Swedish politics could meet choppy waters as outsider party taps into anti-immigrant passions

By Karl Ritter, AP
Saturday, June 5, 2010

Rightist group jolts Sweden’s tolerant self-image

STOCKHOLM — From his party’s office in the basement of a Stockholm parking garage, Jimmie Akesson is running for Parliament, preaching sharp cuts in immigration and calling Islam the greatest threat to Swedish society.

That message until now has gained little traction in Sweden, but polls are predicting gains for Akesson’s far-right Sweden Democrats that could give them a king-maker role in national elections this year if neither mainstream bloc wins an outright majority.

It’s an unnerving scenario for Swedes and their self-image of being more tolerant of outsiders than the rest of Europe.

Opinion polls show the Sweden Democrats could get 4 to 6 percent of votes in the September election, enough to win 15-20 seats in the 349-member Riksdag and potentially throw Swedish politics into disarray.

But by law a party needs at least 4 percent to get into the legislature, and the Sweden Democrats could well fall short. Also, paradoxically, their poll numbers are up at a time when another survey show the number of Swedes worried about excessive immigration is declining.

All the same, the mainstream parties which hitherto simply ignored the far right are being forced to say where they stand. The center-left says it won’t govern with the Sweden Democrats under any circumstances. The incumbent center-right hasn’t put it quite that strongly, but sounds very reluctant to line up with the far right.

Akesson, the clerkish 31-year-old leading the Sweden Democrat charge, insists voters are more disenchanted with liberal immigration laws than they admit out loud.

“In Sweden, if you voice criticism against the immigration policy, you are viewed as a racist or xenophobe,” Akesson said. “It’s difficult to get people to stand up and say ‘Here’s what I think.’”

“Our self-image is that of a tolerant country,” said Lena Sundstrom, a Swedish writer who has studied the hardening attitudes toward immigrants in neighboring Denmark. Swedes, she says, draw national pride from such achievements as gender equality, and the brand names they have exported worldwide — Volvo cars, Ikea furniture.

And even though one in every four residents or their parents were born in a foreign country, and an estimated 300,000 Muslims live in the otherwise Christian but secularized country of 9.35 million, it hasn’t swept any nationalist movements to prominence.

Denmark, by contrast, has a minority nationalist party whose king-maker power imposed curbs on immigration, making it a role model for the Sweden Democrats.

The other Nordic neighbors, Norway and Finland, also have such parties in their legislatures, advocating strong controls on immigration. So do other western European countries including Italy, Switzerland, Austria, Belgium and the Netherlands.

Swedes occasionally debate the pros and cons of banning burqas or minarets, or pressuring immigrants to learn Swedish, as has happened in some European countries, but these ideas have never gone beyond talk.

“Swedes in general are a very tolerant people,” Akesson acknowledges. “But I’m convinced that a large part of the Swedish electorate believes that the immigration policies have been too lax and far too generous.”

Over the years, that generosity has given jobs to migrants from southern Europe; haven to victims of Chilean dictatorship; escape from Iran’s ayatollahs; safety for Kurds, Bosnians and Kosovars, and more recently, Iraqis and Somalis.

Sweden now has more immigrants from Iraq than from neighboring Norway and Denmark combined, according to government statistics. Last year alone it admitted more than 100,000 immigrants, including 10,000 Thais, 8,700 Somalis and 8,500 Iraqis, those statistics show.

A survey of 9,000 people by the SOM institute at Goteborg University last month showed the proportion of Swedes who believe the country has admitted too many immigrants fell from 52 percent in 1993 to 36 percent last year. No margin of error was given.

In some cities immigrants are nearly 40 percent of the population, and in certain neighborhoods nearly 90 percent.

What worries many Swedes is the clustering of immigrants in neighborhoods with nicknames such as “Little Baghdad.” Few native Swedes ever set foot in these districts, viewing them as dangerous slums infested with criminal gangs and Islamic fundamentalists.

Critics say the extent of those problems are often exaggerated by the Sweden Democrats, but there is no doubt that Sweden is becoming increasingly segregated.

In the Stockholm suburb of Rinkeby, aka “Little Mogadishu,” a 20-year-old Somali woman in a black head scarf says: “Not even a non-Muslim dares to walk around with a short skirt in Rinkeby.” She doesn’t give her name for fear of neighbors’ reaction.

The Sweden Democrats say immigration has become an economic burden, draining the welfare system and channeling jobs to newcomers who work for lower wages.

Akesson says he fears Sweden is adapting to the Muslim minority instead of the other way around and has written of Islam’s impact on Swedish society as “our biggest foreign threat since World War II.”

He mentions cases of public schools that have stopped serving pork and no longer celebrate the end of the school year in church.

Akesson also points to attacks against artist Lars Vilks, who drew the prophet Muhammad with a dog’s body. Last month furious protesters chanting “God is Great” in Arabic disrupted Vilks’ guest lecture at Uppsala University and vandals tossed firebombs at his home.

The party’s views have provoked fierce reactions. Some high schools have prohibited party members from handing out flyers on school grounds. In 2007 the party struggled to find a venue for its annual meeting when several conference centers turned it down, citing security concerns.

Police say the party is exposed to “systematic threats” from activists, and the it keeps the address of the Stockholm office secret.

The Sweden Democrats emerged from an explicitly racist movement called “Keep Sweden Swedish” in the late 1980s. They have since expelled extremist members, and made their first political mark in 2006 elections when they won seats on municipal councils and fell just short of getting seats in Parliament.

“Swedishness is not in your skin color or in any part of the body. It’s in your values and how you behave,” Akesson said.

The party has changed its logo from a burning flame to a liverwort flower. In Akesson’s office, the most overt nod to national sentiment is the tropical fish in the aquarium. They are yellow and blue — the colors of the Swedish flag.

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