(Bloomberg) -- Sweden’s annual celebration of democracy (and lobbying) in the idyllic medieval town of Visby was under siege last week.
Almedalen week, a gathering of politicians, executives, lobbyist, activists and a sea of media, has become a growing target of far-right extremists, who demonstrated, disrupted speeches and attacked people in the cobblestoned alleys of the old Hanseatic town on the island of Gotland. Complaints to the police more than doubled this year, with charges of assaults, hate speech and agitation against ethnic groups, according to the TT news agency.
Maria Halkiewicz, a representative of the Sweden-Israel Friendship Association, was a front-row witness to an assault by the Nordic Resistance Movement, a neo-Nazi group. Her friend, Kicki, was brought to the ground as she tried to stop the NMR from raising a banner in front of their tent. “They dragged her back and forth on the ground as she was lying on her back,” she said.
While the police was quick to intervene, the street violence and increasingly visible presence shows an emboldened far-right at a time of rising global authoritarianism. Sweden is facing an election in September, with some polls showing that the Sweden Democrats, an anti-immigration party with neo-Nazi roots, could emerge as the biggest. Voters have flocked to the group after Sweden became a haven for refugees during the recent migrant crisis.
The violence and rise of the Sweden Democrats has largely high-jacked the election debate. Leaders of the traditional parties focused large parts of their speeches during the week on the perils facing democracy and how to beat back the Sweden Democrats instead of the pocketbook issues usually reserved for campaigning.
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Prime Minister Stefan Lofven said he was “so angry” because forces are trying to “use democracy to destroy democracy.”
“Our democracy is under attack from rising hatred and extremism,” Lofven said on Thursday. The premier’s party, the Social Democrats, is heading for their worst election ever, losing support to the Sweden Democrats. It’s also struggling to explain a worsening situation with long waiting lines in the health care system.
Annie Loof, leader of the Center Party, was briefly interrupted by NMR agitators with shouts of "traitor” when she spoke Wednesday about a recent fire-bomb attack on the Jewish parish house in Gothenburg.
The established parties are now looking at cracking down on some of the democratic freedoms that allow groups such as NMR to gather and agitate. The Moderates, the biggest party in the opposition Alliance bloc, wants to look at criminalizing active participation in organizations that commit violent crimes or make serious threats. The government last week started a review on whether to make racist symbols illegal.
The Sweden Democrats, which has spent the past two decades scrubbing itself of its racist past and expelled many fringe members, condemned the violence and disruption of the past week. Party leader Jimmie Akesson said violence has no place as a means of achieving political goals. “Then you should be in prison!” he said.
But on its website, the NMR declared its actions during the week by “hundreds” of its members as a “victory” for national socialism. It had received permits to demonstrate.
Checks and Balances
The rise of authoritarian forces is spurring calls for deeper look at the checks and balances of the political system. The largest Swedish morning daily, Dagens Nyheter, in an editorial on Sunday called for constitutional review to curb the power of parliament and institute a constitutional court as a check on the legislature.
“The more barriers against authoritarian forces the better,” the newspaper, which calls itself independently liberal, wrote. “Defense of democracy can’t become a race against the clock.”
These types of changes have also been backed by the Moderates. Party secretary Gunnar Strommer in June warned that Sweden shouldn’t think itself immune to the illiberal changes sweeping over countries such as Hungary and Poland. The move from being a democracy to becoming dictatorship could in reality be over in just four months. “It only takes a parliamentary decision in May, an election and a parliamentary decision in October,” he said.
The Sweden Democrats said that the establishment is overreacting to the swift changes in the political landscape.
“Hypothetically parliament could dissolve itself and the rest of the democracy with two decisions,” said Oscar Sjostedt, the party’s spokesman on economic policy, in an interview last week. “But why? There are no parties even with a close chance of getting in to parliament who would want that.”
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