Posted on September 6, 2018

How the Far Right Conquered Sweden

Jochen Bittner, New York Times, September 6, 2018


The segregation and violence of Rinkeby-Tensta, and the likelihood that the far-right, anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats party will win the most votes in this weekend’s national elections, are both the result of the country’s long-running unwillingness to deal with the realities of its immigration crisis.

For decades, Sweden, once a racially and culturally homogeneous country with an expansive social welfare system, insisted that it could absorb large numbers of non-European migrants without considering how those migrants should be integrated into Swedish society.

As they did in cities across Western Europe, migrants tended to cluster in low-income neighborhoods; facing poor job prospects and rampant employment discrimination, they naturally turned inward. More young women have started wearing the hijab recently {snip},


The situation grew worse with the latest mass influx of refugees, in 2015, after which a number of suburbs became almost exclusively migrant. Considered “no go” areas by some Swedes, these neighborhoods are known to outsiders only from horrific headlines. {snip}

None of this is new, and yet the government, dominated by the traditionally strong Social Democrats and the centrist Moderate Party, did far too little. That left an opening for the Sweden Democrats, until recently a group relegated to the racist fringe of Swedish politics. In the past few years, the party has recast itself; just like the populist Alternative für Deutschland party in Germany and the Five Star Movement in Italy, it has repositioned itself as anti-establishment and anti-immigrant. The Sweden Democrats accuses all other political actors and the media of “destroying” Sweden, calls for a suspension of the right to asylum and promotes an exit of Sweden from the European Union.

The party has clocked up to 20 percent in the latest polls, enough to make a coalition government between the Social Democrats and the Moderate Party unlikely — and raising the chances that one of those parties will have to enter into a government with the Sweden Democrats. {snip}

Similar stories have played out across Western Europe, from the Netherlands to Austria. But Sweden always imagined itself as something different, a society bound by its unique brand of togetherness. But that self-satisfaction justified a myopic approach to the very complex problem of how to integrate vast numbers of foreigners. If you believe in giving everyone a state-of-the-art apartment, social welfare and child benefits, then it’s unlikely you will tackle the hurdles of the highly regulated Swedish labor market.

The anti-establishment Sweden Democrats profit from the fact that they were often the first to point to the downsides of immigration. Yet as much as they despise wishful thinking, they replace it with simplistic thinking. No matter what problems there might be in Sweden — housing shortages, school closings, an overburdened health care system — in the view of the Sweden Democrats, it is always one group’s fault: migrants.

Andreas Johansson Heinö, an analyst with the think tank Timbro, believes that many Swedes will vote for the Sweden Democrats on Sept. 9 even they see through the party’s crude thinking. He sees similarities to the United States, where a considerable number of people say they voted for Donald Trump not because they liked him but because they liked the idea of change.

Even if the Sweden Democrats win big on Sunday, the election might be a force for good. The Moderate Party, which is likely to take second place, might split over the question of whether to rule with them. And the Social Democrats, already under pressure to move to the left, might likewise fall apart. Sweden’s party landscape, in other words, might be blown to pieces.

If the country is lucky, some parts from this explosion will bind together as a new force — one that takes seriously the need for realism on immigration and integration, without falling for the siren song of right-wing populism.