Far-right Sweden Democrats party seeks to become country's largest with non-PC stunts

Richard Orange
Louise Erixon of the Sweden Democrats is Council Chairman in the city of Solvesborg, South Sweden - TT News Agency

The far-Right Sweden Democrats party is now within a hair's breadth of becoming Sweden's biggest political party as it uses the five towns where it won its first political power last election to mount a series of un-PC political stunts. 

In an interview last week, the party's well-presented, charismatic leader Jimmie Åkesson put his party's sharp upswing down to the 'Solvesborg-effect' - named after his pretty hometown in southern Sweden, where his fiancée Louise Erixon now serves as mayor. 

"There is a Solvesborg-effect," he told the Aftonbladet newspaper. "A lot of people see what we do when we have the chance to govern, and they appreciate what they see."

In Sölvesborg, the party has moved to stop flying the rainbow flag once a year to celebrate Stockholm's gay pride festival, has said it will stop purchasing "provocative, challenging" public art, and has banned children from wearing Islamic headdress. 

Sweden Democrats party leader Jimmie Akesson Credit:  Anders Wiklund/TT News Agency

While largely symbolic, these policies have won huge national media attention, with gay rights groups now planning to hold the first Pride march in the southern city next May. 

Gitte Ørskou, the head of Moderna Museet, Stockholm's main modern art gallery, likened the new art policy to 1930s Germany, "where that which was not approved of by the political establishment was called 'degenerate art'". 

Sofia Lenninger, the head of Sölvesborg's culture department, was sacked shortly after telling the Telegraph of her opposition with the new policy. 

"I think it makes everything a bit boring, actually," she said. "What's the point, if you have to be aware of being provocative when dealing with art?".

But in interviews, Ms Erixon has welcomed the controversy.

"There's a big division between what the general public thinks is beautiful and interesting, and what a tiny cultural elite thinks is exciting," she said of the art ban when given Swedish Radio's major weekly interview slot. 

"What happens in Sölvesborg is not random," Anders Sannerstedt, Senior Lecturer at Lund University, saíd of the party's local policies. "I think it is fair to assume that there is a national strategy behind it." 

People demonstrate against Sweden Democrats and its party leader Jimmie Akesson during September's election Credit: JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP

It is clearly working. Polls by Ipsos and Demoskop last month estimated the ruling Social Democrats' lead at one percentage point and 0.2 percentage points respectively, putting the Sweden Democrats on a trajectory to overtake them as early as this month. 

"It could easily happen," said Peter Santesson, head of opinion polling at Demoskop. "There’s nothing that has happened to reverse the progress. Toss a coin, I’d say." 

If it happens, it would be a testament to the success with which Mr Åkesson has over the past 14 years transformed an openly racist, fringe party into a 'people's movement' palatable enough to win the support of close to one in four voters. 

He is now seeking to position himself as the true leader of the opposition.  "The other big opposition parties have followed us on the big issues -- migration, crime, energy politics -- and from that point of view it is me who is the leader of the opposition," he told Aftonbladet. 

He told the Expressen newspaper he was "as ready as I'll ever be" to become prime minister.  After coming third with 17.5 percent in September's election, the Sweden Democrats party now has the support of 22.9 percent of voters, according to last month's Demoskop poll.  

Ebba Busch-Thor, leader of the Christian Democrats, joined Åkesson for a working lunch of meatballs and lingonberries in the Swedish parliament in July, a move that was hailed as marking the end of the cordon sanitaire around the party. 

"This isolation is really broken," said Ewa Stenberg, political commentator for the Dagens Nyheter newspaper. "And that means something for the voters too: if you can talk to this party, then maybe you can vote for them as well."