The view from the ground.

Minority Rules

How Sweden's far-right rose from neo-Nazi skinheads to populist Muslim-baiters to the country's new kingmakers.

If the spectrum of political stereotypes about Sweden ranges from IKEA-furnished socialist paradise to Stieg Larsson-style right-wing dystopia, the country’s upcoming election on September 19 seems far more likely to confirm the latter than the former. The Sweden Democrats, a once-marginal populist party whose platform targets immigrants, is on the path to enter parliament for the first time — and potentially to serve as kingmaker in post-election coalition negotiations.

“Stieg would have been appalled but not surprised,” says Anna-Lena Lodenius, a journalist who has monitored the Sweden Democrats since their formation in 1988 and once co-wrote a book with Larsson, the late author of the bestselling Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy, on the extreme right in Sweden.

In ditching their pariah status for parliamentary legitimacy, the Sweden Democrats will be joining their fellow far-right parties across Europe — from Denmark, Norway, and the Netherlands to France, Belgium, and Austria. Following in their footsteps, the Sweden Democrats have learned to broaden their appeal beyond their original core constituency of hardcore neo-Nazis and young skinheads.

Indeed, perhaps the only reason that Sweden has thus far managed to avoid hosting a prominent far-right faction on the national stage is that the Sweden Democrats delayed trading their jackboots and uniforms for more palatable political symbols, and as a result couldn’t attract the minimum 4 percent of the vote needed to qualify for parliament.

“In our neighboring countries, the parties of discontent began life as classic tax revolt movements,” says Anders Sannerstedt, a political scientist at Lund University. “The Sweden Democrats by contrast have spent the last 15 years trying to shed their white power image.”

A direct descendent of Keep Sweden Swedish — a rabidly anti-immigrant group founded in 1979 by the former members of several small, pro-Nazi parties — the Sweden Democrats once seemed in no rush to earn their democratic credentials, satisfied instead to serve for years as a tribune for unabashed white-power anger. It’s only in the last decade that the party has embraced the rhetoric of aggrieved populism aimed at Muslims. “Although their ideas are still basically the same — they trace every problem back to immigration — they have undoubtedly become more respectable,” says Lodenius.

The strength of this appeal is most apparent in the towns and villages of the densely populated south, the party’s main voter base. The Sweden Democrats have attracted voters — mainly disaffected, working-class men — by promoting their vision of a Sweden that combines social conservatism and ethnic homogeneity with the promise of a return to an undiluted, cradle-to-grave welfare state.

“Social Democrats in particular have been migrating to the Sweden Democrats, but they’re also winning over some conservative voters from the centre-right,” says Lodenius.

For a political system that prizes consensus, the arrival of the Sweden Democrats has rocked the natural order. Politicians and the press have spent years debating whether to treat them as an equal or an outcast. Consigned to an undefined hinterland, the party leveraged its martyr status to boost its anti-establishment appeal.

Now the Sweden Democrats are one of the major talking points in a Swedish election fraught with intrigue. The latest polls show the incumbent coalition — a four-party center-right alliance — holding a consistent lead over the three-party Red-Green opposition, with the Sweden Democrats holding at 7.5 percent — enough to make the far-right, anti-Muslim group the third-largest party in the country. It’s a remarkable rise for a party that was thrilled with its 2.9 percent showing at the last election in 2006.

But if the center-left opposition makes even a mild surge before the election, it’s possible that Sweden will be left with a hung parliament — in which case the unaligned Sweden Democrats will be in a position to be the country’s permanent swing vote. All the mainstream parties have vowed not to work with the far-right populists, but it’s not clear, in the event of an electoral stalemate, how the country would manage to function without them. Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt indicated over the weekend that he could envisage seeking the support of the Green Party in a bid to undercut the Sweden Democrats’ influence, but it’s unclear just how the country’s center-right could broker such a deal with a leftist group.

Even if they are isolated in parliament, the Sweden Democrats will soon have a bigger soapbox from which to voice their antipathy toward Muslim immigrants. But the obsession with Islam is relatively new. In the 1990s, as the party was just beginning to engage with the democratic process, immigrant groups were routinely described as welfare freeloaders with criminal tendencies. “Religion really wasn’t much of an issue, despite the fact that Sweden had already taken in a lot of Muslims from countries like Iran and the former Yugoslavia,” says Lodenius.

It was only after 9/11 that the party took to portraying large-scale immigration from the Middle East as financially reckless and culturally suicidal. In the run-up to this year’s election, the party has doubled-down on its anti-Islamic messaging. Party leader Jimmie Åkesson earned notoriety last year when he described the spread of Islam in Sweden as “our greatest foreign threat since World War II.” The party underscored its message with a campaign film showing a pensioner lady losing out to a gang of marauding burqa-clad mothers in a race for government benefits.

One of the Sweden Democrats’ top parliamentary candidates is 29-year-old Kent Ekeroth. A vocal critic of Islam, he has already risen to a top post in the party despite only having joined in 2006. “We want to make it more difficult for practising Muslims to live in Sweden because we want to make it more difficult for people to live in accordance with totalitarian ideologies,” he says.

Sweden’s government does not keep track of the religious affiliations of its nine million residents, but a recent U.S. State Department report estimates that there are up to half a million Muslims in the country, just over 100,000 of whom are registered with the Muslim Council of Sweden as practicing. Muslims may not statistically be an overwhelming proportion of the total population, but their presence is a symbolic affront to some Swedes nostalgic for simpler times.

Sweden witnessed very little immigration in the first half of the last century, its homogeneity disrupted only by the arrival of World War II refugees from neighboring countries in Scandinavia and the Baltic states. Then, in the 1950s, Sweden began bringing in migrant workers from Turkey and the former Yugoslavia to fill in labor shortages. The Muslim population began expanding more rapidly in the early 1970s, when Sweden expanded its policy of taking in refugees from war-torn countries, leading to large-scale immigration in subsequent decades from Bosnia, Kosovo, Lebanon, Iran, Iraq, and Somalia. After 2003, for example, Sweden accepted more Iraqi refugees than any other European country — 40 percent of the continent’s total; by the end of 2009, the country of nine million was home to 117,000 people born in Iraq.

Kent Ekeroth wants Muslims to leave Sweden if they won’t assimilate, offering to pay them money to help them on their way if necessary. In line with party policy — and in deference to mainstream Swedish voters’ sensibilities — he frames his arguments in cultural rather than racial terms, claiming that Islamic societies represent a
medieval outlook that makes Muslims unsuited to life in modern-day Sweden. Echoing his party leader, Ekeroth speaks of the purported ongoing Islamification of Sweden, a recurring trope among rightists who warn of a coming “Eurabia.”

“We import a lot of the crime we have in Sweden today, primarily through people from the Middle East and Africa, whose culture, values, and concepts of right and wrong are completely different,” he says.

Though Swedes generally reject this kind of cultural stereotyping, many would now readily concede that the country’s multiculturalism experiment has not been friction-free. Immigrants are somewhat over-represented in crime statistics and segregation is rife in several cities, with new arrivals often moving into areas with nicknames like Little Baghdad and Little Mogadishu. Mayors have warned of municipal infrastructure stretched to the breaking point, while fire and ambulance services have come under attack in some immigrant-heavy suburbs because locals thought they were an intrusive show of authority. Many Swedes believe that their country has an immigration — or at the least, an integration — problem.

But Sweden’s mainstream parties have preferred to avoid the subject directly for fear of being tainted by the accusation of populism — allowing the Sweden Democrats to monopolize the issue with their rabble-rousing. “It’s vital that the other parties are able to debate immigration and globalization, migration patterns and their effects on society, radical Islam, and so on,” says Lodenius. “People have real fears here and politicians need to be able to explain how they intend to meet these challenges.”

Ignoring the abrasive new kids on the block isn’t going to make them go away, and Lodenius argues that it is no longer feasible to starve the Sweden Democrats of publicity simply by dismissing them as shrill extremists. “The Sweden Democrats are not Nazis anymore and they currently represent quite a few voters. I expect them to make it in this time. Whatever happens, it’s going to be a fascinating election.”

But Lodenius also concedes that negotiating with the Sweden Democrats will be a major adjustment for a country that for so long enjoyed a multicultural consensus. “Stieg Larsson and I agreed on a lot of things but he would have found it very difficult to accept the need to engage with them.”

Paul O'Mahony is a freelance journalist based in Stockholm.

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