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Why Sweden's surging far-right party can't find enough candidates

The Sweden Democrats doubled their share of the vote in last year's elections. But the stigma of being a member and the inexperience in its ranks have made it hard to fill its positions.

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    A crowd gathers as Sweden Democrat parliament member Kent Ekeroth speaks during a demonstration to strengthened border controls held at the Radhustorget Square in Trelleborg, Sweden, October 17, 2015.
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In Sweden, one opposition party is enjoying voter success of the kind its competitors could only dream of. But its electoral surge has left the Sweden Democrats in a quandary: the party doesn’t have enough candidates to fill its elected posts. 

Party candidates who are sworn into office are dropping out at a rapid clip. Roughly a quarter of Sweden Democrats (SD) local officials elected last year in local and national elections have since left, either by defecting to other parties, declaring themselves independents, or simply throwing in the towel.

Why would a party that’s so popular with voters – its share of the vote doubled in 2014 – find it so difficult to attract politicians on the make?

The answer lies in SD’s far-right, anti-immigration agenda, and how far it skews from mainstream views here. For many Swedes, supporting SD carries a stigma that may exceed that attached to other European far-right parties, such as France’s National Front. And that stigma, coupled with a lack of competent politicians, could serve to check SD’s populist rise.

“In Sweden we have a culture of conformism, where some opinions are not allowed to be expressed,” says Tommy Möller, a professor of political science at Stockholm University. “We have something that we political scientists refer to as an opinion corridor, a narrow range of opinions that are allowed to be expressed … [so] many people won’t admit to supporting SD.”

In last year’s parliamentary election, the Sweden Democrats leapt from nearly 6 percent to almost 13 percent of the votes. And in some local elections, it received up to 20 percent of votes cast. The result put SD, which was founded in 1988, in third place behind the long-dominant Social Democrats and the Moderates. Recent polls have seen SD surge even higher, with one giving it 18.3 percent of voter support and another one 26.8 percent. 

Going into the 2014 elections, SD was confident of making gains, but it won far more seats than it had candidates for. In the southern town of Lessebo, for example, the party fielded one candidate for the municipal council but won five seats. In nearby Alvesta, it fielded three candidates and won seven seats, while its 21-year-old regional chairman was elected to parliament.

Since then, 150 elected Sweden Democrats have dropped out. According to the Swedish Election Authority, SD accounts for 27 of the 28 elected seats currently unfilled.

“A party growing this fast will face recruitment problems,” says Stefan Olsson, a newspaper political columnist and member of the center-right Moderates. “The Sweden Democrats are only a large party at the ballot box and in opinion polls. Organizationally speaking, they’re small.”

Attrition among new representatives 

The party is growing faster than any other parliamentary party in Sweden, but its membership of nearly 16,000 still lags far behind that of the two major parties. That has left the party with a grab bag of elected officials, many of them young men. It’s these mostly first-time politicians who are quitting.

“Some leave as a result of being shunned by other parties’ politicians and feeling that they have little impact despite their party’s large voter support,” says Möller. “Others were poorly prepared for elected office, while some were clearly unsuited for it and probably realize that’s the case.”

Last week, Björn Söder, a deputy speaker of parliament, was removed from SD’s leadership committee, apparently because he pushes an overly nationalist line, while party leader Jimmie Åkesson is trying to soften the party’s profile. Others have been expelled after acting irresponsibly or making inappropriate comments, often of a racist nature. And some have quit after receiving threats or concluding that being in the party harmed their careers and social life. Last year, an anti-SD activist pied Mr. Åkesson during a book-signing event.

The result is not just many unfilled positions; those officials who remain are overcommitted. Some hold multiple elected posts along with party positions. By contrast, traditional parties in Sweden and elsewhere usually have too many candidates wanting to run in elections.

In Alvesta, SD has now filled six of its seven council seats. But the newcomers have caused a stir: after one councillor, a young sawmill worker, acquired a tattoo of a Nazi symbol, his SD colleague Tomas Edevik called for him to be expelled, so far without success.

but “Simply being elected in democratic elections doesn’t make SD more democratic,” Mr. Edevik complains. “A normal party would ban a member with Nazi leanings.” 

In Trelleborg, on Sweden’s southern coast, Helmuth Petersén says four of his 10 fellow SD city councillors have defected to the Moderates. But he insists that the party’s popularity hasn’t dimmed.

“They left us soon after the election and thought it would harm us, but they were wrong. On the contrary, they’ve probably turned us into Trelleborg’s most popular party,” he says. “Residents are more interested in us than ever before, and we are pushing our core issues hard.”

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