Sweden's Political Gaffes Add to PM's Woes Amid Refugee Overload

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Stefan Lofven.

Photographer: Alain Jocard/AFP via Getty Images
  • Green Party's Leaders Prepared to Step Down But Hope to Stay
  • Premier Loefven says cabinet may need to be reshuffled

Turkish nationalism, Islamism and calling the 9/11 terrorist attacks “accidents” are probably the last things you’d associate with the Swedish Green Party, the junior member of the ruling coalition. You’d be wrong.

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Missteps by the group are adding to the woes Social Democratic Prime Minister Stefan Loefven, whose government is buckling under record low poll numbers amid the biggest inflow of refugees in history.

The Greens haven’t had it easy since joining the government in 2014 but last week was especially bad. One of its ministers resigned amid links to Turkish nationalists and revelations he had compared Israel’s policies to Nazism. Party leader Asa Romson was then pilloried for calling the 9/11 U.S. terrorist attacks “accidents,” while another key member resigned amid a feminist uproar over his refusal to shake hands with women.

At week’s end, an exasperated premier said he couldn’t exclude a broader cabinet reshuffle and that a decision would come soon. He reassured the country on where his self-declared feminist government stood on shaking hands: In Sweden “men and women shake hands” and there’s “zero tolerance on discrimination,” he said.

The turmoil “of course makes the work in government more difficult,” Loefven said as he reaffirmed that the collaboration with the Greens is a prerequisite for his minority government to hold together.

The party’s leaders, Romson and Gustav Fridolin, at a press conference on Monday announced they will be willing to step down at a party congress next month “if others have better potential to do the job,” Fridolin said.

The uproar, augmented by the links to Islamism, reveals a growing unease in Sweden -- and in its government -- over immigration. The 10 million-people nation is faced with absorbing almost 250,000 refugees, many of whom are Muslims from war-torn nations such as Syria and Afghanistan.

The Greens have borne the brunt of the growing anxiety since it has been the most outspoken in favor of open borders, which also helped it attract immigrant politicians. Romson last year almost shed tears at the press conference where the government revealed that Sweden would start border checks and tighten asylum rules.

Some 65 percent of Swedes want the Greens to leave the government, while only 29 percent have faith in the premier, a Demoskop poll in Expressen showed on Friday.

Yasri Khan, who was poised to join the Green’s executive board before the hand-shaking revelation, is now considering whether to leave the party. The 30-year-old Stockholm native said he even misses the former conservative prime minister, Fredrik Reinfeldt, who joined with the Greens to craft the now abandoned open door policy to refugees.

“Many Muslims now feel that there’s no room for us in this society, or in politics,” Khan, who’s head of Swedish Muslims for Peace and Justice, said in a phone interview. “In the past week I’ve had to defend norms as a practicing Muslim. I think it’s very cowardly of the government.”

The cabinet member that resigned, Housing Minister Mehmet Kaplan, said that he stepped down because the accusations against him made it impossible for him to do his job while also also renouncing all forms of extremism. The 44-year-old, who emigrated from Turkey when he was one, was photographed at a dinner with a member of the Grey Wolves, a Turkish ultra-nationalist group. A 2009 recording later surfaced of him likening Israel’s policies toward of Palestinians to the Nazi’s treatment of the Jews.

For now, Loefven and the Greens can count themselves lucky that the opposition Alliance parties have shown little appetite to force the issue of a government shift.

“The Green party’s image is weakened,” Jenny Madestam, a social scientist at Soedertoern University, said by phone. “There may be a government reshuffle, but it’s hard to see it would mean that the Green party would get kicked out of the government.”

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