Swedish tolerance tested by far-right election advance

Pierre-Henry Deshayes

Stockholm (AFP) - Socially liberal Sweden joined other countries in Europe Monday with a sizeable far-right party, one opposed to the Nordic nation's generous refugee policies.

"Sweden is in shock today," said Haakan Bengtsson, director of the Swedish think-tank Arena, after the electoral breakthrough of the Sweden Democrats (SD), who campaigned to radically reduce immigration.

In a country that prides itself on a long tradition of welcoming refugees, the party disrupted the consensus and doubled its support to almost 13 percent in Sunday's general election to become the country's third largest party after just one term in parliament.

"It's a bit confusing because if you look at the population in general, they have become more tolerant towards a multicultural society... but on the other hand the Sweden Democrats are growing," said Bengtsson.

An estimated 80,000 refugees are expected to arrive in the country this year -- mainly refugees fleeing war zones in Syria and Somalia -- a level not seen since the Balkan conflicts in the early 1990s.

Until recently immigration costs were a taboo subject among Swedish political parties, with the exception of the Sweden Democrats.

But that has changed with unemployment at eight percent. An electoral debate which focused on declining welfare standards and the rising bill for refugee reception also boosted support for the far right.

"There are too many refugees. We can't afford it," Madeleine Filipiak, a 20-year-old bartender, told AFP at the SD election party.

Maarten Hjaertenfalk, an SD local election candidate from central Sweden sporting a kilt, said he was worried about the closure of two old people's homes in his area, which he claimed was to make way for new refugee reception centres.

Analysts believe the Sweden Democrats attracted votes from the working class, as well as the elderly, unemployed and people from former industrial regions.


- Still isolated -


The party's rise echoes the growth of far right and populist movements in Europe -- as seen in EU election wins for their French, British and Danish counterparts in May -- against a backdrop of discontent with the economy, unemployment and opposition to globalisation and immigration.

"It just took a little longer in Sweden," explained Andreas Johansson Heinoe, a political scientist at the University of Gothenburg.

"The Swedish political system has been very one-dimensional, with the left-right divide being the main political cleavage. It's more difficult for populist and anti-establishment parties to obtain seats," he added.

"And SD used to be very extreme in the 1990s. It took a long time for them to change in terms of content and image to make it possible to attract voters on a larger scale."

On Sunday night their 35-year-old leader Jimmie Aakesson described the party as "kingmakers" and sought an end to the isolation imposed on it by all of Sweden's other political parties, pledging to cooperate in parliament in return for concessions.

But the incoming prime minister, Social Democratic leader Stefan Loefven, told his supporters "there will be no cooperation with them".

Populist and anti-immigration parties in neighbouring Nordic countries moderated their discourse earlier and gained a degree of respectability which still evades the SD.

In Denmark, a minority centre-right government relied on support from the Danish People's Party for 10 years until 2011.

The Norwegian Progress Party is part of a governing conservative coalition which took power in 2013, but has been keen to disassociate itself from its Swedish counterpart.

Jimmie Aakesson introduced a policy of "zero tolerance" to racism in 2012 in an effort to tackle a spate of scandals including a leaked video showing top party officials drunk and using abusive racist language.

However in the week leading to Sunday's election another series of scandals erupted, involving online postings by candidates which forced about a dozen of them to resign.

"Less than one per cent of our candidates have shown these racist views," SD party secretary Bjoern Soeder told AFP.

"We threw them out of our party because they are not welcome with us."

Although the party rejects the far-right label, preferring to be seen as socially conservative nationalists, it is still considered extreme by most Swedes and has been the target of an anti-racist campaign by the tabloid Expressen.

On Monday the newspaper ran a black front page with the caption, "Yesterday 781,120 Swedes voted for the Sweden Democrats."