General Elections in Sweden : The Extreme Right and Falafels

Alia Fakhry, correspondent in Lund, Sweden, Translated by Rodolphe Leclerc
25 Septembre 2014

On September 14th, Swedish citizens went to the polls to elect their representatives at the national, regional and local level. Several stakes, such as the state of public finances and the privatisation of state-owned companies drove the elections, but the question of hospitality and integration for foreigners in Sweden was what drew the most attention, and probably led to the breakthrough of extreme right.

The Moderates of the centre-right coalition, led by Fredrik Reinfeldt, also known as the « Alliance for Sweden », include Moderates, Liberals and Christians Democrats. They had been in power for 8 years, but now they must give their seat up to the Social Democrats, led by Stefan Löfven. However, the rise of extreme right, the so-called « Swedish Democrats » was the main topic of discussion. With 12,9% of the votes, the supporters of the young and dynamic Jimmie Åkesson got more than twice their 2010 score, thus winning 29 more seats at the Swedish Riksdag. Last May, they had already surprised everyone by winning two seats at the European Parliament.  

« It is time we put aside political interests », guaranteed Stefan Löfven on the evening of the elections, after the results were announced, saying he was ready to reach out to all « democratic parties ». Therefore, a « red-green » alliance should dominate the Riksdag, bringing together Social Democrats, Ecologists and the left. And while they won the election with only 31% of the votes, Löfven’s supporters now have to secure a strong majority in Parliament : indeed, the repartition of the seats allows them little flexibility, with 158 seats against 142 for the « Alliance for Sweden ».  

During the meeting held on Friday September 19th with the leaders of the « Alliance for Sweden » parties, Stefan Löfven certainly did not miss the opportunity to court the leader of the Centre Party, Annie Lööf, who scored a strong 6,1% and could reinforce the new left-wing majority. Despite the fact that the latter reminded journalists in attendance, before the meeting, that her party was not ready to join a social-democratic coalition, Stefan Löfven left the meeting smiling and confident. 

The New Masters of the Political Game

It is still a reality today, because of the rule of proportion, that political coalitions are commonplace in the Riksdag. However, all of the political groups in the Parliament have already excluded negotiations with the « Swedish Democrats », an extreme right party founded in 1988. As the third political force in the country, they are aware of their new influence in Parliament and the pressure they can put on the two main groups constituting it. « We are the true game masters now » assures Jimmie Åkesson. This is as explicit as it gets.  

His objective is clear : reduce immigration by 90% and put an end to the integration problems caused by the populations that have recently arrived in Sweden. In an interview with the BBC two years ago, Åkesson claimed that « Muslim immigrants lock themselves in suburban areas where they build parallel societies ». According to him, « it is better to export stability rather than import instability ».  

The party, which has finds its roots anchored in some racist and neo-Nazi groups of the 1980s, successfully entered the Swedish political game in 2010 by refreshing its look, appeasing its message and ousting its most extreme members. It could easily be compared to the French « Front National », which also managed to polish its image and remove the inhibitions of the extreme right ; however Marine Le Pen refused to make an alliance with Swedish Democrats at the European Parliament.

Nevertheless, the leaders of the party deny belonging to the extreme right and denounce racism as well as any kind of extremism. They’d rather point at the « Party of the Swedes », open xenophobia, despite having won some seats in some Municipal Councils in 2010. However, Swedish Democrats monopolize the far right wing in the Riksdag, not leaving any place to the « Party of the Swedes » which has to content itself with 0,01% of the votes. They are particularly popular in the South of the country, as in Scania, a region where the immigrant population has multiplied by 4 since 1998, and where they even score higher than the moderates, 22,16% against 22,12%.  

Sweden, an Asylum for the World

In a country with more than 9 million inhabitants, where 15% of the population was born abroad, the immigration question is obviously vital. In 2012, almost 110 000 residence permits were delivered. Syrian refugees inflate this figure to 19%. 12 000 of them were received in 2013 (since Sweden had decided to grant permanent asylum to all Syrian refugees who would ask for it) and entered the Schengen area directly through the Swedish border.  

Because of the aggravation of the humanitarian crisis in Syria, the agency for immigration recently revised its forecast upward and is getting ready to receive 80 000 asylum seekers for the 2014 year. Besides, last April, Fredrik Reinfeldt’s government planned a 7 billion Swedish crown reorganising of funds over the course of two years by cutting funds from the development assistance program, in order to support the refugee effort which would require more than 16 billion additional Swedish crowns. 

But beyond the way refugees are received, the problem of their integration into  Swedish society is the most worrying. « There is a true integration problem, reveals Hazem, a Syrian refugee who came to Sweden two years ago. Some [immigrants], even after all the years they spent in Sweden, still do not speak Swedish; nor do they have Swedish friends. I understand some are tempted to vote for the Swedish Democrats when I see what happens inside the ghettos ». 

However, the government is making effort by supporting local integration associations and by offering free language courses for everyone. According to Hazem, the problem is mainly caused by the fact that refugees have difficulty finding employment, on one hand because of the language barrier, and on the other hand because of the lack of positions of responsibility available for them. « Today, asylum seekers are more qualified than their predecessors, and do not have the intention to become taxi drivers when they were cardiologists ». Bassel, another Syrian refugee, echoes that : « I do not spend time in the Syrian community; I’d rather not. There is a lot of competition between Syrians there. Many are doctors, like myself. We fight over the same positions. » 

Voting : a Measure for Integration

Like the citizens of the European Union, foreigners who received permanent asylum can vote at a local scale, with the difference that they must have resided at least 3 years in Swedish territory before attaining the voting boxes. Syrians, who have begun to gather in Sweden since 2011, will have to wait a little while longer. Facing this prospect, reactions are varied : « Of course I will vote », assures Hazem, while Bassel claims that even if he could vote, he would not do so. « This is not my country », he concludes. 

Before the elections, the rise of extreme right could be seen in the polls as well as in mentalities. In reaction to that, there were efforts at creating voter awareness amongst the immigrant population. In mosques like the one in Malmö, in Scania, Imams invited representatives (with an immigrant background themselves) from the different political formations of left, centre and right-centre, to the Thursday prayer, the most busy of the week. Some of these representatives were already there for the celebration of the end of Ramadan, last July. They distributed dates and candies while talking politics, tells Hazem. For them, it was the occasion to introduce their political agendas to their fellow believers and pointing out why it was in their interest to vote, so as to weaken the Swedish Democrats. They mainly spoke to the Iraqi, who represent the second largest immigrant population in Sweden (just behind the Finnish), with almost 130 000 people. The Iraqi settled there before their Syrian neighbours.  

« We will have to compare with the next elections ! » shouts Hazem, thus reminding us that Syrian refugees will be allowed to vote at the local level by then. According to him, the Syrian presence will change a lot of things in Sweden. Starting with the most important. « For now the Iraqi hold Arabian restaurants. But the food will change here, falafels are way better in Syria », he adds, with a mischievous grin.