Sweden’s Identity Crisis and the Rise of the Far Right

Sweden’s Identity Crisis and the Rise of the Far Right

The rise of the populist, anti-immigrant, far-right Sweden Democrats party is accelerating the erosion of Swedish exceptionalism as we know it. Today, the central tenets of Swedish politics, culture and identity have never been more threatened.

With Swedish politicians beginning to prepare for the 2022 general election, the spectre of populism is set to challenge Sweden’s idyllic reputation whilst haunting its politics.

Sweden’s identity crisis over its renowned internationalism is placing the country at a turning point. The reordering of Sweden’s priorities and domestic policies — guided by a potent wave of populism and nativism — has contributed to a broader reassessment of the nation’s once exceptional status with its famously generous welfare state and asylum seeking policies.

That the rise of the anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats marks a sharp divergence from the past is clear, but the consequences of the shift are less so. Grappling with the utopian reputation Sweden has on the world stage — and the complications that ensue from rising economic inequality and unemployment — will be among the most significant domestic policy debates of the next general election campaign.

The Rise of the Swedish Far Right

In the last decade, anti-immigrant and nationalist sentiments across Swedish society have found their spokesperson in Jimmie Åkesson, leader of the Sweden Democrats. The party, which was long seen as a marginal movement of militant skinheads in black uniforms, currently holds nearly 18% of seats in the Riksdag, Sweden’s Parliament.

Åkesson insists the movement has shed its fascist, white supremacist past. Since rising to power in 2005, he has indeed gotten rid of the party’s neo-Nazi hard liners of the 1980s whilst moderating the group’s platform and polishing its ethos. He has successfully turned it into a law-and-order party with traditional family values that aims to protect Swedes’ hard-earned pension funds from allegedly lazy, unintegrated immigrants living on benefits. Since 2012, Åkesson has also expelled over 100 extremist members, though the frequent news about some Sweden Democrats’ neo-Nazi ties suggests the party’s xenophobic rhetoric may not have completely vanished.

However, the group’s success is not simply fueled by nativist sentiments: their leader has masterfully associated apprehension about open borders with concerns over the country’s beloved welfare state. So far, that tactic has worked.

Jimmie Akesson

The leader of the Sweden Democrats, Jimmie Åkesson. [Credit: https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2018/09/sweden-election/569500/]

Since the 2018 general election the Sweden Democrats have become Sweden’s third largest party, securing 17.5% of the national vote and 62 seats in Parliament. While the far right gained ground, support for the Social Democrats — the center-left party that had dominated Swedish politics for a century — fell to an unprecedented 28.3% (its lowest level of support since 1911), whilst the main opposition, the Moderates, lost an even greater share of the vote.

Åkesson’s unprecedented gains caused a hung parliament and led to a loose, unstable coalition of three different centre-left parties into one ‘big tent’ party. In the end, the coalition of the Social Democrats, the Green Party and the Left party barely scraped by with a one seat majority.

Despite their growing power at the apex of Swedish politics, the Sweden Democrats have remained isolated in the Riksdag because of other parties’ refusal to cooperate with them in light of their neo-Nazi past.

However, that changed last year when Ebba Busch, leader of the centre-right Christian Democrats, signalled her willingness to negotiate with Åkesson in an unprecedented move for Swedish politics. Sweden is, after all, well-known for its liberal culture, robust welfare state, and its unique history of welcoming refugees from all over the world.

With many now fearing that Sweden’s resources are being stretched by immigrants, it appears that the country’s safe haven status, its culture of tolerance, and its core identity may be starting to show some cracks.

Stockholm Syndrome

The 2015 Syrian refugee crisis helped the Sweden Democrats gain momentum: it caused a rare immigration debate among Swedes and saw an unprepared Sweden attempting to handle an unprecedented influx of asylum seekers.

That year, Sweden accepted 163,000 refugees and offered them and their immediate family permanent residency. The number of foreign-born Swedish residents rose to 17%, making the Scandinavian country the largest per capita recipient of refugees in Europe.

While many citizens welcomed the immigrants, the government was pressured into reversing its asylum policy by the Right. By autumn of that year, the Islamic State Paris attacks forced the government to succumb to public concerns and the Sweden Democrats’ requests and it deported some refugees.

Crucially, these shifts in public opinion have happened against the backdrop of significant economic challenges.

Sweden developed its open refugee policies in the 1970s, when it was the fourth-richest nation in the world with virtually no unemployment. This period also coincided with the rise of internationalized human rights and with optimism for the promises of globalisation, including democratization, equality and solidarity. Sweden was eager to position itself as a uniquely multicultural utopia with the hope of generosity and tolerance for refugees fleeing autocracies.

However, though its economy largely recovered from the 2008 financial crisis, recently the government had to make some cuts to its welfare system, which the Right largely blamed on immigrants.

The unusual influx of migrants from North Africa and the Middle East has also increased competition for employment and housing, while the saturation of the low-skilled jobs sector — which most refugees usually gravitate towards — has caused a number of them to live on welfare.

Sweden’s income inequality is also on the rise, while its immigrant communities have become increasingly segregated and ravaged by violent riots and street gangs —a common byproduct of unemployment, poverty, and police ineffectiveness.

Lastly, unemployment has settled at a stubborn 8% — an exceptionally high number for Nordic standards — though that figure doubles in immigrant neighborhoods.

As such, it appears that the social contract that Sweden’s welfare model depended on is starting to wear out, and (to some) the time for being generous is up.

It is unsurprising, then, that the Sweden Democrats have been quick to tap into citizens’ grievances and concerns over open borders, portraying themselves as the only credible voice on the issue while other parties ignore Sweden’s integration problem.

The End of Swedish Exceptionalism?

A recent upsurge in gang violence concentrated in Sweden’s highly segregated immigrant neighborhoods has once again placed the open borders debate at the centre of Swedish politics.

About 50% of Swedish gang members are foreign-born and 85% have an immigrant background from majority-Muslim countries such as Somalia, Iraq, Syria and Turkey. The overwhelming majority of gang members are also unemployed, live on benefits and feel left behind by the Swedish government.

As a result, analysts are pointing to signs of a concerning “Swedish paradox” whereby there are two separate demographic realities in the country: the idealized, safe and wealthy Sweden set against a segregated, poor and violent part of the country.

There is also a more subtle, cultural divide: the pro-human rights, open-borders, internationalist Sweden versus a more conservative, protectionist one.

In the past, these two worlds rarely came into contact, but today’s rising crime rates are urging the government to address its integration problem. Crucially, to face this issue would also mean to question the country’s long-established political and intellectual identity.

Unsurprisingly, the Sweden Democrats have capitalized on the public’s concerns about rising crime rates: they are now advocating for more draconian immigration laws, a tougher police presence, and stricter incarceration rules.

Their movement is set to gain more ground and to influence other parties as well: in fact, a few conservative Swedish politicians have already changed their stance on immigration, for example by advocating for limits on benefits to migrants.

However, whether the Sweden Democrats are actually prepared to handle the real and perceived challenges of immigration to the Swedish welfare and security systems remains an open question. Their rise to power comes, after all, at a time of complex structural changes they may not be equipped for. Sweden no longer has exceptionally low economic inequality, and its public spending budget is no longer exceptionally high.

For a country that is rapidly edging closer to average, the Sweden Democrats’ dream of Making Sweden Great Again may be crushed by the decline of Swedish exceptionalism.

Finally, the fact that more and more people agree with the Sweden Democrats suggests that a fundamental identity shift in the Swedish political landscape is well underway. As such, Sweden is set to grow increasingly polarized, while its core identity, values and idyllic reputation will continue to be challenged and contested.

Sweden’s two main parties will have to rethink the Swedish model and the Swedish capacity to integrate so many refugees. Whether this marks the definitive end of Swedish exceptionalism as we know it will only be answered by the results of Sweden’s next general election in 2022.

Categories: Europe, Politics

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