Rise of Sweden Democrats highlights normalisation of anti-migration sentiment

Popular sentiment towards migration has shifted radically in Sweden over the last few years.
Sunday 16/09/2018
Sweden Democrats Chairman Jimmie Akesson speaks in Stockholm, on September 9. (AP)
Architect of far-right’s rise. Sweden Democrats Chairman Jimmie Akesson speaks in Stockholm, on September 9. (AP)

LONDON - The results of the Swedish elections confirm that far-right, anti-migrant sentiment remains a force in Europe. With several important European elections, including in Belgium, Denmark and Finland, as well as European Parliament elections, scheduled for next year, the far-right anti-migrant populist wave has yet to break.

Preliminary results, which were being contested and recounted days after the September 9 election, the far-right Sweden Democrats won more than 17% of the vote, picking up 63 seats in the 349-seat Swedish parliament, the Riksdag.

This means the Sweden Democrats, a party that has roots in fascism and white nationalism and that campaigned on a strong anti-migrant and particularly anti-Muslim platform, is the third-largest party in the country.

The ruling centre-left coalition of the Social Democrats, Greens and Left Party won 40.6% of the vote. The opposition centre-right coalition, including the Moderates, the Christian Democrats, the Centre Party and the Liberals, claimed 40.3% of the vote. The split guarantees the Sweden Democrats a strong role in the negotiations over forming a new government in Sweden.

Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven, leader of the Social Democrats, said he intended to remain prime minister. He called on other “responsible” parties not to engage with the Sweden Democrats, dubbing it “a party with roots in Nazism” that would “never offer anything but hatred.”

The Sweden Democrats’ policies focus on migration and the party campaigned for an overhaul of the immigration system, greatly reducing the number of immigrants entering the country and imposing a strict integration process on those who do. The party has also been outspoken regarding Islam, alarming Sweden’s Muslim community, which makes up an estimated 8% of the country’s 10 million population.

Sweden Democrats Chairman Jimmie Akesson, 39, previously described Muslims as the “greatest foreign threat” Sweden has faced since the second world war.

In recent years, Akesson has sought to clean up the image of the party, expelling members who openly espoused neo-Nazi views and changing the party’s logo from a flaming torch to a friendly blue and yellow flower. While this has paid dividends at the ballot box, Sweden’s mainstream political parties are loth to deal with the Sweden Democrats.

“We have a moral responsibility [not to ally with the Sweden Democrats],” Lofven said after the elections. “We must gather all good forces. We won’t mourn. We will organise ourselves.”

Both the centre-left and centre-right blocs confirmed they would refuse to consider the Sweden Democrats as a coalition partner. However, even if as seems likely the Sweden Democrats remain on the outside of government, the policies the party advocates, particularly regarding migration, have entered the mainstream.

Popular sentiment towards migration has shifted radically in Sweden over the last few years, particularly post-2015 when Sweden took in proportionally more refugees than Germany.

In November 2015, Lofven’s centre-left government-initiated curbs on refugee immigration, citing the unprecedented number of asylum applications it had received and the huge pressures Sweden’s social services were facing.

Prior to the 2014 influx, the party had advocated open borders. During the latest election campaign, the Social Democrats stumbled to articulate a clear message on migration, leaving the door open for the Sweden Democrats to monopolise the issue.

The centre-right opposition has also adopted an increasingly hard-line position on migration since 2015. In late 2014, Moderate Party leader Fredrik Reinfeldt called on the Swedish people to “open their hearts” to large-scale immigration. One year later, the party, the largest of the four parties in the centre-right bloc, completely shifted its position, advocating for tough new rules for immigrants, including stricter requirements for family reunification and cuts in welfare benefits.

Whether the far-right Sweden Democrats have become part of the mainstream or not is immaterial, anti-migrant sentiment is becoming increasingly normalised, across Europe.

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