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20 Sep, 2010 05:10

Anti-immigration party shakes up Swedish elections

The Sweden Democrats stunned political observers at the weekend, winning seats for the first time and placing them in the position to give voice to their anti-immigration platform.

The far-right party on Sunday grabbed 20 of the 349 available seats in the country's assembly.

The Sweden Democrats jumped into the deep end of the anti-immigration debate, cozying up to the increasing number of Swedes who are expressing concern over their country's liberal immigration policies, especially at a time when many people are struggling to make ends meet following the global economic crisis.

Michael Aastrup Jensen, a member of the Danish Parliament for the Liberal Party, says the unwillingness of the established parties to discuss the issue of immigration has resulted in the unexpected vote.

None of the established parties and none of the established media in Sweden like to discuss it because they feel like it is not politically correct,” said Jensen. “There is a ‘blanket’ drawn all over the Swedish media. This should be a wake-up call to all the other parties.”

Immigrants presently make up about 14% of the country's population of 9.5 million.

Sweden's governing center-right Alliance, which is made up of four distinct parties, fell short of a decisive victory with 172 seats. Meanwhile, the center-left Social Democrats and Green party bloc won 157 seats.

Although the four-party Alliance coalition beat the center-left opposition by a wide margin, it lost its overall majority in parliament due to the new seats secured by the anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats.

Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, in an effort to isolate the Sweden Democrats, said he would not seek an alliance with the far-right party, but rather would work for unification with the center-left oppostion bloc.

Swedish media said the election results mark a dramatic shift for a country known for its tolerance and pro-liberal policies.

"It is Monday morning and time for Swedes to find a new self-image," wrote daily Svenska Dagbladet.

"A centre-right government without a majority, a wrecked Social Democracy and a party with roots in far-right extremism holding the balance of power."

A long, hard road to victory

Sweden is one of Europe’s oldest democracies, but for some, the lead up to this year’s election in Sweden has been anything but democratic. Candidates from the right-wing Sweden Democrats say they have been harassed and bullied, allegedly by young people from far-left groups, as well as denied media attention.

“There have been several cases which passed without notice, but now it is starting to become known. We are a big party now, so it is getting more attention,” said head of the party Jimmie Aakesson. “It is horrible that it should happen during an election campaign. It is a threat to Swedish democracy.”

The Sweden Democrats have become a force to be reckoned with in Swedish politics. They accuse the government of failing to properly address the immigration issue, and point to the large numbers of migrants that live in enclaves totally cut off from Swedish society.

These people do not learn Swedish, they argue, thus creating tension between diverse ethnic groups while, at the same time, draining the welfare system.

The SD wants to severely limit immigration, and encourage migrants who will not integrate into "normal Swedish society" to leave the country. As such, it has led to them being branded Nazis by left-wing groups.

Thursday saw one SD public meeting given the go-ahead. However, in the days leading up to the election, the party was forbidden from campaigning, with the police saying they could not guarantee their safety.

SD candidate Nina Kain says that it is tantamount to the state guaranteeing free speech with one hand, but taking it away with the other. She knows all about threats to her personal safety – last week she came home to find a swastika daubed on her front door.

“Of course, you look twice over your shoulder, but I am not scared. It gives more fuel to my fire,” she said. “It makes me angry because it is one of the things that made me be in this party. It was that the democracy is not what it used to be. You cannot say what you want in Sweden anymore.”

Nina reckons she got off lightly. A fellow SD candidate, in a scene reminiscent of a Tarantino movie, was tortured by youths in his house, held down while a swastika was carved into his forehead. He told police he had heard them speaking Arabic.

In a town like Malmo, where 30% of the population was born abroad, the Sweden Democrats have attracted significant support among the Swedish-born population. The latest polls put their popularity nationwide at 7.6%, enough to win 26 parliamentary seats out of 349.

Henning Sussner, a political candidate in the nearby town of Landskrona, does not agree with the message the Sweden Democrats are putting out, but thinks it is important they should be allowed to speak.

“We do have that anti-fascist movement here which is pretty violent, but it is a very marginalized group of young people who are angry that the Sweden Democrats are allowed to say whatever they like in public,” he said. “Of course, we can not tolerate that. Here in this country we do not have a culture which is built on violence.”

Sweden’s other political parties have said they will not work with the Sweden Democrats, so it is not just threats to their safety that the SD candidates have to worry about.

“They are already discussing…how to keep us out anyway. What about democracy then?” Kain asked. “It is people that have voted us to sit there, and still they are trying to shut us out, so it scares me.”

Now ordinary people will have to decide whether they value free speech enough to let an anti-immigration party play a role in governing. Some have already shown that they do not.