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Thursday, 16 September 2010

Far-right puts Sweden at the crossroads

No matter who wins Sunday’s general election in Sweden, history will be made.

Victory for Fredrik Reinfeldt, prime minister, would mark the first time a centre-right government has won re-election after a full term of office in a country long dominated by the centre-left Social Democrats

Triumph for Mona Sahlin, leader of the opposition Red-Green coalition, would give Sweden its first woman prime minister.

Yet, much of the focus has been on a 31-year-old politician seeking a breakthrough of a different kind. Jimmie Akesson, leader of the far-right Sweden Democrats, has brought his party to the brink of parliamentary representation by tapping into public unease over the changing face of Swedish society after decades of immigration.

Should he succeed – opinion polls have consistently shown the party just above the 4 per cent support needed to win seats – Sweden would join the growing list of European countries where anti-immigrant politicians have made headway.

While the Sweden Democrats remain smaller than counterparts in Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium and Austria, a far-right breakthrough in Sweden would strike a blow against the country’s image as a standard-bearer for tolerance and liberalism.

It would come at a moment when Europe is convulsed by debate on immigration after France’s decision to expel Roma gypsies and controversial comments by Thilo Sarrazin, an outgoing board member of the German central bank, that immigrants were making Germany “dumber”.

Government and opposition leaders have stepped up attacks against the Sweden Democrats this week in a last-ditch effort to keep the party out, with Mr Reinfeldt warning that a vote for the far-right would “gamble with stability”.

Opinion polls suggest that the Sweden Democrats could end up holding the balance of power in parliament if the election result is close, resulting in a weak minority government if the other parties stick to their promises not to co-operate with Mr Akesson’s group.

Sven-Olof Sallstrom, spokesman for the Sweden Democrats, says hostility from mainstream politicians will only increase his party’s popularity: “They are sending a message that they don’t recognise the things that voters see are wrong with Swedish society.”

One of the party’s television advertisements showed a white pensioner being beaten in a race for benefit payments by a group of burka-clad mothers. The decision by a leading broadcaster to censor the commercial only drew more attention to it online.

About 10 per cent of Sweden’s 9.3m population was born outside western Europe, many in Muslim countries such as Iraq and Somalia. Mr Akesson, whose party has roots in the neo-Nazi movement, describes Islam as the biggest threat to Sweden since the second world war.

The immigration issue has fed broader debate on Sweden’s cradle-to-grave welfare system as increasing multiculturalism and other changes strain social cohesion. “The ideas of solidarity and collectivism that used to be very strong in Sweden are losing their grip,” says Jenny Medestam, a political scientist at Stockholm University.

This shift towards greater individualism helps explain the decline of the Social Democratic party, which built the welfare system during decades of almost uninterrupted power in the 20th century. Support fell to a record low in 2006, when Mr Reinfeldt won power, and polls predict further decline on Sunday.

Soren Eriksson, a 55-year-old supply chain manager at Ericsson, is typical of the middle-class voters who once backed the Social Democrats but now support Mr Reinfeldt’s coalition. “They have won the trust of voters to govern,” he says.

Social Democrats say another four years of centre-right cuts to taxes and benefits would irreparably harm Sweden’s social-economic model. But many voters seem persuaded by the government’s argument that only by increasing incentives to work – particularly for immigrants – can Sweden maintain a strong welfare net. “The system has encouraged dependency on welfare and then immigrants are criticised by parts of Swedish society for not working,” says Mr Reinfeldt.

Recent polls have shown the ruling four-party Alliance set to win the biggest number of seats, aided by an accelerating economic recovery. But it remains unclear whether the government will keep the outright majority that would allow it to pass legislation without support from the Sweden Democrats.

Folke Johansson, political scientist at the University of Gothenburg, says Sweden is becoming a more “normal” democracy, with a less exceptional welfare system and greater political competition. In Europe, increasingly, that political norm includes an electorally viable far-right.