Is the anti-immigration right on the rise in Sweden?

As arson attacks at the Scandinavian nation's refugee centers continue, historically tolerant Swedes worry that anti-immigrant views are winning acceptance. 

Bertil Ericson/ Reuters via TT News Agency
Signs posted by the Sweden Democrats party in a subway station in Stockholm, Sweden. The party's anti-immigration stance made unexpected gains in elections last year.

In October alone, ten homes for asylum seekers in Sweden have burnt in suspected arson attacks.

On Saturday, yet another proposed refugee center was burned in the southwest town of Floda, raising Swedes' anxiety that pushback against immigration has made country of 10 million, long welcoming to immigrants, an inviting home for xenophobia as well. 

The attacks have led authorities to keep center locations secret, but a shortage of security guards has left some immigrants to nervously patrol grounds on their own. 

"This is not the Sweden we know, not the Sweden that I am proud of," Prime Minister Stefan Löfven told reporters in late October, after yet another attack. 

Millions of his countrymen seem to agree, and they are increasingly concerned about those who do not.

According to Reuters, Swedish official Mona Sahlin believes that extremist groups are involved in the series of arsons. No links have been found to the Swedish Democrats, a formerly fringe group that has made dramatic gains thanks to its anti-immigration platform as Sweden finds itself swamped with more refugees per capita than any other European nation. Party leader Jimmie Akesson denounced the attacks on Facebook, although not immediately.

Yet other Swedish Democrat politicians have published maps of refugee centers, and some worry that the party, which has quickly risen to become the country's third-largest, will bring xenophobia into polite society. In 2014, Swedish Democrats took 13 percent in a general election, and according to the Wall Street Journal, recent polls place their support even higher, at about 20 percent.  

Once having more explicit links to neo-Nazi groups, the party has tried to shed its racist image, and this is apparently paying off in the polls. Some of their success has been attributed to an anti-establishment stance, but a study from Sweden's Linköping University concluded that although the Social Democrats (SD) "might present its cause in the language of anti-establishment populism... SD voters’ intentions are fundamentally rooted in xenophobia.”

Mr. Akesson, for example, has called "Islamism is the Nazism and Communism of our time." 

But others say those who oppose such generous immigration are merely being reasonable. On its current course, Sweden expects nearly 200,000 to have arrived by 2016, and the country is struggling to find housing as winter looms. Citizens in rural areas have voiced concerns for the unprecedented pressure now put on schools and other social services.

Roughly three-quarters approve of the government's October plans to implement modest limits, such as to increase forced returns for migrants not granted refugee status. 

In response, the Sweden Democrats, who were not part of negotiations, protested that they would "devote our forces to other methods of influence," such as warning potential migrants from coming to Sweden. 

As the BBC noted last year, Sweden was once home to "one of Europe's most notorious and violent neo-Nazi organisations, the Swedish Resistance Movement," and an accompanying racist subculture: a legacy that centrist politicians fear could re-emerge in today's political climate.

But Nordic Studies scholar Benjamin R. Teitelbaum, a professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, has warned that overzealous attempts to muzzle the Sweden Democrats could wind up playing into the hands of extremist groups, lest mainstream politics be accused of obstructing the party's right to express its views.

"While many of these efforts [to rein in SD] were courageous and civil, others stooped to pseudo-intellectual and anti-democratic attacks, as well as violence; Swedes now face the challenge of upholding liberal democratic standards while dealing with a reviled political minority," he wrote for the New York Times. 

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