Liberal Sweden flirts with the far-right

Published by The Mail on Sunday (9th September, 2018)

The far-Right leader threatening to shake up the socialist nirvana of Sweden and send shock waves around Europe in today’s election has promised to ‘make something new’ for his nation after a campaign dominated by immigration issues.

Jimmie Akesson, whose Sweden Democrats (SD) is poised for an astonishing breakthrough that could see it emerge as the country’s biggest party, used a rally in Malmö to ram home his divisive message on migration.

Having rebranded a party with neo-Nazi roots, Akesson is ahead in some polls in a country that has seen the Left-leaning Social Democrats finish first in every election since 1917.

Yesterday Stefan Löfven, the Social Democrat Prime Minister, warned that backing the SD was ‘dangerous,’ saying it was ‘like trying to quench fire with alcohol’.

The rally followed a furore over comments Akesson made in the final election debate that migrants could not get jobs ‘because they are not Swedish’ and ‘do not fit in’.

‘We are the only ones who understand that you do not change your values just because you change the ground under your feet,’ he told supporters in Malmö. ‘To point out immigrants who have just arrived are not Swedes cannot be against democratic values.’

His speech – barracked throughout by Left-wing demonstrators –focused relentlessly on crime, immigration and security. ‘It feels so important and fantastic to break the 100-year-old hegemony of the Social Democratic Party,’ he said.

Rival parties have ruled out forming a government with Akesson, leaving fears of political deadlock as voters shift to extremes of Right and Left in a nation famed for supporting high taxes, a strong welfare state and social liberalism.

Sweden looks set to become the latest country hit by the populist insurgency sweeping Europe that is challenging political orders from Austria to Germany, Italy and other parts of Scandinavia.

It has taken in more migrants and refugees per head than any other country in Europe since 2015. Despite low unemployment, it has the fastest-rising inequality of any industrialised nation and there is widespread pessimism over the future.

Among those listening to Akesson were two students at Malmö University preparing to cast their first vote. ‘I would support him because of migration,’ said Simon, 18. ‘My friends and I have been robbed several times. My mum was robbed by foreign people.’

Jakob Bartel, 19, said his parents worked in the health service and he had seen how patients living in the country for 20 years still had to use hospital translators because their Swedish was so poor. ‘This costs money,’ he said. ‘I don’t blame the migrants but the politicians.’

However, Thea – a 19-year-old from nearby Lund – said: ‘Sweden should be a country for everyone. It is scary the SD could be the biggest party.’

Such are the divisions in this nation renowned for its serenity, stability and socialism, but which has been torn apart by arguments over integration in a society offering free housing, healthcare and hefty benefits to all.

In Örkelljunga, a struggling market town 60 miles from Malmö, almost one in four people supported the SD at the last election in 2014 – one of its highest vote shares. Now it hopes to win backing from at least a third of local citizens – despite a candidate there having to stand down last week after a newspaper exposed postings on Facebook saying ‘Hitler wasn’t so bad’ and ‘did not lie about Jews’.

Tommy Brorsson, 72, chairman of the Örkelljunga SD and a restorer of vintage sports cars, claimed an influx of immigrants had led to falling school standards and left residents scared to walk outside at night. ‘We are missing the old Sweden,’ he said.

He also alleged there had been a series of sex assaults, pointing to the case of a Syrian migrant charged with raping a 13-year-old girl in July. ‘This is not what we expect in the countryside,’ he said. ‘It is not a pleasant situation.’

The SD has made strong play of such cases. A TV documentary last month alleged 58 per cent of rapists in Sweden were born abroad – although experts say migrant crime rates overall are not that different from those on low incomes.

Even one diehard Green voter told me she supported the SD’s stance on migration, yet others fear their impact. ‘They want to split the country into good Swedes and bad Swedes,’ said nursing assistant Sella Karabit, 38. ‘I don’t want a divided country.’

Standing by the SD stall in Gothenburg – where the ruling Social Democrats have fallen to fourth place in polls – I found a Jewish hospital doctor draped with a sign highlighting anti-Semitic comments by party figures. Patrik Hallmem, 36, said he was concerned by the polarisation in Sweden. ‘We have seen these things before in the 1930s,’ he added. ‘What will be the next step?’

Analysts such as Tino Sanandaji believe these events are the result of mainstream parties making discussion of immigration taboo.

‘The SD were a small, radioactive party but when this happened they kept growing,’ he said. Yet is migration part of a broader picture in which a liberal nation has been engulfed by fears in a world buffeted by globalisation and rapid technological change?

‘We have been optimistic for years but people are becoming quite scared,’ said Erik Zsiga, a columnist who served as press secretary to Carl Bildt, the former conservative prime minister.

He says nerves began jangling in 2014 after the invasion of Crimea, with Sweden – which is not a Nato member – re-introducing conscription this year due to the Russian threat in the Baltic.

Zsiga’s view was partially backed by Magdalena Andersson, the Finance Minister tipped as the next leader of the Social Democrats, who warned support for the far-Right was rising in working-class strongholds due to job insecurity.

‘Research shows the reason why you think migration is an important issue is that you do not have a job or at least feel your presence on the job market is insecure,’ she told The Mail on Sunday while out campaigning in Stockholm on Friday.

Her party won half the vote in 1968. Yet a YouGov poll four days ago put the Social Democrats one point behind the SD, which were on 24.8 per cent, the Moderates – similar to our Conservatives – on 16.5 per cent, and the Left Party, former Communists, on almost 10 per cent. In 2010, the SD won just 5.7 per cent of the vote.

The far-Right has already forced shifts on migration, with numbers down from 163,000 in 2015 to 23,000 this year, and demanded a two-year bar on fresh newcomers. It has frequently challenged the liberal consensus with slogans promising ‘change for real’ while making overblown claims of ‘no-go areas’ – 23 ‘specially vulnerable’ zones identified by police – in cities such as Gothenburg and Malmö.

Among them is Rosengård, the Malmö suburb where footballer Zlatan Ibrahimovic grew up, which has been rocked by bombings and car burnings in gang-turf wars. It saw another fatal shooting in July, among 11 this year in a city the size of Bradford.

Beside a football pitch with Zlatan’s footprints preserved in concrete, I met a couple from Lebanon with two children. ‘The past two years have been a problem with people being shot and burning cars,’ said the 27-year-old woman. ‘We worry for the safety of our children here.’

She is training to be a teacher and her husband is studying nursing. ‘Perhaps it was not a good policy to put lots of new refugees in one place – but we are building this society, not destroying it.’

So, I asked, who would she be voting for? She smiled, then replied: ‘Probably the Social Democrats.’ At least some Swedes still believe in their old post-war dream.

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