberals.
Elezioni politiche in Italia del 2022: the Italian elections
Elections in Italy were brought forward after the Five Star Movement, a centre-left party that presents itself as anti-establishment, withdrew their support for the Draghi government. Soon, eyes turned in one direction. Namely, that of Giorgia Meloni, leader of the party Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy). This right-wing nationalist party had been the only party in Italy’s opposition in recent months and, as a result, was also the only one in a position to criticise the Draghi government. Fratelli d’Italia was affiliated with a right-wing bloc during the 2022 elections, along with several other parties. Collectively, this bloc received 44% of the vote and Fratelli d’Italia itself 26%. This makes Fratelli d’Italia the clear winner of these elections. Italy thus gets its first ever female prime minister and also its first far-right coalition in years.
Meanwhile, it is clear what Fratelli d’Italia’s coalition partners will be; on the one hand, the right-wing nationalist party Lega, led by Matteo Salvini, and on the other, Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party – a well-known name both inside and outside of Italy. Berlusconi is now 86 years old and has been Italy’s prime minister three times before. He is controversial, given the scandals surrounding corruption, tax fraud, limiting press freedom and freedom of speech, abuse of power, possibly inciting a minor to prostitution and his presence at ‘Bunga bunga sex parties’. About a decade ago, Berlusconi was banned from ever holding public office again over a conviction for tax fraud. But, as Flemish news website HLN.be puts it well, “Berlusconi, who has made personal comebacks his trademark for three decades […]”, was exonerated each time in an appeal and is back again. So his party is now once again participating in the new government.
Migration, gang violence and the traditional family in dire straits: a danger to the nation
It is striking that similar themes dominated elections in both Sweden and Italy. Migration has always been a major theme for right-wing nationalist parties. This is not surprising when you consider that migration as an election theme is a way to get votes. In the migration debate, right-wing nationalist parties appeal to a sense of collectivity and national identity. This is a ‘politics of belonging’. Creating a national identity not only depends on the search for a collective identity, but the creation of this identity simultaneously excludes certain people and groups. In the process, migrants (the out-group) are projected as a threat to the national unity that right-wing nationalist parties try to cultivate for those living in a country without a migrant background (in-group).
SD aims to return as many migrants as possible to their countries of origin and stop the influx of asylum seekers to Sweden. In doing so, right-wing nationalist ideology is accompanied by a sense of pride for one’s own country and culture. Migrants who do not fully integrate into their vision of Swedish culture are therefore a threat to society in their eyes. In addition, keeping out terrorism and tackling gang violence is also cited as an argument, portraying migrants not only as a threat to national culture but also to national security. Due to strong segregation in Sweden, many young people with a migrant background grow up in deprived neighbourhoods. They face language disadvantages, poverty and poor education. There are few opportunities for these young people, making it easier for them to fall prey to gangs in order to earn money in the drug trade. Sweden, and especially Stockholm, is struggling with a lot of gang-related criminal activity, often resulting in homicides. It is estimated that around 75 people will have died in shootings stemming from gang violence by the end of 2022. With this shockingly high number, Sweden unfortunately ranks among the top countries in Europe.
In Italy, too, the migration debate is being invoked to strengthen national unity. Fratelli d’Italia’s party programme emphasises, among other things, the negative effects of illegal migration. This is certainly a relevant issue in Italy due to its location on the Mediterranean Sea, where many immigrants enter Europe. Like SD, Meloni sees Islamic fundamentalism as a threat. Illegal immigration is further outlined as a threat to national security because of the growth of crime and violence. Meloni links these to immigrants, the mafia and extremist groups, such as the far-left terrorist organisation Brigate Rosse (Red Brigades) and extremist anarchists. The latter groups were involved in a number of violent incidents and death threats against politicians in the right-wing bloc.
As in Sweden, gang violence also played an important role in the Italian elections. For the right-wing bloc, this issue is important not only because it disrupts society, but also because it has a direct impact on politics. Politicians in the right-wing bloc have been victims of death threats from the Italian mafia for years. Several violent incidents took place in the run-up to the last elections. For instance, Francesco Cannizzaro, deputy of Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, was shot at during a rally in Reggio Calabria and Meloni received death threats from the far-left terrorist organisation Red Brigades. Violence by far-left organisations, such as the Red Brigades but also extremist anarchists, was met by the right-wing bloc with calls for solidarity. At the same time, it gave the parties ammunition to condemn the left-wing bloc when it did not immediately declare solidarity.
In both Italy and Sweden, traditional family values are seen by right-wing nationalist parties as the foundation of the nation. According to Fratelli d’Italia, Italian families are an important way to protect the country. The family as a social institution is under pressure there due to the low birth rate, which is the lowest in Europe along with Spain. The party therefore opposes abortion and also bans adoption and surrogacy by homosexual couples. In this respect, Sweden’s right-wing bloc is less conservative. The family is seen as important, but the SD advocates more paternity days, protection of the LGBTQ+ community and is not against abortion or euthanasia, among other things. The party says Sweden is a frontrunner when it comes to extending bodily autonomy, freedom and protection to people regardless of their sexual orientation, but sees migration, and Islam specifically, as a threat to this.
The war in Ukraine, the energy crisis and inflation
Europe-wide issues, such as the energy crisis and inflation, were also major topics during the last elections in Italy and Sweden. Interestingly, the war in Ukraine as a stand-alone issue (i.e. energy crisis not included) barely influenced both elections, even in Sweden, where people have been working hard for years to tackle the Russian threat. The fact that Sweden will most likely join NATO is also something that was not discussed in the elections. Swedish security policy was not a central issue during election debates. It is thought that the reason for the absence of this theme is that the war in Ukraine does not directly affect most Swedes. This is in contrast to other topics such as high energy bills or gang violence. Therefore, after Sweden’s decision to join NATO was taken, interest in security policy declined. In addition, it seems that Turkish demands for Sweden’s NATO application, namely the extradition of some Kurds, is a sore point for Swedish politicians. Politicians from the previous coalition, therefore, may have deliberately ignored the issue. However, the new coalition announced that it was accommodating Turkey by distancing itself from the Kurdish militia YPG.
In Italy too, it was not the war itself, but the problems stemming partly from it, that was a major theme during the elections. The focus in both countries was thus on the economic consequences of the war. Although the Swedish debate on skyrocketing energy and gas prices and inflation was secondary to issues such as immigration and crime, this development does have a major impact on the daily lives of Swedish citizens. This was a blow to the green Miljöpartiet, which lost votes because addressing high energy prices was more urgent to many than green policies. In Italy, too, citizens are struggling with high energy costs. Instead of limiting energy and gas consumption, Meloni’s campaign emphasised a European price cap on Russian gas and financial support for families to reduce energy costs for citizens. However, such a price cap has many snags, including destabilising the market. It has therefore not become a reality yet.
Sweden is among Europe’s most prosperous countries. Yet inflation concerns are also high in this country. Around the election, for instance, butter prices had risen 25%, meat prices 24% and cheese prices 22%. More and more people, including the middle-class, can no longer afford their groceries – let alone petrol, clothes, gym fees or music lessons. During the elections, both the Swedish left and right came up with all kinds of promises to support people, both of which they probably could not (have) deliver(ed). It seems as if the aforementioned Miljöpartiet in particular suffered politically from inflation. Other parties have obviously benefited from this, but it seems that inflation as an election issue has not been the deciding factor in Sweden.
Italy has had major economic problems for years and the prevailing inflation has only added to the headache. Just before the election, prominent Fratelli d’Italia figures said that the EU’s monetary policy over the past decade has caused the current inflation and that the causes go back much further than the war in Ukraine and the ensuing energy crisis. This idea was shared by many Italian voters and may have contributed to the fact that the left-wing bloc, where some parties actually encourage European cooperation, attracted fewer voters.
Despite the fact that Sweden and Italy differ in many ways, right-wing nationalist parties in both countries managed to attract a significant amount of voters in the last elections. In the run-up to the elections, the parties were eminently mixed in debates on topics that could support right-wing nationalist ideology. For instance, topics such as migration, gang violence and traditional family norms were raised to reinforce the idea of national unity and security. Furthermore, European cooperation on cross-border crises such as the war in Ukraine, the energy crisis and inflation was questioned when it seemed to conflict with the autonomy of the nation-state or when it seemed to have negative consequences for the population (in the eyes of the beholder of course).
Part two will further explore possible explanations for the rise of right-wing nationalism. This will be done on the basis of the election themes mentioned above, but it will also look beyond that. For instance, how do polarisation and electoral systems affect the growth of right-wing nationalism? And why has right-wing bloc cooperation been so successful compared to the left-wing bloc? And – not insignificantly – does the rise of right-wing nationalism actually affect Europe? You can read all this in the next article, which will be published on 16 March 2023!
Loes ter Horst is doing a master’s degree in Crisis and Security Management at Leiden University with a specialisation in Governance of Crisis, after obtaining her bachelor’s degree in Liberal Arts and Sciences (majoring in International Governance) last summer.
Luna Verbaas is an undergraduate student of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Utrecht University with a specialisation in International Relations in Historical Perspective and Philosophy, Politics and Society.