Sweden: Election prompts soul-searching

STOCKHOLM, Sweden — As the dust settles from Sweden’s national election last month, a country known for its mild-mannered politics and tolerance toward immigration has entered a period of soul-searching.

The far-right Sweden Democrats, a populist, anti-immigration party, garnered an unexpected 5.7 percent of the vote, stunning voters and ushering the party into parliament for the first time.

A rally, hastily organized through Facebook a day after the election, drew about 10,000 Swedes to central Stockholm, according to media reports and organizers. The demonstrators held placards and speakers denounced the Sweden Democrats as racists. News programs intending to dissect the election returns instead devoted the lion’s share of their time to one baffling question: “How did the Sweden Democrats win?”

Speaking to supporters on election night, Jimmie Akesson, the 31-year-old bespectacled party leader of the Sweden Democrats, appeared cool and collected, assuring voters the party was ready to lead.

"We won't cause problems. We will take responsibility. That is my promise to the Swedish people," he told reporters and a jubilant crowd.

The results have mirrored those of recent elections in countries such as the Netherlands, Demark and Hungary, where voters handed losses to long-ruling center-left parties or leaned to the right. In the Netherlands, the anti-immigration Party for Freedom took on 24 seats during June’s election and is now the third largest Dutch political party.

“Everyone wants immigrants taken care of but they don’t want to take care of them,” said Anas Abullah, a member of Swedish center-left Social Democrats party, who came to Sweden with his parents from Syria when he was 16. “In my opinion people have been terrorized and failed to meet the Sweden Democrats in debate and to be clear on how we see immigration.”

Abullah blames the ineptitude of traditional political parties and poor integration policies for the Sweden Democrats’ rise. Like many Swedes, Abullah was shocked the party even broke the national vote threshold of 4 percent let alone picked up 20 seats in parliament.

If left unchecked, he predicts the Sweden Democrats will continue their electoral gains.

“Maybe they’re 10 [percent of the vote] next time or 15 if we keep going,” he said.

The party, which traces its roots to neo-Nazi groupings from the 1980s, wants to reduce immigration to Sweden by 90 percent and has called Islam “unSwedish.” Although the party denies it, many see the group as xenophobic or outright racist.

“They are framing immigrants as a problem,” said Masoud Kamali, a professor at the Center for Multiethnic Research at Uppsala University. “Sweden has no policy to integrate them” after they arrive.

All seven other parties represented in parliament say they will boycott the Sweden Democrats even though cooperating with them would provide either coalition on the right or left a clear majority.

Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt of the New Moderates has held talks with the Social Democrats to hash out policies, specifically on integration and immigration, in order to limit the influence of the Sweden Democrats. Although no government has been formed, Reinfeldt will announce on Tuesday who will head the various ministries.

Still too young to vote at age 17, Pascalle Arias said the rise of the Sweden Democrats has galvanized soon-to-be voters in her generation. She believes most voters chose the party to protest the existing political system rather than to support its policies.

“People haven’t really understood the things they stand for,” said Arias, born in Sweden to Chilean parents. “I think most of them voted to provoke.”

For Arias and many people her age, the functioning-but-fragile economy remains a concern. According to government statistics, unemployment has dipped slightly but continues to hover at 7.4 percent and benefits for those out of work or disabled have been recently trimmed.

“When I’m done with school I want to feel that there is going to be something there for me,” she said.

Some Swedes, however, are not panicking. Pointing to the less than 6 percent return, many say the Swedish stereotype of a charitable, tolerant and right-minded people may be tarnished but it has yet to be rubbed out.

Using history as an example, voters mention the New Democrats, a different far-right party that gained even more seats in parliament than the Sweden Democrats have during the 1992 national vote only to implode four years later in the next election.

“It’s still tolerant, still liberal,” said 60-year-old Anders Johansson, who resides in a tony suburb of northern Stockholm. “This is 5 percent of the population and I think many of their voters aren’t against immigration they are just fed up with the political system.”

Beside the surprising success of the Sweden Democrats, the election saw the center-right alliance led by the conservative New Moderates clinch their second consecutive victory, a first in Swedish political history, signaling a shift from the country’s long embrace of left-leaning policies.

The Social Democrats, the party that has dominated political life here and piloted a coalition of leftist parties, experienced its worst election returns since before World War I.

Jenny Madestam, a political science instructor at Stockholm University, said voters’ disappointment with the Social Democrats stems from the four years the party spent in opposition while still failing to propose new ideas during their campaign.

What’s more, parties on the right have been able to poach voters from the left by moving toward the center and promising to keep most of Sweden’s cradle-to-grave welfare system untouched.

“Right-wing and moderate parties have been really successful at being the new working parties,” she said. “People in Europe are no longer afraid to vote for parties on the right.”