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The single-issue party thesis and the Sweden Democrats

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When commenting on the European radical right, the term ‘single-issue party’ is frequently bandied about. We survey the various conceptualizations of the term and then apply them to the Sweden Democrats (SD), a party with roots in extremist subcultures that gained parliamentary representation in the 2010 elections. In the empirical analysis, we draw primarily on a unique survey of all parliamentary candidates to study: (i) the SD candidates’ positions on a large number of diverse issues, (ii) what issues they prioritize and (iii) the degree of ideological cohesion among their candidates. Secondarily, certain voter characteristics associated with the single-issue party concept are surveyed. Here, we use a large-scale exit poll to study: (i) SD voters’ demographic characteristics and (ii) what issues they prioritize. Throughout, the other main Swedish parties serve as points of comparison. Against what is commonly claimed, we find that the single-issue party label fits the SD poorly.

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  1. Some authors, such as Mudde (1999), focus both on the supply- and demand-side.

  2. There are various measures of party cohesion based on roll-call votes. Rice’s (1928) ‘Index of vote likeness’ and varieties of it are commonly used to measure cohesion. However, in its original form it is designed only for ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ votes. In the Swedish parliament, there is also the possibility to abstain. We therefore used the ‘Agreement index’ as suggested by Hix et al (2005), rescaled to go from 0 to 100. We found that even the party with the lowest score – the Greens who scored 98.4 – had very low rates of defection. The SD had virtually no defections, scoring 99.7.

  3. The total number of candidates differs slightly from the official figure of 5665. This is due to additional candidates added at a later stage. However, the difference is miniscule and not important for the results presented here. The number of respondents by party are: Moderate Party 405, Centre Party 388, Liberal Party 444, Christian Democrats 302, Green Party 372, Social Democrats 392, Left Party 320, Sweden Democrats 47, Pirate Party 54 and Feminist Initiative 27.

  4. The response rate among SD candidates amounted to 69 per cent in total, and 90 per cent among the elected candidates.

  5. The reason for normalizing the observed standard deviation is that the maximum attainable standard deviation decreases with the size of the sample (which, in our case, is determined by the number of respondents from the party in question).

  6. For a candidate to be included in the calculation of a specific index, he or she must have responded to at least half of the item questions included in the index. For more information on the indices and the items included in each, see the Appendix.

  7. Some respondents in the sample were only entitled to vote in the local elections that took place on the same day. Furthermore, if we only consider those who voted for 1 of the 10 political parties in focus here, there are 11 457 respondents.

  8. The number of respondents per party and a comparison of that distribution to the actual election results are included in the Appendix.

  9. The Pirate Party was founded in 2006 and constitutes the world’s original Pirate Party (subsequently, Pirate Parties have established themselves in other countries as well). The Swedish Pirate Party has a narrow policy profile, focusing on three questions: (i) personal integrity, (ii) file sharing and anti-commercial downloading and (iii) immaterial rights and copyright restrictions. The party had a very sudden and unexpected success in the Swedish European Parliament election in 2009, receiving 7.1 per cent of the votes, but performed poorly in the 2010 election (Erlingsson and Persson, 2011).

  10. This middle-ground position on the economy is well illustrated by the following formulations in the party’s program of principles: ‘To us, a responsible, regulated market economy, built on long-term thinking, is a matter of course. Growth is necessary to maintain our level of welfare, but it needs to be balanced against other important values’ (Sverigedemokraternas principprogram, 2011, p. 20).

  11. The fact that the Centre Party emphasizes gender will perhaps come as a surprise to some. This is mainly a consequence of their ardent support for a tax deduction for household services. Information about items included in each index can be found in the appendix.

  12. Stressing the parties’ conservative outlook, in the Program of principles, they have chosen to label the section in which their views on gender are displayed ‘The Sweden Democrats, the family and equality between men and women’. Equality between sexes is hence viewed as subordinate to, and part of, the party’s views on family policy.

  13. In the Program of principle’s section on ‘A community governed by law’, it is clear that law and order is one of the party’s most important issues: ‘Aside from the preservation of the nation, the most important task for the state is to guarantee its citizen’s security and safety’. Here, a conservative tone is also found in the formulation ‘it is important that crime is punished quickly and consistently and that laws are in correspondence with the popular view on what is right and wrong.’

  14. Radical right parties have at times campaigned on the position that immigrants cause unemployment among non-immigrants. However, in 2010 the rate of unemployment in Sweden was well below the European Union average, and the Sweden Democrats’ campaign did not focus on the message that immigrants displace non-immigrants from the labor market. In their election manifest, they mentioned that they wish to tighten the rules for labor migrants, but most of the economic policy proposals focus on youth unemployment, small business and taxation.


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We wish to thank participants in seminars at the EPSA annual meeting and the Network on Nordic Populism, and Ryan Bakker for comments. We also wish to thank Helena Bengtsson and SVT/SR (Valu and Valpejl), SOM institute, Swedish National Data Service (SND), Statistics Sweden and the Riksdag for providing data. This research was financially supported by the Jan Wallander and Tom Hedelius Foundation.

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Correspondence to Kåre Vernby.

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The Acknowledgement section was not included in the previous version of this article, originally published on 16 August 2013. It has been included in this final version.



The questions used in this article

The candidates

The analysis of the candidates is based on the 2010 SVTPejl survey, carried out by SVT (the Swedish public service television company). Each question consisted of a statement to which the respondent could answer ‘1=Strongly Disagree’, ‘2=Disagree’, ‘3=Agree’, ‘4=Strongly Agree’ or ‘Don’t know’. All questions were recoded such that higher values indicate a more conservative position before creating the indices described in the main text. For all indexes, factor analysis revealed no more than one factor with an eigenvalue over 1, and reliability scores (Cronbach’s α) were between 0.65 (immigration) and 0.93 (economy).

The respondents were also asked to indicate, for each of the statements, whether the statement referred to an issue that was close to their heart or not, in other words, was of particular importance for them. Among the respondents, 73 per cent stated that one or more statements were of that kind. It is worth noting that the respondents were not limited as regards how many statements they could indicate as important. However, most respondents only highlighted a few statements in this way, for example, among those who mentioned at least one statement as referring to an issue close to their heart, 79 per cent mentioned five or fewer.

In the following, we list the statements included in each index.


Q17 ‘The wealth tax should be reinstated’

Q18 ‘The tax rate for those with high incomes should be raised’

Q19 ‘The same tax rate should be applied to pensions and wages’

Q21 ‘The tax on work-income should be lowered’

Q27 ‘The maximum time on health insurance should be limited’

Q29 ‘There should be more competition in the public sector’

Q30 ‘Unemployment insurance should be mandatory’

Q35 ‘It should be made more difficult for personnel agencies to circumvent employment protection legislation’


Q1 ‘Congestion taxes should be introduced in more big cities’

Q2 ‘Sweden should invest in high-speed trains’

Q3 ‘Sweden should allow licensed hunting of wolves’

Q4 ‘Nuclear power should be further expanded’

Q5 ‘The tax on gasoline should be raised’


Q9 ‘No municipality should be allowed to refuse to take in refugees’

Q10 ‘Fewer asylum seekers should be accepted into Sweden’

Q11 ‘Refugees without documents should be able to receive free health care’

Q12 ‘Teachers should not be allowed to wear a face-covering veil in Swedish schools’

Q32 ‘Swedish health care should only offer to carry out circumcision when it has a medical value’

Q47 ‘It should be a criminal offense to be a member of a racist organization’

Gender equality

Q13 ‘A bigger share of parental leave should be reserved for the fathers’

Q14 ‘The use of affirmative action in university admission should be abolished’

Q15 ‘The child-raising allowance should be abolished’

Q20 ‘The tax deduction for household services [RUT] should be kept’

Q22 ‘The sex purchase law should be abolished’

Law and order

Q7 ‘It should be a criminal offense to download copyright protected material from the internet for personal use’

Q24 ‘Violent crimes should lead to tougher sentences’

Q25 ‘The FRA law [a legislative package that authorizes the state to wiretap all telephone and Internet traffic that crosses Sweden’s borders] should be torn up’

Q42 ‘It should be possible to transfer students with disciplinary problems from their school against the will of the student and their parents’

The voters

The analysis of the voters is based on the 2010 Valu exit poll, carried out by SVT (the Swedish public service television company). The sample consists of 11 889 individuals. If we consider only those who voted for a party in the parliamentary election, the number of respondents is to 11 483 individuals, 3851 of whom were absentee voters (34 per cent). This is fairly close to the actual share of absentee voters in the 2010 election, which was 39 per cent (Valmyndigheten, 2011). The sample consists of voters from four cities. The cities are not randomly selected, but as we are mainly interested in the voters within each party, we consider this not to be a major concern. However, it should be noted that the distribution of votes over the parties is fairly close to the actual election results, as can be seen in Table A1.

Table A1 Respondents in the Valu Exit Poll 2010 and Election Results in the 2010 election to the parliament by party (numbers and per cent)

Furthermore, in the analysis of the voters, we use a set of questions that were introduced with the following question: ‘How important were the following issues for your choice of party today in the parliamentary election?’ The questions used referred to the Swedish economy (Q24), the environment (Q22), immigration (28), gender equality (31) and law and order (Q27). For each of the questions, the respondents could choose from the following five response categories: ‘very important’, ‘fairly important’, ‘neither important nor unimportant’, ‘fairly unimportant’ and ‘very unimportant’. We created an index by rescaling the answers on those questions so that they range from 0 to 100, where 100 refers to ‘very important’ and 0 refers to ‘very unimportant’ and the response categories in between receive 25, 50 and 75. We then calculated the average for each party’s voters.

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Erlingsson, G., Vernby, K. & Öhrvall, R. The single-issue party thesis and the Sweden Democrats. Acta Polit 49, 196–216 (2014).

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