Jimmie Åkesson at the Sweden Democrat's national day in Lund. Photo: Björn Lindgren/TT
The leader of the anti-immigration Sweden Democrats on Saturday hailed the Nordic country's dramatic tightening of asylum policy, arguing that it would open the way for his party to join a future right-wing government.
"We are on the way to winning, do you know that?" Jimmie Åkesson told ecstatic supporters gathered for the party's annual meeting in Lund, southern Sweden, boasting that the "essential elements" of his party's policies were now being implemented by the red-green government headed by the prime minister, Stefan Löfven.
“Our analysis was completed a long time back,” he boasted. “Now the other parties come - with a knife to their throats - and do exactly the same thing. "
Åkesson argued that, with the centre-right Moderate and Christian Democrat parties now taking ever harder lines on immigration and border controls, his party's pariah status in Swedish politics would soon be at an end.
"The more they take after us, the lower the threshold to step over and talk to us," he said.
In an interview with Sweden's TT newswire, Åkesson said he saw common ground between SD, the Moderates the the Christian Democrats on immigration, crime and taxation, with the main differences limited to employment and the welfare state.
"There is a lot we could do together," he said, adding that the Moderates essentially have a choice between cooperating with the Sweden Democrats, or forming a grand coalition with the Social Democrats.
"Either the Moderates govern together with the Social Democrats with all the consequences that entails, or they have to govern with us in some form or other," he said.
Nearly 100,000 people have sought asylum in Sweden in the last four months, triple the number of refugees who arrived in the first half of the year, pushing the country's leading parties to abandon their historically liberal immigration policies.
“It hurts me to say that Sweden can no longer handle taking asylum seekers at the same high level,” Sweden's Prime Minister Stefan Löfven said as he announced tough new controls on Tuesday.
Swedish police this week began carrying out ID checks on all people travelling by public transport into Sweden from Denmark and Germany, turning away asylum seekers who either lacked documentation or who did not wish to seek asylum in the country.
The Moderate Party is calling for the strictest possible application of the Dublin Regulation, effectively meaning any asylum seekers who have stepped foot in another EU country on their way to Sweden risk being turned away.
Even so, Moderate leader Anna Kinberg Batra rejected Åkesson's advances on Saturday, saying she intended to continue with the four-party Alliance through which her party ruled from 2006-2014.
"The Sweden Democrats' politics and actions deepen alienation and foment insecurity," the said in a written statement. "The Moderates want to get Sweden back on the right track, together with the Alliance."
At the Sweden Democrat's conference, some party leaders argued that even the tough immigration controls envisaged by the Moderates would not suffice.
“It's not enough to shut the borders,” Richard Jomshof, one of SD's most powerful politicians, told Sweden's Sydsvenksan newspaper
. “We should tear up the residency permits of those who have already been accepted.”
He argued that large numbers of asylum seekers, particularly those from Afghanistan, had been granted asylum “on incorrect grounds” and weren't “true refugees”.
In a sign of the tension in Sweden over asylum, Swedish Police ringed the hotel where the party was meeting with a barbed wire barrier in preparation for a major demonstration by opponents.
While the party has yet to make withdrawing residency permits official policy, Åkesson told the paper that the idea was “absolutely not unreasonable”, although he stressed that the priority was to reduce the numbers coming into Sweden.
“Right now, it's urgent to bring an end to this continuing surge of ever more people. That's the focus now.”
At the conference, party members voted to continue with Åkesson, 36, as leader for another two years. Since he was was voted into the position in 2005, he has transformed the party, which has roots in Sweden's neo-Nazi movement, seeking to broaden its appeal.