Posted on March 28, 2020

The Rise of Sweden Democrats: Islam, Populism and the End of Swedish Exceptionalism

Danielle Lee Tomson, Brookings, March 25, 2020

[Editor’s Note: Below is the introduction and relevant footnotes from a lengthy report recently released by Brookings.]

Historically Sweden has been a generous safe haven for refugees. Of all the countries featured in this Brookings project, it has taken in the most refugees per capita, and is third in the world on this measure behind Canada and Australia.[1] In 2015, Sweden had a record-high of 162,877 applications for asylum, primarily from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan—or about 1.6 percent of Sweden’s population of 10 million.[2] This would be proportionally equivalent to over five million people applying for asylum in the United States, which in fact only received approximately 83,000 asylum applications that year.[3]

For a country like Sweden that has grown increasingly secular over recent decades, the influx of Muslims from war-torn countries has greatly impacted politics and society. The Sweden Democrats (Sverigedemokraterna), a right-wing populist party once politically verboten because of ties to neo-Nazis at its founding in 1988, is now the third largest party in the Riksdag, the Swedish parliament. It has effectively fashioned a narrative linking the surge of predominantly Muslim immigrants to a perception of an uptick in violent crimes and perceived strains on the prized Swedish welfare system. Swedes who are disgruntled by “the establishment” response to these concerns, especially regarding sociocultural issues,[4] are attracted to the populist refrain of the Sweden Democrats: “We say what you think.”[5] Unsurprisingly, the Sweden Democrats’ primary talking point is to specifically halt asylum immigration, which is predominantly Muslim.

This case study offers insight into why Swedes are joining the Sweden Democrats and the connection to their perception of Islam. Through interviews with Sweden Democrat voters and officials primarily in Skåne, the southern party stronghold, this paper provides an intimate portrait of Sweden Democrats and their frustration with a political establishment over Muslim immigration, the perceived impact on the welfare system, and the cultural fallout in secular, liberal Sweden.[6] Interviewees eagerly shared their experiences of changes in Sweden, such as the introduction of Muslim children joining their kids’ classes, witnessing crimes in neighborhoods with more immigrants, and experiencing what they think of as religious concessions for Muslims who “should” be assimilating to secular Sweden.

Sweden Democrats do not believe that problems of crime or integration stem primarily from failures of socioeconomic policy or government bureaucracy; rather, they also blame culture, both of Muslim immigrants and political correctness. The Sweden Democrats and their robust network of “alternative media”[7] offer narratives that make sense of these phenomena, regardless of whether claims might be unverified or false. When faced with allegations of racism, however, Sweden Democrats double down on the populist message that they are normal, working-class people trying to call attention to socioeconomic and sociocultural challenges posed by an influx of non-Western refugees, which they claim traditional political parties do not tackle head-on.

  1. Jynnah Radford and Phillip Connor, “Canada now leads the world in refugee resettlement, surpassing the U.S.,” Pew Research Center, June 19, 2019,
  2. “Applications for asylum received 2000-2017,” Migrationsverket,
  3. Nadwa Mossaad, “Annual Flow Report: Refugees and Asylees: 2015,” U.S. Department of Homeland Security Office of Immigration Statistics, November 2016,
  4. Kirsti M. Jylhä, Jens Rydgren, and Pontus Strimling, “Radical right-wing voters from right and left: Comparing Sweden Democrat voters who previously voted for the Conservative Party or the Social Democratic Party,” Scandinavian Political Studies 42, no. 3-4 (2019): 220-244.
  5. Author’s interview with Sweden Democrat, Helmuth Peterson, Trelleborg, Sweden, September 25, 2019.
  6. Interviews were conducted in September 2019 by the author in Sweden, predominantly in the Sweden Democrats’ stronghold: the southern region of Skäne. The study includes ten interview participants plus an impromptu focus group of Sweden Democrats in Klippan during their party’s regular meeting. To illustrate where more extreme right-wing positions have moved politically, two interview participants are former Sweden Democrats who are now in a new right-wing party, the Alternative for Sweden, which formed when youth leadership of the Sweden Democrats broke away. All other participants except those in the focus group hold some sort of title within local Sweden Democrat party. Interviewees were snowball sampled. Interview subjects are primarily men, but include women and foreign-born Swedes. They represent a variety of professions including teachers, business people, and former taxi drivers. Before joining the Sweden Democrats, none had ever formally been involved in politics. Interviews were transcribed and thematically coded for analysis. Because of the limited sample size, the author acknowledges the limitations of the study but also offers these insights for future researchers to explore more deeply.
  7. This was the term used by interviewees to describe predominantly digital-first media outlets outside the mainstream.