By Siri Bjorntvedt
Sweden has long been considered to be among the most open and liberal social democracies in the world, and in 2005 the Guardian deemed Sweden the most successful society the world has ever known. Now five years later an extreme right-wing party, the Sweden Democrats (SD) is on the rise, winning a staggering six percent of the vote in the general election in mid-September. The SD, a party which has publicly stated that Islam is the biggest threat facing Sweden since Hitler, and claims that multicultural societies have never succeeded in any part of the world, now has 20 representatives in the Riksdag, the Swedish Parliament. In the aftermath of the election questions have been raised: is SD’s breakthrough the only logical conclusion of an open and liberal immigration policy which has allowed 100,000 immigrants to enter every year or is Sweden yet another country being swept by the dark blue wave of racism and Islamophobia?
Fredrik Reinfeldt will stay on as Prime Minister of Sweden. Even though his centre-right coalition did not win a majority in the Riksdag, Reinfeldt can stay in office with a minority, as long as the majority does not vote against him. Both the coalition of Reinfeldt and the opposition lost votes in this year’s election, and the biggest winner was the SD. They are now at least theoretically holding the balance of power in the Riksdag between the two main coalitions. This leaves Reinfeldt somewhere between relying on the Green party and appealing to individual opposition party representatives, which might prove a daunting challenge. However, if that fails, the SD could prove to be a dangerous ally or a paralysing enemy.
The Sweden Democrats were founded in 1988, rooted in the neo-Nazi organisation “Keep Sweden Swedish” (Bevara Sverige svensk) and from the beginning there was a considerable overlap between the SD and various neo-Nazi groups. While none of the current SD leaders have any connections to any neo-Nazi groups, many early leaders and prominent figures were closely connected to neo-Nazi groups. In the municipal elections in 1991, 1994 and 1998 SD candidates in several cities were known members of neo-Nazi groups. Robert Vesterlund, a felon and leader of two neo-Nazi organizations was an active member of SD between 1993 and 1995, and was even chairman of the Sweden Democratic Youth, though under a false name. Over the last couple of years SD has attempted to distance itself from skinheads and street-rioting, and claims to be a respectable party. However the SD campaign video was banned from the mainstream media, as it featured an old lady racing burqa-wearing women for government money, while the voice-over claims that “you can slam the brakes on pensions or slam the brakes on immigration”. The ad is on YouTube with over 45,000 views.
One of the most striking features of SD’s breakthrough is the unevenness of their electoral gains; they were strong in some pockets in the south, but barely marginal in the north. One SD stronghold is Malmö, Sweden’s third largest city with a large immigrant population. The city has had a tough year, with multiple riots and gang violence, not to mention it has been terrorised by over 40 separate shootings, mainly targeting immigrants. Most of the shootings took place in or around Rosengård, where about 80 percent of the city’s immigrants live. And it is in the Almgården area, which neighbours the Rosengård estate, that one in three voted for SD.
Sjøbo is another SD stronghold, where they won 15.85 percent of the vote. The small municipality became almost synonymous with racism and opposition to immigration when it passed a ban on accepting more refugees. This ban which came about through a referendum was in place until 2001. Far from being the norm, these two municipalities stand in stark contrast to SD’s failure in the North, as they failed to get any representatives elected in ten constituencies.
While some claim that Sweden had reached a “Muslim breaking point”, Sweden is not singular in embracing radical right-wing populist parties, with an overtly anti-immigration stance. Radical right-wing populist parties are gaining ground all over Europe, and they are in government in Hungary, Switzerland and Italy, and in parliament in the Netherlands, Norway, Denmark, Austria, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, Belgium, Slovakia, Slovenia, Bulgaria and Greece. Geert Wilders, the controversial leader of the Dutch Freedom Party, has been on trial for incitement to hatred and discrimination, having said that “the Koran is the ‘Mein Kampf’ of our time” and that Islam is out to destroy Western civilisation. However, in the Dutch elections this summer his party won 15 percent of the vote and in Italy the anti-immigrant party Northern League, which talks of eradicating the Roma people, is Italy’s fastest growing party. Most worryingly these parties and movements seem to influence the political debate and other parties, as seen in France when President Sarkozy expelled Romanian Gypsies, and Germany Chancellor Merkel stated that the idea of multiculturalism has failed.
The election in Sweden has proven that even in one of the most open and liberal social democracies in the world an extreme right-wing party can take root. Only the future will tell if SD will be able to exert any political influence and whether it will be a permanent feature. One indication might be the Skoleval, which gives students between the ages of 13 to 17 the opportunity to cast a vote before they can legally vote: the SD won 13 percent of the vote nationwide. The future might be very dark blue in Sweden.