Anti-migrant feeling fuels Swedish far right as election looms
Sweden Anti-migrant feeling fuels Swedish far right as election looms
Popular concern looks likely to propel Sweden Democrats to a possible 20% of the vote
Last month, yards from the Social Democratsâ booth in Rinkeby town square, where Kersten Aggefors is handing out leaflets for the party that has finished first in every Swedish election since 1917, masked young people set five cars ablaze.
A few days earlier, eight unidentified men had attac ked the townâs half-built new police station, crashing through the gate and hurling rocks and firecrackers at security guards, apparently in retaliation for a drug bust. In January, two gunmen walked into a crowded pizzeria and shot a man dead, in what police said was a gang execution.
Rinkeby, a symbol of Scandinavian social democracy when it was built in the 1970s, had a bad reputation, but this was largely undeserved, said Aggefors, who has lived in the suburb, 20 minutes by metro from the capital, for 47 years.
âYes, things need fixing,â she said. âBut the residents here are decent people, doing nothing wrong. Maybe Iâm stupid, but Iâve always felt safe. Itâs just thereâs a small criminal minority.â
Tawfiiq, who arrived from Somalia 15 years ago, agreed. âItâs a good place, itâs fine,â he said outside the Islamic centre. âThere are some bad people, like everywhere.â Tomas Beer, a local teacher, prof essed enthusiasm for a âreally committed, active, generous communityâ.
Nevertheless, this suburb of about 16,000 residents, 90% of whom were born abroad or to parents born outside Sweden, and only half of whom are in work, has become shorthand for inequality, social exclusion, crime â" and immigration.
Three years after the European migration crisis rocked the country, a headline-hogging series of torched cars, grenade attacks and shootings (129 in Stockholm last year, 19 of them fatal), mostly in socially deprived suburbs such as Rinkeby with high immigrant populations, has kept immigration and integration at the top of the political agenda.
With a week to go before an election on 9 September, in a country that has long prided itself on being perhaps Europeâs most liberal and open to migrants, popular concern over migration looks likely to propel the populist, far-right and anti-immigration Sweden Democrats to a possible 20% of the vote.
Paula Bieler, a member of the partyâs executive board, speaking at its offices in the Riksdag, said: âOf course itâs about immigration. âBut immigration affects so much else. Other parties donât make those connections, wonât talk about these problems, because itâs ânot niceâ to do so. Thatâs basically telling voters theyâre stupid.â
Mirroring gains made by far-right, anti-establishment parties in Italy, Germany, France, Austria and the Netherlands, the Sweden Democrats have plainly benefited f rom the 2015 crisis that overwhelmed social services and caused such fury that refugee accommodation centres were set on fire.
However, Anders Sannerstadt, a political scientist at Lund University and specialist on the far-right party, said a nation that once billed itself as a âhumanitarian superpowerâ has long been divided over asylum and immigration.
âSince the early 1990s, opinion polls have consistently shown more people wanting to reduce numbers than increase them,â he said. âBut that was never reflected in official policy.â
About 400,000 people â" 163,000 in 2015 â" have sought asylum in Sweden in the past six years. This is the highest number per capita in Europe and helped tip the population over the 10 million mark last year.
The economy is doing fine: unemployment is at its lowest rate for a decade and growth should be about 3% this year. But support for the Sweden Democratsâ polici es, which include a total freeze on asylum seekers, accepting future refugees only from Swedenâs Nordic neighbours, tougher penalties for crime and greater powers for police, has surged.
Niklas Bolin, a specialist in the radical right at Mid Sweden University, said: âTwo arguments have been effective. Immigration is a threat to society, because itâs hard to integrate people with different cultural norms. And the cost is harming Swedenâs welfare state. That economic point has really appealed.â
Shunned â" with occasional, swiftly retracted exceptions on the right â" by Swedenâs other parties because of its roots in the Nazi movement, the party has also successfully linked immigration to violent crime in the minds of many, although official figures show little meaningful correlation.
Headed since 2005 by Jimmie Ã kesson, a young, eloquent communicator who has purged most of its more extreme personalities and policies, the Sweden Democratsâ share of the national vote has climbed rapidly.
Support doubled from 5.7% in 2010, when the Sweden Democrats made their parliamentary debut, to 12.9% in 2014, and has climbed sharply again since, to a level that could see it finish anywhere from first to third, with 70-plus MPs.
Both the centre-left and centre-right parties, the ruling Social Democrats and opposition Moderate party, have swung r ight in response. The outgoing red-green coalition radically tightened immigration rules and suspended family reunifications, cutting the number of arrivals to 26,000 last year. Stefan LÃ¶fven, the prime minister, has said the number should halve.
Sweden is hiring 10,000 more police officers and wants harsher penalties for gun crimes and sexual assault, an end to financial support for undocumented foreigners and faster repatriation of failed asylum applicants. The Moderates have promised cuts to refugee welfare.
But for a critical few years, said Ann-Cathrine Jungar, a far-right specialist at SÃ¶dertÃ¶rn University, the Sweden Democrats had âbasically an open fieldâ as the only party critical of immigration. âAnd now the mainstream parties canât get back the voters theyâve lost,â Jungar said.
On course for a record low score of about 25%, the Social Democrats have admitted mistakes were made. âObviously there were underestimated integration problem s before 2015,â said Anders Ygeman, a former home affairs minister who now heads the partyâs parliamentary group. âMaybe people didnât want to discuss migration so as not to help the far right.âTory MEPs criticised for alliance with Swedish populists Read more
The party now needs strong policies on immigration and crime, Ygeman said, âperhaps not to win voters back, but to stop more leavingâ. Whether it will be able to do that is far from certain.
Governments in Sweden do not need a majority to continue governing â" they must just avoid facing one. But with parliamentâs dominant centre-left and centre-right blocs both heading for about 40% of the vote, whatever government emerges will have to turn on some occasions to either the opposition or the populists to have a chance of passing legislation.
A raft of multi-party coalitions look possible on left and right. The Social Democrats or the Moderates could also form single-party mi nority governments. Although considered unlikely, Sweden may even see a German-style grand coalition linking the two traditional blocs.
But in most scenarios, some proposed laws will stand or fall on the vote of the Sweden Democrats, forcing the government to at least consider their views. No formal arrangements are yet likely, said Bolin, but âin the long run, bit by bit, it will be impossible not to include them somehowâ.
Bieler wholeheartedly agreed. âOne in five, perhaps one in four voters will cast their ballot for us,â she said. âToday in Sweden, everyone knows someone, maybe loves someone, who supports the Sweden Democrats â¦ We cannot be excluded for ever.âTopics
- The far right
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