As Sweden flirts with the far proper, Europe holds its breath


The quaint homes that line spotless streets and the common-or-garden boats moored within the marina are the embodiment of “lagom,” the Swedish idea of not an excessive amount of, not too little, however good.

However whereas this seaside city, with a inhabitants of simply 9,000, could seem idyllic, it is usually a stronghold of the Sweden Democrats — the far-right, anti-immigrant celebration that has rocked the nation’s politics and nationwide identification — and the hometown of its 39-year-old chief Jimmie Akesson.

On this respect, Sweden isn’t uncommon. From Italy to Poland and Germany, many international locations have seen political features by the far proper, whereas extremists within the US and UK have develop into extra vocal.

However the significance of the far-right celebration doubtlessly becoming a member of a coalition authorities in considered one of Europe’s most liberal and welcoming nations, and the potential for contagion in the remainder of the European Union, has sparked alarm. French President Emmanuel Macron this week criticized Akesson’s views as “incompatible” with Swedish values.

The predicted far-right surge in Sweden has sparked protests across the country.

Fears about migration

Like many different nations which have seen an increase of the far proper, Sweden’s political earthquake has been sparked by the problem of immigration.

Historically one of the vital welcoming international locations to refugees, Sweden took in 162,450 asylum seekers in 2015 — the second-largest variety of migrants per capita of any EU nation.

Many Swedes have been initially welcoming. However others feared the welfare system, and Swedish values, would collapse underneath the load of so many immigrants.

“In 2015, it was chaos right here. And it is nonetheless chaos,” mentioned Rolf Hans Berg, an 83-year-old Sweden Democrat supporter who lives in Solvesborg. “Right now we give houses to these [refugees] coming right here. In fact, that frustrates Swedes. It is a huge drawback. It is them in opposition to us, roughly.”

Because the refugee disaster, the variety of asylum claims has fallen precipitously. Nonetheless, lots of these against migration have turned to the Sweden Democrats, lured by its anti-immigrant, nativist stances.

Organized crime in Swedish cities, the 2017 terror assault in Stockholm and up to date automotive burnings have added to the local weather of concern.

“We had this terror assault in Stockholm final yr after which lots of people began speaking as a result of [the suspect’s] asylum declare had been rejected,” mentioned Matilda Karnerup, a 23-year-old pupil from Solvesborg, including that whereas she is undecided about whom to vote for, she sympathizes with the Sweden Democrats.

Police separate demonstrators in  Stockholm in November 2016 after a protest against migrants.

Contested story

Regardless of total crime staying comparatively secure since 2008 (measured by the full quantity of reported offenses per capita) social media has amplified — and at occasions distorted — this narrative of a crime-ridden Sweden. Analysis carried out by Oxford College’s Web Institute discovered one in three information articles shared on Twitter forward of this weekend’s election was “junk information,” which it outlined as “deceptive, misleading or incorrect info.”

With low ranges of inequality, unemployment and crime, in addition to a booming economic system, Sweden is, by many measures, doing nicely in comparison with many different European international locations.

Integration has lengthy been a speaking level amongst all events, however the debate has develop into noisier in recent times with the inflow of refugees.

Many citizens see the intense racial stratification of metropolis areas — such because the outlying areas of Gothenburg and Stockholm — as problematic. However Anders Hellstrom, a senior lecturer in political science and knowledgeable on the Sweden Democrats at Malmo College, says that is extra about segregation than integration, points that stand in opposition to one another.

Refugees in Sweden are worse off within the brief time period in comparison with different OECD international locations, mentioned Pieter Bevelander, a professor of worldwide migration and ethnic relations on the Malmo College. General although, Sweden’s integration policies have been successful, in response to the Migrant Integration Coverage Index. About 70% of non-EU refugees have employment after 10 years, Bevelander added, and due to a booming economic system he expects this to proceed unchanged.

In Solvesborg, this discrepancy between fact and notion is obvious too, and mirrored within the hotly contested variations of Akesson’s early years within the city.

Amongst his supporters, Akesson is nicely regarded for seeming like a standard man and standing by his hardline stance on immigration via the years, nonetheless controversial his concepts might as soon as have been. That extra of Sweden’s political events are adopting tougher stances on migration solely reinforces his assist. Those that have debated him additionally acknowledge his rhetorical shrewdness.

Helene Bjorklund, the mayor of Solvesborg and a Social Democrat, suggests that because Sweden has so few problems, migration receives most attention.

But, Akesson’s murky previous, the sturdy presence of neo-Nazism within the earlier iteration of the Sweden Democrats, and his contact with neo-Nazis and skinheads when he first joined the celebration proceed to canine the candidate.

On numerous events, Akesson has been confronted within the media, including the Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet, by Solvesborg residents who grew up with him and recall his affiliation with neo-Nazi parts.
In several interviews Akesson has claimed that when he was rising up within the 80s in Solvesborg he was harassed by gangs of migrant youngsters, who threatened him with numerous weapons and spat at him calling him a, “F***ing Swede.”

But, numerous people CNN spoke to, who’re from Solvesborg and knew Akesson, doubt the reality of these claims.

Per Nilsson, an august prize-winning writer and a former instructor at one of many colleges Akesson attended in Solvesborg throughout these years, is one such individual.

“When he began college, there have been no immigrants on this city. Everybody knew what he mentioned wasn’t true,” Nilsson informed CNN.

Akesson declined a request to be interviewed by CNN earlier than the election. Nonetheless, in previous interviews he has constantly defended his model of the reality, claiming that he “subjectively skilled it like that.”

These experiences, he says, minted his political views as an adult, views that he would carry with him as he formed the present model of the Sweden Democrats.
Louise Erixon, leader of the Sweden Democrats in Solvesborg and Akesson's fiance, says a feeling of insecurity has spread across the country.

All points level to immigration

Immigration is simply one of many huge points within the election for a lot of voters. Healthcare and the surroundings — sparked by a latest spate of fires that swept throughout the nation — additionally weigh closely.

Many Sweden Democrat supporters, particularly from rural areas, really feel they’ve been ignored by Stockholm’s political elite, which has contributed to the talk on inequality, in response to Hellstrom.

And whereas the Sweden Democrats aren’t a single-issue celebration, he mentioned, “they embark from a nativist anti-immigrant platform,” relating all these points again to immigration.

By tying all these points right into a coherent narrative that relates on to immigration, Akesson and the Sweden Democrats have modified the talk, forcing a shift amongst all events to the appropriate.

“What is suitable to say in a information column or what a politician can say has develop into extra excessive. The conventional state of affairs has develop into extra excessive,” mentioned Hellstrom.

The Sweden Democrats have proposed numerous measures round migration and integration. To higher assimilate migrants to Swedish tradition, the Sweden Democrats suggest to curtail the flexibility of certain ethnicities to practice their culture.
The Sweden Democrats additionally intend to offer migrants coupons as a substitute of cash to buy primary items, they usually purpose to place a cease to the availability of free healthcare for undocumented immigrants.

Is Sweden a hit story or fashionable dystopia?

No matter Sweden’s affluence, the Sweden Democrats see Sweden heading down the highway to “dystopia,” in response to Hellstrom, which has many individuals begging the query: Why?

“Folks have been affected by immigration insurance policies. And the immigration insurance policies have an effect on so many extra fields,” mentioned Louise Erixon, chief of the Sweden Democrats in Solvesborg and Akesson’s fiance.

“Now we have the sensation of insecurity throughout the nation creeping into even the small locations like Solvesborg, for instance, which has at all times been a peaceable place the place individuals have been in a position to really feel secure.”

Ali Kader is the proprietor of Solvesborg’s pizzeria. As an Iraqi-Kurd, Kader got here to Sweden when he was eight as a refugee, fleeing the Iran-Iraq conflict. Kader grew up in Gnosjo — a manufacturing unit city in Smaland, Sweden — together with refugees from the Balkan wars. He says the political local weather round refugees throughout his time in Gnosjo is much like at the moment’s debate.

“When immigrants come, some individuals will at all times shout that ‘we do not want this, it’s unhealthy for Sweden.’ It was the identical factor when the conflict in Yugoslavia was occurring,” Kader mentioned.

“We had a whole lot of Bosnian and Albanians coming and it was the identical dialogue. However individuals appear to overlook. The those that got here from Balkans all have jobs, they’re built-in.”

Others are much less positive why the far-right is surging within the polls. “I’m wondering that myself,” mentioned Helene Bjorklund, the mayor of Solvesborg and a Social Democrat, speculating that as a result of Sweden has so few issues, migration has acquired most consideration.

Pizzeria owner Ali Kader says previous immigrants from the Balkans are now integrated in Solvesborg.

A brand new model of Sweden

In Solvesborg, the disdain in direction of and mistrust of Stockholm’s political elite has solely fueled the recognition of the Sweden Democrats, which on Sunday might win management of the regional authorities — if not a nationwide majority — giving the celebration sufficient energy to steer the political agenda there.

Kader, like many others in Sweden, fears the prospect of the far-right celebration profitable each regionally and nationally, and doubtlessly profitable affect in a coalition authorities,

“For me Sweden has been an open nation. Sweden would not make a distinction between individuals, their faith, ethnicity, the place they arrive from and so forth,” mentioned Kader.

“I’m actually frightened. I believe the Sweden Democrats are very unhealthy for democracy in Sweden. We’ll quickly be like Hungary and Poland.”

With Macron on one aspect and on the opposite, Italy’s far-right Inside Minister Matteo Salvini, who weighed in to want Akesson “finest needs,” the stakes in Sweden couldn’t be increased for the remainder of the continent.

“If this will occur in one of the vital superior, secure democracies on the planet, the place financial progress has been sturdy and unemployment has been low,” mentioned Matthew Goodwin, professor of politics and worldwide relations at Kent College within the UK and writer of the forthcoming guide, Nationwide Populism: The Revolt In opposition to Liberal Democracy, “then it may well mainly occur in some other Western democracy.”

CNN’s Henrik Pettersson contributed to this report.

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