Far-Right Gains Jolt Sweden

Al Jazeera, September 20, 2010

An anti-immigration party in Sweden has won seats in parliament for the first time, in the latest sign that far-right parties are gaining ground in Europe.

The Sweden Democrats (SD), which has described growth of the country’s Muslim minority as the biggest foreign threat since the Second World War, won 20 seats in Sunday’s parliamentary elections, leaving the two main blocs without a majority.

The centre-right governing coalition, which won 49.3 per cent of the vote, has ruled out any negotiations with the far-right group, and said it would instead look to the Green Party for support.

“I have been clear.&nbsp. . . We will not co-operate with or be made dependent on the Sweden Democrats,” Fredrik Reinfeldt, the prime minister and leader of the Moderate Party, said after falling just three seats short of a majority.

But the leaders of the Green Party, which scored its best election result ever, appeared hesitant to a partnership with the centre-right.

“The mandate we’ve got from voters doesn’t allow us to become a support party for a government with a climate policy which makes the climate goals unreachable for another 200 years,” Maria Wetterstrand, co-chair of the Green Party, told a news conference on Monday.

“No one from the [centre-right] Alliance has been in touch with us, neither now or earlier,” Peter Eriksson, the other co-chair, said.

The Social Democrats, which for the first time had created a coalition with the Green and Left parties to increase its chances of winning power, suffered a historic loss, winning just 30.9 per cent of the vote, down from 35.3 per cent in 2006.

Critics protesting

Many Swedes expressed disappointment that the Sweden Democrats won seats in the legislature. More than 6,000 protesters gathered in central Stockholm on Monday. Thousands of others, dressed in black clothes as an expression of mourning, marched in silence in Gothenburg.

The SD, which has been celebrating its historic entry into parliament, has dismissed fears that the party could cause legislative chaos.

“We won’t cause problems. We will take responsibility. That is my promise to the Swedish people,” Jimmie Akesson, the party’s 31-year-old leader, said.

The SD has campaigned on warnings of an Islamic “growing influence” in the country. Kent Ekeroth, its international secretary, said ethnic Swedes could become “second-class citizens”.

The party says immigration is draining the welfare system and wants to cut asylum and immigration by relatives of people already living in Sweden by 90 per cent.

Immigrants make up 14 per cent of the country’s population of 9.4 million. The largest groups of non-European immigrants in the last decade have been Iraqis and Somalis.

The rise of the far-right in Sweden is the latest sign that anti-immigration sentiments appear to be growing across Europe.

In the Netherlands, the anti-immigration Freedom Party, which wants to ban the Quran and shut down Islamic schools, made big gains during the June elections.

Hungary’s far-right Jobbik party, which campaigned on anti-Semitism and anti-Roma sentiment, also entered parliament for the first time in April elections.

The French government has made headlines by launching a crackdown on Roma immigrants living in camps, while the parliament has voted in a bill that would ban face-covering veils in public.

Italy’s Northern League party, which is part of the coalition government, has also made strong gains in recent elections. Berlusconi’s government has passed tough laws allowing authorities to fine and imprison illegal immigrants.

Matthew Goodwin, a lecturer in politics at the University of Nottingham, Britain, told Al Jazeera the success of the SD “does reflect a broader trend both in Western–and increasingly Eastern Europe”.

“Sweden historically did not have a successful ring-wing party,” he said.

“Initially, the far-right campaigned very hard on the claim that immigrants and other minority groups were taking jobs and social housing.

“But what we have seen over the last 20 years is a shift in the discourse of the far-right, really moving towards Islamophobia.”

SIDEBAR

Final Results

Sweden Democrats: 5.7%

Governing bloc %

Moderate Party: 30,0

Liberal Party:7.1

Centre Party: 6.6

Christian Democrats: 5.6

Opposition %

Social Democrats: 30.8

Green Party: 7.2

Left Party: 5.6

Other parties: 1.4%

Voter turnout: 82.1%


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Parties with xenophobic-tinged programmes are not new in Europe. The National Front of Jean-Marie Le Pen has been a force in France for years, as has the Northern League, which is part of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s ruling coalition in Italy.

But experts say public concerns about immigration have grown in the wake of the economic crisis and politicians across Europe are scrambling like never before to exploit these fears, breaking unwritten post-war taboos along the way.

“What we are witnessing is not a new trend, but a deepening and acceleration of something that was in place,” said Dominique Moisi of the French Institute for International Relations (Ifri) in Paris. “These politicians are playing with fire, because feelings on this issue run very deep and may not disappear when the economy recovers.”

THE END OF TOLERANCE

Wilders [Geert Wilders], who wants to ban the Koran and expel Muslims who commit crimes, has emerged in the span of a few months as arguably the most powerful politician in the Netherlands.

After an inconclusive June election, centre-right parties are relying on Wilders to form a minority government that could give him major sway over policy. If this coalition fails to come together and a new election is held, polls show his Freedom Party (PVV) would be the top vote getter.

In France, President Nicolas Sarkozy has taken pre-emptive action to prevent similar gains for the far-right National Front, announcing a crackdown on Roma people and criminals of foreign origin that has earned him rebukes from a United Nations human rights body and the European Parliament.

In Italy, which received the most immigrants of any EU country last year, Umberto Bossi’s Northern League has wielded huge influence over domestic policy, pushing through tough laws that allow authorities to fine and imprison illegal immigrants, and even punish people who provide them with shelter.

Heather Grabbe, director of the Open Society Institute in Brussels, says more European politicians are realising that by focussing on immigration, they can tap into voter fears about a range of issues–from the economy and jobs, to globalisation, change and an increasingly uncertain future.

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UPSETTING THE SYSTEM

One such country is Sweden, where an anti-immigrant party looks poised to vault the four percent hurdle in a September 19 election and enter parliament for the first time.

Inspired by the Danish People’s Party, the Sweden Democrats have shed their skinhead image in favour of smart suits and a carefully calibrated message that emphasises support for Israel and women’s rights alongside what party leader Jimmie Akesson describes as a “common sense” aversion to Muslim immigration.

If the party does make it into parliament, it could deprive centre-right Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt of a majority and force him to consider working with a party he has described as “right-wing, xenophobic and populist”.

In Germany, where the collective memory of the Nazis has limited the influence of far-right parties, the emergence of a new anti-immigrant force could have even more serious implications for the political system.

The rise of the new Left party and Greens in recent decades means that six parties now sit in the federal parliament in Berlin, a splintering that has severely complicated the formation of stable coalitions at the federal level.

Were a seventh party, led by Stadtkewitz or a more high-profile anti-immigrant crusader, to make it above the five percent threshold and enter the Bundestag it would shake Germany’s political landscape to the core.

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