By Jon Henley /Stockholm
Last month, yards from the Social Democrat booth on Rinkeby town square where Kersten Aggefors is handing out leaflets for the party that has finished first in every Swedish election since 1917, masked youths set five cars ablaze.
A few days earlier, eight as-yet-unidentified men had attacked the town’s half-built new police station, crashing through the gate and hurling rocks and firecrackers at security guards, apparently in retaliation for a drug bust. In January, two gunmen walked into a crowded pizzeria in Stockholm and shot a man dead, in what police said was a gang execution.
Rinkeby, a symbol of Scandinavian social democracy when it was built in the 1970s, had a bad reputation, but this was largely undeserved, said Aggefors, who has lived in the suburb, barely 20 minutes by metro from the capital, for 47 years.
“Yes, things need fixing,” she said. “But the residents here are decent people, doing nothing wrong. Maybe I’m stupid, but I’ve always felt safe. It’s just there’s a small criminal minority.”
Tawfiiq, who arrived from Somalia 15 years ago, agreed. “It’s a good place, it’s fine,” he said outside the Islamic centre. “There are some bad people, like everywhere.” Tomas Beer, a local teacher, professed enthusiasm for a “really committed, active, generous community”.
Nevertheless, this suburb of 16,000-odd residents, 90% of whom were born abroad or to parents born outside Sweden, and only half of whom are in work, has become shorthand for inequality, social exclusion, crime – and immigration.
Three years after Europe’s 2015 migrant crisis rocked the country, a headline-hogging series of torched cars , grenade attacks and shootings (129 in Stockholm alone last year, 19 of them fatal), mostly in socially deprived suburbs such as Rinkeby with high immigrant populations, has kept immigration and integration at the very top of the political agenda.
With less than one week to go before elections on September 9, in a country that has long prided itself on being perhaps Europe’s most liberal and open to migrants, popular concern over migration looks set to propel the populist, far-right and anti-immigration Sweden Democrats to a possible 20% of the vote.
“Of course it’s about immigration,” said Paula Bieler, a member of the party’s executive board, in its offices in the Riksdag. “But immigration affects so much else. Other parties don’t make those connections, won’t talk about these problems, because it’s ‘not nice’ to do so. That’s basically telling voters they’re stupid.”
Mirroring gains made by far-right, anti-establishment parties in Italy, Germany, France, Austria and the Netherlands, the Sweden Democrats have plainly benefited from the 2015 crisis that overwhelmed the country, overwhelming social services and sparking such local fury that refugee accommodation centres were set on fire.
But in fact, said Anders Sannerstadt, a political scientist at Lund University and specialist in the far-right party, a nation that once billed itself as a “humanitarian superpower” has long been divided over asylum and migration.
“Since the early 1990s, opinion polls have consistently shown more people wanting to reduce numbers than increase them,” he said. “But that was never reflected in official policy.”
About 400,000 people – 163,000 in 2015 alone – have sought asylum in Sweden in the past six years. This is the highest number per capita in Europe, and a total that last year tipped the country’s population over the 10mn mark.
The economy is doing fine: unemployment is at its lowest for a decade, and growth should hit about 3% this year. But support for the Sweden Democrats’ policies, which include a total freeze on asylum seekers, accepting future refugees only from Sweden’s Nordic neighbours, tougher penalties for crime and greater powers for police, has surged.
“Two arguments have been effective,” said Niklas Bolin, a specialist in the radical right at Mid Sweden University. “Immigration is a threat to society, because it’s hard to integrate people with different cultural norms. And the cost is harming Sweden’s welfare state. That economic point has really appealed.”
Shunned – with occasional, swiftly retracted exceptions on the right – by Sweden’s other parties because of its roots in the Nazi movement, the party has also successfully linked immigration to violent crime in the minds of many, although official figures show little meaningful correlation.
Headed since 2005 by Jimmie Akesson, a young, well-groomed and eloquent communicator who has led a purge of most of its more extreme personalities and policies, the party’s share of the national vote has climbed rapidly.
Support doubled from 5.7% in 2010, when the Sweden Democrats made their parliamentary debut, to 12.9% in 2014, and has climbed sharply again since, to a level that see it finish anywhere from first to third, with 70-plus MPs.
Both the centre-left and centre-right parties, the ruling Social Democrats and opposition Moderate party, have swung right in response. The outgoing red-green coalition radically tightened Sweden’s immigration rules and suspended family reunifications, cutting arrivals to 26,000 last year. Stefan Lofven, the prime minister, has said that number should halve.
It is hiring 10,000 more police and wants harsher penalties for gun crimes and sexual assault, an end to financial support for undocumented foreigners, and faster repatriation of failed asylum applicants. The Moderates, too, have toughened their stance, promising cuts in refugee welfare.
But for a critical few years, said Ann-Cathrine Jungar, a far-right specialist at Sodertorn university, the Sweden Democrats had “basically an open field” as the only party critical of immigration. “And now the mainstream parties can’t get back the voters they’ve lost,” Jungar said.
On course for a record low score of about 25%, the Social Democrats, who have dominated Swedish politics since the 1930s, concede mistakes were made. “Obviously there were underestimated integration problems before 2015,” said Anders Ygeman, a former interior minister who now heads the party’s parliamentary group. “Maybe people didn’t want to discuss migration so as not to help the far right,” he said.
The party now needs strong policies on immigration and crime, Ygeman said, “perhaps not to win voters back, but to stop more leaving”. Whether it will be able to do that is far from certain.
Governments in Sweden do not need a majority in their favour to continue governing – they must just avoid one against them. But with parliament’s dominant centre-left and centre-right blocs both headed for about 40% of the vote, whatever government emerges will have to turn on some occasions to either the opposition or the populists to have a chance of passing legislation.
A raft of multi-party coalitions looks possible, on both left and right. The Social Democrats or the Moderates could also form single-party minority governments. Although considered unlikely, Sweden could even see a German-style grand coalition linking the two traditional blocs.
But in most scenarios, some proposed laws will stand or fall on the vote of the Sweden Democrats, forcing the government to at least consider their views. No formal arrangements are likely just yet, said Bolin, but “in the long run, bit by bit, it will be impossible not to include them somehow”.
In her office in parliament, Bieler wholeheartedly agreed. “One in five, perhaps one in four voters will cast their ballot for us,” she said. “Today in Sweden, everyone knows someone, maybe loves someone, who supports the Sweden Democrats … We cannot be excluded forever.” – Guardian News and Media
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