CASTELBUONO, Sicily (CN) — It’s Sweden’s turn to reckon with the rise of nationalist, anti-immigrant and anti-European Union sentiment sweeping across Europe. Swedes vote Sunday in national elections and polls show the Sweden Democrats — a right-wing anti-EU party with roots in the neo-Nazi movement — will make significant gains and possibly become the nation’s largest party.
It’s a scenario that leaves many observers incredulous: The image of Sweden as a model of social cohesion, liberalism and Social Democratic politics is being shattered, even as it boasts low unemployment and crime rates, a strong economy and a generous welfare state. On international surveys, as usual, Sweden still ranks as one of the happiest places in the world.
But if you listen to the slick and ominous campaign ads of the Sweden Democrats, you’d think Sweden was a failed state: a land of violent gang warfare where social services have collapsed and Swedes live in fear.
How did this come about? For the Sweden Democrats, the culprits are clear: They are Sweden’s mainstream politicians and the refugees and immigrants they’ve welcomed to the Nordic country of 10 million people.
“You’ve created a Sweden where there isn’t law and order,” intones Jimmie Akesson, the 39-year-old leader of Sweden Democrats, in one ad. “Where people move away due to violence and fear; welfare is collapsing; friends and family die waiting for healthcare; a Sweden where women are raped, gang raped, mutilated and married off against their will. … Sweden is a disaster; Swedes are being attacked, murdered, on the street.”
Traditionally, Sweden has welcomed refugees, and the nation’s modern history is full of such examples.
For instance, Harald Edalstam, the Swedish ambassador in Chile during the military coup d’etat in 1973, famously welcomed thousands of persecuted Latin Americans to Sweden.
“He said: ‘We will take anyone from Chile — they have a new home in Sweden.’ And 20,000 or 30,000 came,” said Jan Oberg, director of the Transnational Foundation for Peace and Future Research in Lund, Sweden, in a telephone interview with Courthouse News. “That was a fine Sweden we were proud of. I am not proud of the Sweden today.”
In that tradition, Sweden opened its doors to Syrians and Afghans fleeing conflict and in 2015, at the height of the refugee crisis in Europe, it took in nearly 163,000 asylum seekers, the most per capita of any EU member.
Anger over crime and immigrants is not entirely without basis. Gang violence has been on the rise, including shootings and killings, in impoverished parts of Sweden’s cities where there are concentrations of immigrants. In 2016, Sweden was rocked by immigrant riots.
But it’s not all about immigration. Economics too are triggering discontent.
Sweden, like so many other places, is experiencing a widening gap in income and this has led to the rise of the radical right, according to a new study by researchers at Stockholm University and the University of California at Berkeley.
The study found workers flocking to the Sweden Democrats after the financial crisis in 2008 because they felt their jobs threatened.
The study also found a center-right government’s economic policies between 2006 and 2010, including spending cuts and welfare and tax reforms, “triggered a dramatic increase in income inequality.”
This economic instability — rather than direct exposure to immigration and crime — has led to the popularity of the Sweden Democrats, the study found.
“Not a lot of people are aware of the inequality that was created by these events,” said Johanna Rickne, a Stockholm University political economist who worked on the study.
The study cited surveys of Sweden Democrat voters that found they are mostly male and working class. They also are less trusting of Sweden’s traditional political parties, court system and media, surveys have found.
“There are groups of the electorate that are losing trust in our institutions and that is worrying,” Rickne said.
“It’s very much the same as what happened with Donald Trump and Brexit. Society is changing and people who feel threatened by that change, they are revolting,” said Carl Melin, the head of research at Futurion, a politically independent think tank founded by Swedish trade unions.
“If you look at the objective facts, Sweden is in a very strong position,” Melin said. “But a lot of people are worried and feel that the country is going in the wrong direction.”
And so, they’re latching onto the politics of Akesson, a skillful and charismatic politician who’s transformed his image.
Not so long ago, Akesson came across as an awkward, wonky kid-politician in boring suits. Now he wears blazers, a neat beard and a handkerchief in his breast pocket, as though he were on a yacht amid a Hollywood crowd. The party has softened its image too: Instead of its old logos showing a Viking warrior and burning torch, the Sweden Democrats now use a buttercup as their symbol.
But Akesson’s utterances haven’t changed much. He’s still a nationalist opposed to the European Union. He calls it a “supranational union” forcing nations “to abandon their national identity” and accept standardization. He rails against immigrants from Muslim countries.
“Let us take our country back,” he says at campaign rallies.
Sweden, then, could become the next European nation with a far-right party at the levers of government. Radical right politicians take part in governments in Austria, Finland, Hungary, Italy, Poland and Slovenia. And far-right parties have made gains in Germany and France.
Oberg, the director of the Transnational Foundation for Peace and Future Research, sees what is happening as long in the making. He attributed the rise of the Sweden Democrats to consequences of the slow erosion of Sweden’s social democratic model since the 1980s and a foreign politics that no longer favors disarmament, neutrality and strong ties with the Third World.
“The failure of social democracy, that is a reason why these populist parties can come up,” he said. “This overall identity change of Sweden, no longer being a neutral country, no longer having a relationship with the Third World, no longer having a moral voice, all of this has led to insecurity about who we are as Swedes.”
He faults Swedes, and Europeans more generally, for not understanding the cause of the refugee crisis.
“People seem not to ask, ‘Why did we start to get a refugee problem?’ Because of these wars. They come from societies that have been ravaged,” Oberg said. “Now, stop these wars and people will go home. We have caused this problem ourselves and we have no humanity left in Europe.”
Swedes, so used to predictable elections, are baffled at the new political landscape they face.
“Sweden traditionally has a stable political system,” Melin said. “This could upset the stability.”
A big question will be whether other political parties would agree to join the Sweden Democrats in forming a government. So far, mainstream parties have refused to cooperate with them.
Sweden Democrats won about 14 percent of the vote in 2014. Polling suggests the party could win about 20 percent of the vote on Sunday. The Social Democrats, Sweden’s left-wing party that’s dominated politics for the past century, is polling only slightly better.
“I’m a political junkie,” Melin said, “and for the first time I am more interested in what will happen after the election than before the election.”