Max Foster travels to an idyllic Swedish island where the far-right are gaining political clout at the expense of the centre-ground.
I am in the medieval town of Visby on the island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea. Through my hotel window, I can see over the rooftops to the ocean glistening in the distance. Below, I can hear people milling around the narrow, cobbled streets stopping in on an array of politcal speeches and discussions. For one week every Summer, this usually sleepy coastal idyll is engulfed by the country's elite and transformed in to a hotbed of debate.
'Almedalen' is a distinctly Scandinavian affair where members of the public rub shoulders with ministers, CEOs and media personalities in the spirit of open dialogue. I walked past a rally for the leftist Feminist Initiative which has the slogan ‘replace the racists with feminists’ and on my way back through the square I noticed their spot had been taken by the far-right Alternative for Sweden party which claims ‘uncontrolled mass immigration from the third world’ has helped plunge Sweden in to ‘crisis.’
'I think it's good that instead of working in silos and thinking and acting in silos vertically. In order to get things done in today's world you've got to go horizontal and work across different sectors in society,' Jan Eliasson told me in an interview for Expressen TV. He's a former high-ranking UN diplomat and Swedish foreign minister.
But there is one silo that has opened up in recent years that many here are doing their best to ignore and it's called populism. Alternative for Sweden is one of a handful of far-right groups that have emerged, the largest of which - the Swedish Democrats - is now seriously challenging the two established centrist parties, the Social Democrats on the left and Moderates to their right.
'This is one of the most negative trends we have today that you divide people, us an them, and along ethic and religious lines and then you start to slide on the value scale,' Eliasson says. 'Also, the hate language starts to develop and then the divisions grow deeper. So we've got to really look in to this and see that we maintain a relaxed, civilized conversation.'
But the centrists are refusing to co-operate with the far-right so there is no dialogue between them at the moment. The Social Democratic Defence Minister, Peter Hultqvist, accuses the populists of trying to divide society by keeping a constant focus on immigration, foreigners and the crime connected to them. 'We have seen that the right ring extremist populists, they have used social media for attacking traditional political life but also spreading fake news and rumours and wrong things.' Hultqvist told me in an interview for CNN affiliate Expressen TV. 'We are not ready to co-operate with right wing populists, extremists or racists.'
This isn't a new argument. I've heard similar views expressed from mainstream politicians across Europe trying to distance themselves from their own populist revolts but it hasn't made the far right go away, in fact the populists are gaining political clout and that's because their isolation plays in to their anti-establishment narrative. The divide that's opened up has also proved to be fertile ground for external forces bent on bringing down the western liberal order. 'We have seen on social media, propaganda directly connected to something that can be useful for Russia,' claims Hultqvist.
The Russians dismiss the claims. 'As we have many times repeatedly answered to our western partners, before blaming Russia, you have to get very substantial proofs,' Viktor Tatarintsev, Russian Ambassador to Sweden told me. 'It is easy to depict it as if Russians are behind that.'
Whoever's to blame, we know western politics is polarizing and that it's adding to the clout of the far-right and Russia. They own the anti-immigration, anti-establishment debate that many voters deserted the centre-ground for. As centrist politicians lose audience and clout, they may be forced to consider engaging more in the populist debate. If that happens, then Almadalen could return to it's roots and host one big political conversation instead of two divded ones.