Sweden Anti-Immigrants Gain After Becoming `Martyrs'

Jimmie Aakesson, the leader of Sweden’s anti-immigrant party, had the makeup lounge all to himself before an election-night television appearance. The reason was that a rival party head refused even to be in the same room.

That kind of ostracism by mainstream parties may have backfired and fueled the Sweden Democrats’ popularity, political scientists said. It may help explain how it took 5.7 percent of the vote on Sept. 19, won 20 seats in the legislature and threw the government into a minority.

“To try to keep them at arm’s length and sweep them under the carpet strengthens their role as martyrs,” said Jenny Madestam, a political scientist at Stockholm University, in an interview. “People feel they are treated badly and this is absolutely one reason behind their success in the election. It turned them into a real alternative, it legitimized them.”

The election outcome prompted street demonstrations against the Sweden Democrats’ stance on immigration in a country that has traditionally welcomed incomers. Even so, the country may be following a trend experienced in neighboring Denmark and Norway, where initial establishment hostility to populist parties gave way to a more pragmatic approach from the mainstream groups.

The Sweden Democrats, which has pledged to cut immigration by as much as 90 percent, weren’t allowed to participate in the televised party debates and their election advertisement was banned by TV4. Their gains have left Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt’s four-party coalition and the opposition bloc, which both refuse to cooperate with Aakesson, struggling to curtail his influence in a parliament with no majority.

Responsibility

After the first preliminary results were published on the evening of the Swedish general election on Sept. 19, Reinfeldt reiterated his stance that the government will “not cooperate or make ourselves dependent on” the Sweden Democrats.

“There has been talk of parliamentary disorder, but who are the ones that have said they will consistently refuse to talk to us, negotiate with us and cooperate with us,” Aakesson told his party on election night. “Who are the ones not willing to take responsibility for this country? It is not us -- it is the other parties that are not taking their responsibility. We’ll not create those problems. We’ll take responsibility.”

‘Aggressive Stance’

If the established parties don’t cooperate and “continue their aggressive stance against the party, the Sweden Democrats would benefit,” said Uppsala-based independent political analyst Stig-Bjoern Ljunggren.

Lars Ohly, leader of the opposition Left Party, wouldn’t enter the same room as Aakesson for the election night television appearance, saying he “will never deal with racists” and “we must make sure they never get influence,” local newspaper Svenska Dagbladet reported.

In other Scandinavian countries, anti-immigrant parties have gained in clout over the past decade. The Danish People’s Party won 13.9 percent in the 2007 elections, making it the third-largest party. Since 2001, it has supported the government in exchange for a stricter immigration policy, at times putting the country at odds with European Union laws.

‘House-Broken’

When the party was first voted into parliament in 1998, then-Prime Minister Poul Nyrup Rasmussen of the Social Democrats called it an unacceptable collaboration partner and said the party “would never be house-broken.”

Norway’s Progress Party became the second-largest group with 22.9 percent of the vote in elections last year. While the other groups in the past have refused to cooperate with the party because of its views on immigration, the opposition Conservative Party has considered a collaboration.

Swedes swarmed to the streets in what organizers called a “sorrow” march the day after the election to protest the Sweden Democrats’ entry into parliament for the first time.

The Swedish population “is much less xenophobic and the fear of foreigners is much smaller here,” Ljunggren said. “In other countries, established parties have taken over parts of these parties’ agendas and they have bigger support among the population.”

Reinfeldt’s coalition is two seats short of a majority after all postal and foreign votes were counted, according to a preliminary result published yesterday by the Swedish Election Authority.

Wrong Strategy

Established parties are trying to reduce the number of lawmakers in parliamentary committees in an effort to deprive the Sweden Democrats of voting rights, Aftonbladet reported on Sept. 22.

Such a move would “strengthen their martyr role and is a rather undemocratic process -- trying to change the rules and the forms of parliamentary work,” Madestam said. “The establishment needs to respect the will of the people and hold a debate and argue with them instead, to show that their arguments won’t hold up. The current strategy is wrong.”

About 59 percent of Swedes believe the Sweden Democrats should be treated just like the other parties in parliament, while 41 percent think they should be isolated, according to a poll by Stockholm-based Skop of 1,224 Swedes published on Sept. 20.

Big Dilemma

“The treatment of the Sweden Democrats in parliament is a big dilemma for the other parties,” Skop analyst Oerjan Hultaaker said in the report. A majority expect they “should be treated in a fair way. If they’re completely isolated, it may be seen as bullying and that will have the opposite effect than the one required.”

The ostracism has sparked a debate about democracy and free speech for a party that won about 330,000 votes in the country of 9.4 million people. In Denmark, media and politicians have expressed concern over the treatment of the Sweden Democrats.

“The state of Swedish democracy is such that I certainly think neighboring countries should evaluate whether democracy in the country is as it should be, or whether we have a banana republic in the Nordic region,” Pia Kjaersgaard, leader of the Danish People’s Party, wrote on her party’s website in the run- up to the Swedish election.

To contact the reporter on this story: Niklas Magnusson in Stockholm at nmagnusson1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Frank Connelly at fconnelly@bloomberg.net

Press spacebar to pause and continue. Press esc to stop.

Bloomberg reserves the right to remove comments but is under no obligation to do so, or to explain individual moderation decisions.

Please enable JavaScript to view the comments powered by Disqus.