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.

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

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.

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.”

Sweden's percentage of foreign-born residents has risen steadily, from 4 percent in 1960 to 14.3 percent today. Currently, that means 1.3 million Swedish residents were born outside the country.

Return to Sweden's welfare state?

But while the SD is appealing to anti-immigration sentiment, it’s also winning support from Swedes who are concerned about the outsourcing of jobs, particularly in manufacturing, and the erosion of the social safety nets that were once taken for granted.

The SD has “managed to fish in very murky waters on both the left and the right. The party does not have just a racist political agenda ... it is also a matter of welfare,” says Mr. Norocel.

Over the past four years, the SD and other government critics have lashed out against the current center-right governing coalition for dismantling Sweden’s “welfare state” amid waves of tax cuts and efforts to privatize the public sector. Pension benefits, unemployment benefits, and a host of social programs have all taken a hit.

Agneta Börjesson, general secretary of the progressive Swedish Green Party, observed that "the major parties have not been able in addressing the negative impacts of globalization," seeing this as the dominant reason behind SD's rise. She spoke of "Big Companies" moving offshore, "schools where you have a lot of different cultures," as issues that remained unaddressed.

Political scientists Sundström and Norocel separately shared similar globalization concerns, seeing the far right's rise as rooted in globalization's negative effects. Börjesson further drew a line between SD's leadership and its voters, alluding to the latter group as people who – personally or professionally – were swayed after experiencing "something bad happen to them."

Mr. Åkesson and the SD have promised a return of the welfare state, or the “Folkhemmet” (People’s Home), that was originally championed by Sweden’s Social Democrats since the 1920s. But the SD wants to ensure this public welfare system includes only those it defines as “ Swedish.”

Norocel says that many SD supporters are drawn by the social welfare message and not the discourse that its critics call racist. Still, he says, the party’s nationalism, its stance on immigration and perspective upon cultural stereotypes, plus its embrace of social programs, parallels many aspects of “very early National Socialism (Nazism) in Europe."

The SD's newfound political clout

Mr. Sundström, the political scientist, observed that some Swedes have wanted to discuss immigration, but that the political establishment’s down playing immigration questions has allowed SD “to rise and own that issue.” But while it's still uncertain what impact the SD rise will have on Sweden’s overall political tilt, their electoral success does give them more power in the country’s court system.

In Swedish courts, particularly where criminal and asylum cases are handled, a traditional judge will decide a case in conjunction with two or three lay judges that are political appointees.

The SD “might use the courts as a political arena in a way that hasn’t been common in Sweden,” says associate law professor Eric Bylander of the University of Göteborg, Sweden. This may have a chilling effect among Sweden's foreign-born residents, especially among the country’s estimated 400,000 Muslims.

In October 2009, SD leader Åkesson wrote in Scandinavia's largest paper, Aftonbladet, that “Muslims are our biggest foreign threat.” The party has also released highly debated statistical reports implying that new immigrants (primarily from the Middle East) are responsible for increases in serious crimes. A local SD leader also made headlines recently by claiming that many of those from the Middle East have a "gene" that makes them more violent.

With regret obvious in her voice, the Green Party's Börjesson noted that, overall, Sweden has become “a country of more fear.” Citing the fading memories of WWII and the 1930s, political scientist Sundström emphasized that if the far right could rise in Sweden, “it can happen anywhere.”

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