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Why Sweden's far-right, anti-immigrant party made powerful gains

Sweden is now facing a newly powerful political party, the Sweden Democrats, that has a neo-Nazi past and advocates drastically cutting the country's liberal immigration policies.

By Ritt GoldsteinCorrespondent / October 7, 2010

Protesters carry signs against the right-wing Sweden Democrat party during a demonstration against anti-immigration politics in downtown Stockholm, on Oct. 4.

Bob Strong/Reuters

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Dalarna, Sweden

Throughout much of Europe, the far right is on the rise, gaining support with a message against the political establishment, multiculturalism, and immigration that appears to be resonating with many disillusioned Europeans.

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In liberal Sweden, the far-right Sweden Democrats, a party with a neo-Nazi history, won 20 seats in the Sept. 19 parliamentary vote, enough support to leave the leading center-right coalition without a governing majority. While the SD, which campaigned that it would cut immigration rates by 90 percent, is widely castigated as “racist” and “Islamaphobic,” it nonetheless struck a deep chord among some in this country known for its political correctness.

Europe’s far-right parties comprise “an outcry of people that felt they were forgotten by the mainstream,” says Cristian Norocel, a political scientist at both Stockholm University and Finland’s University of Helsinki.

In Denmark, the Netherlands, Hungary, and Switzerland, far-right populist parties have similarly gained new footing, exercising their political capital to advocate anti-immigration platforms, and often focusing on Muslims, tougher stances on law and order. Their steady rise comes as much of the Continent is mired in recession, governments having made deep cuts in social programs and threatening more to come.

Though Sweden's economy is growing at more than four times the European Union average, new "economic and social reforms" here mean that many Swedes will not share in this prosperity.

Spontaneous protests in the streets followed last month's election, with thousands of Swedes railing against the SD. All seven of Sweden’s major political parties have vowed to refuse cooperation with the SD. But despite all the hand-wringing among both progressives and mainstream conservatives, the SD has suddenly become a political force to be reckoned with.

The origins of the far-right Sweden Democrats

The SD was founded in 1988 and its current leader, Jimmie Åkesson, joined in 1995, a period when Nazi uniforms were still seen at its meetings. With a determination to enter parliament, the party distanced itself from the Nazi imagery and adopted a public profile that appears considerably closer to the Swedish mainstream, adamantly claiming that it is a “normal party.”

According to SD's website, the party rejects "multiculturalism," attributes increased crime to immigration, calls for an end to "public support for immigrant organizations," adding that "all other activities aimed at promoting foreign cultures and identities in Sweden should be canceled."

It also wants to outlaw “religious buildings, with a non-Swedish building style, strange architecture” and forbid public workers from wearing “conspicuous religious or political symbols, such as a headscarf or turban." What’s more, it calls for the government to support immigrants who want to return to their homelands.

Mr. Norocel called SD a "wolf in sheep's skin” and says that it’s "very skillful at picturing a scapegoat" by targeting segments of Swedish society outside the country’s traditional mainstream.

“In 2001, they suddenly got rid of all the uniforms, the swastikas, the symbolism that scared so many voters,” notes Mikael Sundström, a political scientist with Lund University in Sweden. He says they have cultivated an image that adds “respectability to an issue [surrounding multiculturalism], but they still want to kick people out and they want to close the borders … in that they align themselves very much with the hard right.”

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