On Saturday, September 13, the day before the Swedish general election, the leader of the Feminist Initiative (FI) party, Gudrun Schyman, joined U.S. music superstar Pharrell Williams on stage in front of nearly 10,000 people. It was the last big political stunt in what has been called a “super election year.”
For the past eight years, Sweden has been ruled by the center-right coalition Alliansen, led by the Moderate’s Fredrik Reinfeldt—two terms signified primarily by tax cuts and privatization of multiple public institutions. A general sense of frustration has been growing, and during the months preceding the election it was clear that there would be a shift in power, but no certainty as to its direction.
Outside of the usual debates and tensions between the already established left-green parties (the Social Democrats, the Left and the Green Party) and the incumbent conservative center-right coalition, a lot of attention has been given to the “outsider” parties: Feminist Initiative (formed in 2005) and the Sweden Democrats (SD).
These two parties have rightly been positioned as ideological polar opposites. The anti-immigration, far-right Sweden Democrats obtained a shocking 5.7 percent of the votes in the 2010 election, giving them entry into the parliament. Their philosophy is in line with right-wing extremists who are gaining popularity all over Europe, blaming all of Sweden’s problems on the weakness of immigration policies, with promises of bringing back “true” Swedish values—all while covering up the Nazi roots of many of its members. Over the four years they’ve spent in parliament, several scandals involving their party members have surfaced: pictures of a local politician wearing a swastika around her arm while cleaning up after a party; multiple offensive anonymous comments on racist and neo-Nazi Internet forums which have been traced back to SD party members; and a video showing the party’s juridicial spokesperson and economic spokesperson screaming racist and sexist slurs at a non-white Swede and a woman while chasing them with an iron rod. Yet support for the SD has continued to grow.
Perhaps it was in fear and frustration felt by the many Swedes that oppose SD that Feminist Initiative got fuel for the upswing that the party has experienced over the last seven to eight months. Before the 2014 European Parliament elections, Sweden experienced what Schyman has called “a feminist spring.” The Swedish public service TV network broadcast shows about feminism. FI increased its membership rapidly, becoming the first feminist party to gain a seat in the European Parliament by obtaining 5.3 percent of the vote in May.
With slogans like “out with the racists, in with the feminists,” FI became the absolute opposition to the looming threat of the Sweden Democrats. It was still unclear, however, if FI would reach the 4 percent mark needed to get a seat in the Swedish Parliament. During the summer months, FI was criticized for being too much about ideology and too little about actual reform. The conversation among feminist, anti-racist and left-leaning voters was mainly about how to vote to maximize the loss of the Sweden Democrats. Would a vote for FI be a throw-away vote if the party didn’t get enough votes to enter Parliament?
But less than two weeks before the general Swedish election, Feminist Initiative climbed to the 4 percent mark in the polls and the game changed. FI had an upswing in confidence again and people across the left-green parties argued that a vote for FI would be a vote against SD. If FI got into Parliament, it could form a coalition with the Social Democrats, the Left and the Green Party, and the group would have a majority over both the Sweden Democrats and the conservative center-right coalition.
During the days leading up to the election, FI supporters were in a hopeful and nerve-wrecking state of excitement—it seemed possible that Sweden would be the first country in the world to have a distinctively feminist party in their Parliament.
Then election eve came around, and Pharrell Williams was performing in Stockholm. He started talking about feminism and FI specifically, saying that someone special would be joining him on stage, and to the applause of the crowd Gudrun Schyman walked up on stage, hugging the artist and then dancing with him to the song “Lucky.”
Pharrell can be problematic as a feminist (specifically in regards to “The New Black” and “Blurred Lines”), but when he asked the crowd to “make some noise for all of you who love women” and “are you guys ready for Sweden to be on the news all around the world tomorrow?” it felt like someone who is not all good doing something pretty darn good. Is this the Beyoncé effect—would he have done this had she not broadcast her feminism at the Video Music Awards?
But even if he does it because now because it’s suddenly “cool” to be a feminist, and FI joins with him for the publicity, does it matter? Both Pharrell and FI are writing history by enacting a spectacle, and no matter how many cogent and on-point analyses one can make of how it is the powers of neo-liberalism that controls the whole thing. We have to start dismantling dichotomies and binaries of all kinds by welcoming attempts at building worlds that work, even if they initially are compromises.
Unfortunately the election didn’t go as one would have hoped. The only ones truly celebrating are the Sweden Democrats, who doubled their votes to 12.9 percent, making them the third largest party in Sweden. The left-green parties got just enough votes to win over the center-right coalition, but without a clear majority— which leaves significant power to the swing vote of the Sweden Democrats. Feminist Initiative was 0.9 percent short of the 4 percent it needed to get parliamentary seats.
That said, FI did get 3.1 percent of the vote, that’s 2.7 percent more than the 0.4 percent it got in the 2010 election. The results from the regional elections have not yet been counted, and it is very likely that there will be feminists in office at the local level, especially in urban areas such as Stockholm and Malmö.
It didn’t go all the way this time, but Feminist Initiative has changed the conversation in Swedish politics, establishing that feminism is not something that can be ignored. The party has forced Swedish politicians to talk about gender equality and discrimination—and incorporate an intersectional perspective on oppressive structure. In so doing, they’ve put the possibility of a successful feminist party on the international map. A political party solely devoted to feminist issues is no longer a faraway dream, but a real thing.