Far-Right party poised to take first seats in Sweden’s parliament
Swedes go to the polls on Sunday in an election which is likely to be a breakthrough for a far-Right party that had always seemed unelectable.
With his clean-cut looks, geeky spectacles, and sensible haircut, 31-year-old Jimmie Akesson looks more like an accountant than a political extremist.
Yet in the past few weeks Mr Akesson, leader of the far-Right Sweden Democrat party, has blamed immigrants for rape—especially Africans and Arabs.
His party has played crude television advertisements accusing burqa-clad Muslim women of taking benefits from white Swedish pensioners. And last year he called Islam the biggest threat to Sweden since the Second World War.
To the horror of his compatriots in one of Europe’s most liberal and tolerant nations, blaming foreigners has worked electoral magic.
When Swedes vote on Sunday Mr Akesson’s anti-immigrant party will almost certainly win its first seats at a general election—and has even been predicted to come third with 7.5 per cent of the vote, according to one poll.
That would be enough to give them 28 seats out of a total of 349 in the Riksdag, Stockholm’s parliament, ahead of five more established parties, and hold the balance of power.
It is the sort of far Right success that has been seen several times across Europe this year, and a prospect has struck fear in the hearts of Sweden’s usually moderate voters who never thought they would see extremists get anywhere near power.
Mainstream politicians, deeply troubled by the party’s success, have been forced to promise that they wouldn’t under any circumstances go into coalition with the Sweden Democrats.
Swedes are bracing themselves for a difficult time of minority government, when their economic problems demand decisive leadership.
Fredrik Reinfeldt, the prime minister and leader of a centre-Right party, has been so rattled that, after ignoring the Sweden Democrats throughout the campaign, last week he came out and warned that a vote for them meant a “gamble with stability”.
But Mr Akesson has won support by saying what for decades most Swedes have considered unthinkable.
“Swedish pensioners can’t afford to fix their broken teeth or pay for the medicine that would bring them back to health,” he said, blaming the generous welfare system for lavishing money on immigrants.
“Today’s multicultural Swedish power elite is completely blind to the dangers of Islam and Islamification,” was another of his claims. He has called for massive restrictions to be placed on immigration.
It is a message which has resonated with surprisingly large numbers of voters.
Success at the polls would have seemed impossible just a few years ago. In the late 1980s the former members of neo-Nazi groups who founded his party were seen as a nasty collection of unelectable losers on the far political fringe. But times have changed.
Mr Akesson is one of a crop of far-Right politicians who have burst onto the political scene in recent years across Europe, frightening liberals and conservatives alike.
In the Netherlands the Party of Freedom of Geert Wilders has held the balance of power since an election in June, while in Hungary the Jobbik party—alleged to be both anti-Roma and anti-Semitic by its opponents—won parliamentary seats last spring.
In France the fears of President Sarkozy that he will lose ground at the 2012 election to the far-Right French Front National are blamed for his decision to begin expelling hundreds of Roma, provoking international condemnation.
Austria has also seen the rise of powerful new Right wing politicians, and in Britain the BNP have donned suits and adopted milder manners to try to appeal to voters disillusioned with Labour.
Claude Moraes, a Labour MEP and spokesman on justice and home affairs, said the far-Right political success seen in Europe in the past five years is not a flash in the pan.
“Middle and working class voters everywhere feel very isolated and unable to change anything, in particular because of the deep global recession. That feeling of helplessness assists the far Right.
“It varies from country to country, but people are voting for extreme and populist parties. And unlike in the past, these parties are establishing themselves in poltical systems.”
But nowhere in Europe has been more shocked by the growth of the new Right than Sweden, which for a generation was ruled by the left-of-centre Social Democrats, with pioneering social projects and expensive welfare systems that were the model for fashionable liberals across Europe.
But four years ago Sweden turned its back on some of the highest taxes in Europe and the result of the last election was that Mr Reinfeldt’s party came to power.
For decades, the country had opened its arms to immigrants, often victims of oppression and persecution around the world, and now about one in 10 Swedes were born abroad. Now the atmosphere has changed and Swedish liberals accuse the government of bowing to the agenda of the Sweden Democrats, after it expelled 50 Roma earlier this year.
Mr Akesson made his name as a campaigner against the European Union, but his career really started to take off last year when he started to speak against the growth of Islam in Sweden.
The well-groomed nationalist lives alone with two cats, Matz and Franz, in a house in Sölvesborg, his hometown, hundreds of miles away from his girlfriend Louise, a party member, who is based in Stockholm.
His simplistic message is that too many foreigners have been taken in, risking the country’s identity and its finances.
His message was crudely put in a television advertisement showing a doddery old lady—white and typically Swedish—trying to reach bureaucrats counting out her pension money, and being shoved out of the way by a gang of women in black burqas looking like greedy crows as they fall on the banknotes.
Mr Akesson’s rise to prominence has been extraordinarily rapid. He joined the Sweden Democrats in 1995, seven years after the party’s foundation and at a time when it was trying to root out members with ties to Sweden’s violent neo-Nazi movement. He cut short his studies in political science at the prestigious Lund University to focus on his political work.
After serving for several years on the local council in Sölvesborg, the sort of sleepy southern town which is the party’s electoral bedrock, he seized the Sweden Democrat reins in 2005. A year later, with support growing under his clean-cut leadership, the Sweden Democrats won 2.9 percent of the vote in the general election; still short of the four per cent needed to win seats in parliament, but enough to entitle the party to state funding, further assisting its growth.
Swedish Muslims are frightened at what is happening to the safe nation they call home.
Agneta Khan, 18, whose parents emigrated to Sweden from Bangladesh in the 1980s, said: “There’s something very wrong with Sweden at the moment. With this lot on the way into parliament it’s starting to feel like a throwback to Europe in the 1930s.”
But most of those likely to vote for Mr Akesson are very far from the Nazi stereotype.
Jens, 45 and Cecilia, 40, shopkeepers who are married with two young daughters, were not embarrassed about supporting the party, even though they did not want to give their surnames.
Cecilia said: “We have Muslim friends who have integrated well. But look at it this way. If I invite people to my home for dinner I obviously only have a limited amount of food. I can’t invite everybody. That doesn’t mean I’m racist, I’m just critical of the level of immigration we’ve had here.”
Her husband said: “There’s an expectation among some Muslims that they can just take the bits of Sweden they like and ignore the rest.
“I don’t understand why the Sweden Democrats are viewed as such a threat by the establishment. We’ve seen in places like Denmark and the Netherlands that it can work just fine having parties like this in power.”