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Who is Jimmie Åkesson, the architect of Sweden’s rising far-right?

How did Sweden Democrat leader Jimmie Åkesson succeed in attracting mainstream voters to his fringe party with neo-Nazi roots?

Who is Jimmie Åkesson, the architect of Sweden's rising far-right?
Sweden Democrat leader Jimmie Åkesson. Photo: Johan Nilsson/TT

Jimmie Åkesson, the head of the far-right Sweden Democrats, is a charismatic speaker who has tried to cleanse the party of its neo-Nazi history – although critics would argue his attempts are just lip service.

With his Sweden Democrats tipped to get around 20 percent of the vote in the September 9th election, a record high for the party, Åkesson has become a key adversary of Prime Minister Stefan Löfven.

The anti-immigration populist has seen his political star rise after the arrival of more than 160,000 asylum seekers in 2015.

Despite his relative youth, the 39-year-old will be standing in his fourth legislative elections in 12 years at the helm of SD, which has steadily climbed in popularity.

When Åkesson was elected party leader in 2005, few observers anticipated he would be able to transform the small party's fortunes, sweeping away the traces of SD's origins in the fascist movement “Bevara Sverige svenskt” (“Keep Sweden Swedish”) and distancing it from violent racist groups active in the 1990s.

Formed in 1988, SD entered parliament for the first time in 2010, garnering 5.7 percent of votes.

“He started with very little… people didn't know what the (Sweden Democrats) were,” party supporter Christer Boström, who used to vote for the left wing, told AFP at one of Åkesson's election rallies in the central town of Örebro.

FOR MEMBERS: Just how far-right are the Sweden Democrats?

By the time the September 2014 election rolled around, the Sweden Democrats had soared to become the third largest party, grabbing 13 percent of votes.

But the endless days of campaigning had taken their toll on Åkesson. He suffered a burnout and went on sick leave for six months.

'Always been a nationalist'

Born in 1979 in the southern town of Sölvesborg, Åkesson's mother was a care provider and his father a businessman.

He studied political science, law and philosophy at Lund University, dropping out before earning a degree.

His political activism began in his teens when he joined the youth wing of the conservative Moderates. But he was rapidly disillusioned by their economic liberalism and support for Swedish EU membership in 1995.

It is unclear whether he joined SD in 1994 or 1995.

READ ALSO:

Åkesson claims he joined after March 1995, when the party's then-leader Anders Klarström, a former member of the neo-Nazi group Nordiska Rikspartiet, was forced out along with several other officials with neo-Nazi pasts.

But old documents written by Åkesson and uncovered by the media suggest he joined before that.

“I've always been a nationalist… When I was little, I refused to play table hockey if I couldn't have the blue and yellow players,” Åkesson wrote in a 1999 publication by the Sweden Democrats' youth wing.

Cleaning up

A former web designer, Åkesson has worked hard to change Swedes' perception of the far-right.

“At the beginning, it was a racist party, but (Åkesson) managed to change that,” said 50-year-old Boström, wearing a T-shirt with the party's symbol of a blue and yellow flower, Sweden's national colours.

In October 2012, Åkesson introduced “zero tolerance”, vowing to purge the party of racism and extremism.

Others would however argue that Åkesson has merely changed the party's official rhetoric.

A number of SD officials have in recent years made headlines for racist remarks and hate speech.

And in the final week of campaigning, more than a dozen SD candidates were kicked out of the party after media revealed their backgrounds in neo-Nazi movements – though they said they had informed the party of their pasts.

FOR MEMBERS: Far-right revelations bring back bad memories in Swedish town

Åkesson insists that “those who are not democrats cannot be Sweden Democrats”.

Nazism is “an anti-democratic ideology, socialist, racist, imperialist, internationalist and violent”.

The politician has focused his campaign on the party's central themes, namely its strong stance against immigration, gang violence in disadvantaged suburbs, and the link between the two.

Åkesson has also been particularly outspoken against Islam and wrote in a 2009 editorial for the daily Aftonbladet that Muslims are “our greatest foreign threat since the Second World War”.

READ ALSO: The Local's coverage of the Swedish election

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SWEDEN ELECTS

Sweden Elects: How powerful are the Sweden Democrats now?

The Local's editor Emma Löfgren explains how Sweden's parliamentary committees work – and the role the Sweden Democrats will play in them.

Sweden Elects: How powerful are the Sweden Democrats now?

Hej,

The speaker of parliament has given Ulf Kristersson, leader of the conservative Moderates and the likely next prime minister of Sweden, October 12th as a deadline to conclude his government negotiations.

If Kristersson comes up with a viable proposal for a ruling coalition, the speaker will put that proposal to parliament within four days. Chances are Sweden will have its new right-wing government by mid-October.

What will that government look like? Most likely, it will consist of at least the Moderates and the Christian Democrats. Rumours have it Kristersson is hoping to bring the Liberals into the governmental fold, and it is unlikely that the far-right Sweden Democrats will be part of the government.

But anyone who thinks the latter means they will be left on the sidelines is mistaken. They will have demanded significant concessions in order to support Kristersson’s government (and especially to make way for the Liberals) from parliament, and judging from recent news, they got them.

In a joint press release last week, the right wing – the Moderates, Christian Democrats, Liberals and Sweden Democrats – said they had reached a deal on how to share responsibility for their parliamentary committees.

There are 15 committees in the Swedish parliament, seats on which are held by members of parliament, with larger parties getting more seats as well as more high-ranking roles such as chair and deputy chair.

The right wing is after this election entitled to 16 chair and deputy chair roles, and the Sweden Democrats will get half of those, the parties agreed. The key thing that many political pundits were keeping an eye on was which committees, as that tells us a lot about how far they got in their negotiations with the other right-wing parties. The answer: far.

The Sweden Democrats will get to chair the Justice, Foreign Affairs, Labour Market, and Industry and Trade Committees – all heavyweight committees. 

Their most high-profile appointment is Richard Jomshof, one of the most senior Sweden Democrats who in the run-up to the election gave an anti-Islam speech (not the first time). He will chair the Justice Committee.

The Moderates will chair the Finance and Social Insurance Committees (plus the EU Committee), the Christian Democrats will chair the Health and Welfare Committee, and the Liberals will chair the Education Committee.

On the other side, the left-wing parties will get to chair the Defence, Taxation, Constitution, Civil Affairs, Transport and Communications, Environment and Agriculture, and Cultural Affairs Committees.

So what exactly do the parliamentary committees do, and how much influence will the Sweden Democrats now have over legislation?

The votes of every member of the committees count equally (there are at least 15 members on every committee, representing the various parties from left to right), and the chair gets the final vote if there’s a tie. He or she also has influence over the committee’s agenda and over how meetings are directed, with the position also bringing prestige.

All government bills and proposals by members of parliament first go through one of the committees before they can be put to the main chamber for a vote. The committee adopts a position on the proposal and although the final decision rests with the 349 members of the main chamber, they usually vote for the committee’s position since the make-up of their members represent the parties in parliament.

Although chair positions give them a procedural advantage, the Sweden Democrats won’t have unlimited power over their committees, since as I said, the other parties have seats too and their votes count equally.

The main benefit for the Sweden Democrats is rather the soft power it gives them. The chair is the face of the parliamentary committee, and these senior roles will force the other parties to take them seriously.

Another aspect to bear in mind is that they’ll have enough seats on each committee that they will have a key kingmaker role where they can side either with the government or the opposition – giving them fairly significant negotiating power when it comes to future legislation.

In other news, the Swedish parliament last week re-elected the popular Andreas Norlén as speaker, it’s been taking much longer than usual to get a work permit (here’s why) and foreigners are calling for the Migration Agency to issue special visas to allow those affected by renewal delays to leave Sweden and return, the Nord Stream 2 pipeline has stopped leaking gas, and households in Sweden are starting to feel the economic squeeze.

In the latest episode of our Sweden in Focus podcast, host Paul O’Mahony is joined by Handelsbanken chief economist Johan Löf, as well as The Local’s Becky Waterton, Richard Orange and James Savage.

Many thanks to everyone who’s got in touch lately with your thoughts and feedback about Sweden Elects. I’m happy it’s useful to you. If you have any questions about Swedish politics, you’re always welcome to get in touch.

Best wishes,

Emma

Sweden Elects is a weekly column by Editor Emma Löfgren looking at the big talking points and issues in the Swedish election race. Members of The Local Sweden can sign up to receive the column as a newsletter in their email inbox each week. Just click on this “newsletters” option or visit the menu bar.

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