'Sweden has let the immigration issue hijack the political agenda'

Paul Connolly
Paul Connolly - [email protected]
'Sweden has let the immigration issue hijack the political agenda'

OPINION: The Local's contributor Paul Connolly asks how and why a far-right party managed to become a serious political contender in Sweden's general election.


Here's a scenario: This European country's economy is in overdrive. The unemployment rate is 6.8 percent, level with the EU average, and still falling. Youth unemployment is at a 15-year low.

Child benefit has been increased, and money has been poured into the health, police and education systems.

Successive surpluses have cut public debt to the lowest levels since the late 1970s.

The economy is booming and the state continues to provide a strong welfare safety net, a net that serves to encourage a well-developed entrepreneurial impulse among many of its citizens.

These are surely glorious times. Salad days.

Of course, there are also problems. It's taking too long to integrate immigrants, with the unemployment rate another 10 percentage points higher than for natives. Hospital waiting times are another issue, although when you do finally reach the front of the queue, medical care is still regarded as world-class.

Surely a political party leading the government in charge of a country in such fine fettle would comfortably win any general election with a vastly increased share of the vote. Wouldn't it?

Not in Sweden. Not in 2018.


Instead the Social Democrats, the party that leads the government coalition that has overseen this period of growth, are likely to record their lowest share of the vote ever, at lower than 25 percent.

And the Sweden Democrats, a political party with its roots in the neo-Nazi movement, is on course to pick up a whopping 20 percent or more of the popular vote in a country which has always prided itself on being at the vanguard of the global progressive movement.

How on earth has this happened? Why will the mostly shrewd stewardship of Prime Minister Stefan Löfven be punished like this?

And how have the Sweden Democrats, the polite(ish) faces of a barbaric far-right movement, edged so close to power they might be kingmakers in the next parliament?

The answer is nuanced.

It's partially the fault of the Swedish establishment. They've allowed the entire political agenda to be hijacked by the immigration issue. 

The media, and the mainstream political parties, have always refused to countenance that there is a diverse, but substantial, anti-immigrant sentiment at work in Sweden. Sweden is not hugely racist but there have always been anti-immigrant elements.

They continued to refuse to engage with immigration as a political issue, even when, in 2015 more than 100,000 refugees poured in and it was clear that this was an extraordinary influx of newcomers that would affect some people's lives.

The inability to accept this strain of right-wing Swedish social thought has long been problematic.

The Sweden Democrats, propelled by Jimmie Åkesson's clever, deceptive leadership, exploited this gap by closely following the far-right "playbook" to appear to be a true alternative to the established parties.

By filling this vacuum in political debate, the SD provoked the media into engaging with them. And then the media, nudged out of its comfort zone, decided it would deal with immigration. As it should have done 20 years ago.

But the media, possibly overcompensating for its previous disregard for the subject, didn't apply a critical filter to SD's views. The result? The pollution of the political discourse by half-truths, barefaced lies and bigotry.

Generally positive aspects of Swedish civic life (non-confrontation, consensus, inclusiveness) suddenly became a handicap to robust political debate. In the interest of political correctness, the media too rarely challenged SD's warped interpretation of the truth.

It legitimized the monsters. The unthinkable became mainstream.

By becoming such a clear apparent alternative the SD made all the others look exactly the same – a bunch of ineffectual political insiders who pander only to the elite.

This is nonsense of course, but to poorly-educated people who tend to rely on how they feel rather than on facts (as the unemployment figures show, immigrants are not taking Swedish native jobs), this dashing disregard for truth and civility is really attractive.

In the north, where I live, it's an even more remarkable state of affairs. Our region, Skellefteå, is growing, rich and very economically robust. It's also relatively racially homogenous.

Yet support for SD is thought to be around 22 percent.

Other than the Swedish media, there is another major culprit in this farrago: The Social Democrats themselves.

The Social Democrats' failure to consolidate their power might be blamed on another innately Swedish trait – The Law of Jante, the cultural compass that celebrates "everyman", discourages individual success and sets average as the goal.

The Social Democrats haven't just failed to trumpet their successes – they've barely admitted to them.

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

And there have only been token attempts to turn back the tide of far-right misinformation on social media, where more than 30 percent of pre-election stories have been found to be false and from far-right sources.

The Social Democrats' reticence and complacency have allowed the narrative to be driven by the SD.

This election could presage a real crisis of confidence in the media and the country as a whole. Sweden is often seen to be doing the right thing – if it can't educate and inform its populace efficiently, how can it ever be Europe's conscience again? How can it still be seen as in the vanguard of liberalism if 20-25 percent of its people remain so resistant to fact?

This may sound rather apocalyptic. But this is Sweden after all. Other Nordic countries such as Finland and Norway have long had sizable right-wing populist parties in parliament. But they remain open, welfare states with strong economies. This is a testing time for Swedish society, for sure. It might even redraw the political landscape. But Sweden is still too robust and mature to self-combust. Sense will – eventually – prevail.

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