Last week, the political debate in Sweden was hijacked by a man who, until now, has been quietly ignored by the main parties. Jimmie Åkesson, leader of the far right Sweden Democrats, managed to steal the limelight after his party scored its highest ever ratings in opinion polls – 4.7 per cent – and thus became a contender for a seat in Parliament after next autumn’s elections. Åkesson followed this success with an article in the evening paper, Aftonbladet, laying out his party’s main message: Muslims are the greatest foreign threat to Sweden since the Second World War.
Åkesson’s rise comes at a time when all Swedish parties are beginning to fine tune their strategies for the upcoming election. For a while now, the Sweden Democrats have been trying to brush up their image and organisation in order to appeal to a wider circle of voters. The article, however, revealed their true colours and forced the established parties to react. One after the other, the Greens, the Left Party and the governing coalition, led by the conservative Moderaterna, declared that they would not cooperate with the party. Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt even promised to resign if support from the Sweden Democrats was needed for his party to govern after the elections.
Reactions are strong partly because Sweden has previously been spared from successful far right movements. A stable left-right division in party politics has dominated, leaving little room for other significant players to enter the stage. Issues such as health care, education and taxes have long been the most important ones, and voters have traditionally stuck to their old party sympathies. Experts have also explained the failure of the far right by noting the positive impact immigration has had on the country and its economy.
But it was only a question of time before Sweden would be reached by the far right winds blowing across Europe. Nationalist parties have been gaining support in Denmark and Norway over the past years, not to mention countries such as Italy and Switzerland, where they are included in the government. Even in neighbouring Finland the True Finns now have five seats in Parliament.
But recently it has become clear that clashes between immigrants and traditional Swedes are on the rise: should pork be served in schools? Should a niqab be allowed at work? Should bath houses introduce separate bathing times for women and men? The current economic crisis does not help. Åkesson knows what he is doing when he accuses immigrants of stealing jobs and claiming to stand by “the ordinary Swedish salary worker”. With unemployment projected to rise above 11 per cent next year, his message is resonating more than it usually would.
The Swedish political elite is now caught up in a discussion over how to meet the challenge posed by the Sweden Democrats. Letting the party join the discussion table may legitimise its existence; on the other hand, suppressing its opinions may make them stronger. Maybe the problem is ignorance, for which an open, fact-based discussion is usually a good cure – at least if everyone is prepared to listen.
Whatever the strategy, the Sweden Democrats and the issues they represent are gaining support. The big parties have left a gap for the extreme right to fill, and that gap needs to be taken by someone else before election day next September.