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The Sweden Democrats - a year in the Riksdag spotlight

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The Sweden Democrats - a year in the Riksdag spotlight
16:28 CEST+02:00
A year has passed since the Sweden Democrats became Sweden's newest parliamentary party and The Local's Peter Vinthagen Simpson has a look at what has been achieved, what has not and what has changed.

On election night in September 2010, Sweden Democrat (SD) party secretary Björn Söder gave his view on the party's status as kingmaker as the results confirmed that the Alliance government would lose its Riksdag majority.

“It means that the other parties should be ready to negotiate with us," he told The Local at the time.

But the phone never rang at Sweden Democrat headquarters and instead the party was gradually forced to adapt to its role as simply one of the four parties forming the opposition to a minority government.

An early cross-bloc agreement between the Alliance government and the Green Party over integration and asylum policy left the Sweden Democrats unable to have any impact on their flagship issue, but according to political scientist Andreas Johansson Heinö this did not stop them from staking their case.

“They had to do what they had to do. To speak about integration issues all the time. In the spring we have seen that they talk less about integration and more about other issues,” he tells The Local.

During their first first six months in the Riksdag, the Sweden Democrats tended to support the government in propositions and the Alliance's status as a minority government was barely tangible to the electorate. As the Riksdag year progressed, however, a new strategy emerged, prompting a series of defeats for the Alliance.

Ulf Bjereld, a professor in political science at Gothenburg University, tells The Local that this development was part of a conscious strategy and was in response to the break up of the red-green opposition bloc.

“The early months of 2011 were characterised by a lack of leadership in the opposition because the Social Democrats were looking for a new leader. In April, May, June the situation changed and SD realised that the only way to influence the government was to coordinate with the opposition,” Bjereld says.

The first significant defeat for the government in parliament came in December with the passage of a bill slashing the budget of the Government Offices, a decision which has been blamed for a slew of embassy closures.

The second noteable setback came in March 2011 when the assembled opposition voted to block the sale of share holdings in a number of state-owned companies including power utility Vattenfall and telecoms giant TeliaSonera.

While the government played down the defeats as part and parcel of minority government - more the rule than the exception in Swedish politics - the votes illustrated the potential legislative relevance of the Sweden Democrats.

Prior to the 2010 election there was much debate about how the other parties would relate to the Sweden Democrats. Social Democrat leader Mona Sahlin and Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt appeared at times to be competing in who had the toughest stance on the issue.

The discussion was criticised by some observers both before and after the election who argued that the Sweden Democrats should be treated like any other party, and their voters, however few in percentage terms, should be respected.

While at a local, municipal level there has been contact between the Sweden Democrats and other parties for some time, Johansson Heinö observes, at a national level there is little movement on this issue.

“At the party leader level this is still a taboo issue. No party can afford to lose that position. To be accused of dealing with the SD. Not for the time being anyway,” he says.

Ulf Bjereld argues that while formal contact to “sound out” the position of the Sweden Democrats remains frowned upon, there is some shift in how the government and the opposition parties think when considering their propositions.

“Both sides have kept their promises. They have been very clear in their election campaigns - that there would be no formal or informal cooperation. But they consider how the SD would stand. There is little doubt about that,” he explains.

The government's decision in August to delay the introduction of a fifth in-work tax credit, a key element of its jobs policy, has been cited as a reflection of this, despite finance minister Anders Borg's opportune use of the eurozone troubles to argue instead that the decision displayed fiscal responsibility.

Sweden Democrat leader Jimmie Åkesson's perhaps most high profile appearance of the parliamentary year was back in January when the party called for a Riksdag debate on “extremism” in the wake of a failed suicide bombing in central Stockholm in December.

Åkesson argued in parliament that the debate in Sweden about Islamic extremism has been infected by a fear of saying the wrong things. The party was in turn criticised for using the foiled attack, perpetrated by Taimour Abdulwahab, an Iraqi-born Swedish citizen who had been living in the UK, to make political gain.

The “Danish development” is the term use to describe a normalisation in the political and public debate in Sweden's southerly neighbour following the election to parliament of the Danish People's Party (DPP), a party with a similar nationalist, anti-Islam platform as the Sweden Democrats.

This normalisation refers to the acceptance of the party and its views as positions like any other - no matter how “extreme” they are perceived to be by mainstream society. It also refers to an accommodation by mainstream parties to these views in order to win back SD voters.

The Sweden Democrats have themselves demanded to be accepted as a legitimate political party, reflected in their demands to be considered as partners for political and legislative cooperation.

“They want to become like any other party. The DPP is not just integration, but law and order and pensioners,” Johansson Heinö explains, while observing that “SD have much to gain by playing the martyr - maintaining the impression that they are being unfairly treated”.

Bjereld argues that there has been some shift in how the media describes the party and its ideas using terms like “immigration-critical” instead of “immigration-hostile” and refraining from describing them as “xenophobic”, using instead terms such as “populist” and “nationalist”.

The party's progression has not been without setbacks during its first year in the Riksdag spotlight however.

A slew of members have been expelled from the party for various indiscretions often involving ill-thought out missives on social media forums.

Several of these headline-grabbing incidents were reactions of several senior members on Twitter in the immediate aftermath of the terror attacks in Norway by Anders Behring Breivik.

Kent Ekeroth, who along with his brother Ted support an “Anti-Islamisation fund” which states its aim as “the fight against Islam”, was among those quick to place the blame on Islamic terrorism.

Björn Söder was forced to take steps to warn senior party members not to jump to conclusions. In the days following the attacks, Åkesson repeatedly distanced the party from the perpetrator of the attacks, a right-wing nationalist, who in his manifesto cited SD among his influences.

Few opinion-makers apportioned direct blame on the party, however, and SD escaped largely unscathed in the polls from the added focus on right-wing extremism. Little has furthermore changed in how the party addresses its core issues and SD have generally maintained their vocal, heated rhetoric.

More serious for the party hierarchy has been a recent incident involving MP Erik Almqvist who was arrested following reports that he had assaulted a doorman at a Stockholm nightspot.

Despite the party's strong focus on the issue of law and order, Ulf Bjereld argues that while for most parties this type of public behaviour would be frowned upon by voters, it may actually help the Sweden Democrats.

“Most voters don't like this type of behaviour among young, male, high-salaried members of parliament. But the SD are different. It could profile the SD as a party unlike the others, as rebels,” he explains.

The resignation from the party this week of MP William Petzäll over his battle with alcohol and drug abuse presented a stern test for the Sweden Democrats in their attempts to present a united front.

Petzäll's resignation and decision to stand as an independent cut the party's Riksdag representation from 20 to 19 members and was met with a backlash of recriminations from some senior members.

Andreas Johansson Heinö argues that if Petzäll's one-man revolt can be controlled the party should be able to manage the setback, pointing out that SD have managed to maintain a strong organisation in their first year in the Riksdag.

"One of the strengths of the Sweden Democrats is that they have held together in the parliament with a high degree of unity. This is their first setback and I think they can afford it. They have a good starting point."

Johansson Heinö continued to warn that the situation can't be allowed to spiral out of control though, underlining the importance of the party staying united.

"It has to be a unique incident. This is apparently not a consequence of ideology or policy, it concerns personal issues - that is why it is possible to regard it as unique."

The Sweden Democrats claimed 5.7 percent of the vote in the 2010 election and opinion polls throughout the year have on balance indicated little shift in this position. Neither Johansson Heinö nor Bjereld expect the party to become a one term casualty in the same way as the previous far-right party to claim Riksdag seats, New Democracy, did in the early 1990s.

“SD are another kind of party from New Democracy. They have good possibilities of keeping their seats in 2014, but no growth,” Ulf Bjereld says, pointing out that public opinion has little bearing on their appeal.

Johansson Heinö argues however that the party's process of normalisation improves its chances of expanding its core of voters.

“They have a core of voters who can't imagine voting for any other - they are anti-establishment. There is a further base of potential voters which they are attracting slowly. Normalisation is no threat to their core voters - they have no alternative,” he argues.

The Local made several requests for an interview with a senior Sweden Democrat to discuss the party's view on their first year in the Riksdag, but the requests were ignored.

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