INTERVIEW: ‘The Sweden Democrats are needed in government’

For Jimmie Åkesson, there are no red or blue blocs, only seven "old parties" who have driven Sweden to ruin, and his own Sweden Democrats, the only party voters can trust to put things right. In The Local's fifth party leader interview, he tells us what this means for post-election talks.

INTERVIEW: 'The Sweden Democrats are needed in government'
Sweden Democrat leader Jimmie Åkesson speaks to The Local after his summer speech in his home town of Sölvesborg. Photo: Richard Orange/The Local

On the grassy peninsular behind the old castle in the town of Sölvesborg, the Sweden Democrats’ leader Jimmie Åkesson is quite literally on home turf. Behind the stage, his son and a friend take turns at climbing the birches in the grove by the Sölvesborgsviken inlet, while in front of him, the party faithful are gathered on benches and sitting on the grass, clad in Sweden Democrat T-shirts and caps to ward off the searing summer sun. 

If Åkesson has mellowed, as several commentators have written over the last few months, it’s not on display in the speech he makes today: 

“It simply won’t work to let the seven parties which have destroyed our country for decades, botched it up for Sweden, smashed our little, shared place in the world into pieces,” he declares, calling Sweden “our beloved, safe home on earth”. 

“It won’t work to allow these same parties to try and clear up the absolute tragedy which they, themselves, have created. Because they will never manage.” 

The Moderates’ leader Ulf Kristersson has in recent speeches alarmed more liberal members of his party by time and again crediting the Sweden Democrats for putting Sweden’s immigration problems on the agenda at a time when talking about them was almost taboo. 

But Åkesson is not willing to return the credit. 

“We are the only party which has no responsibility at all for how Sweden looks today, it’s all the old parties’ fault,” he said. “We don’t only love Sweden once a year, not just when it’s cool or in vogue, we love our country from deep down inside, all the time, every day.”
When The Local asks him after the speech how he can say this about the Moderate Party when, if the election goes according to plan, he is likely to support Kristersson in becoming prime minister, he seems to say Kristersson is mainly preferable because the Social Democrats have already been in power too long, but also because the Moderates have changed, a little. 
“I think that they can’t be alone in government,” he says of the conservative party, in adequate but far from flawless English . “I think we are needed to make it as good as it can be.” 
The last time the Moderates were in power, leading the Alliance government, was, he claims “a disaster”. 
“They took a lot of wrong decisions, especially regarding immigration, how to push back crime, and such things. But I think the Moderates are nowadays another kind of party. They have a new leadership, and I think they are more and more coming close to our positions. So I think we can have a cooperation that will be okay, even though they made a lot of mistakes ten years ago.” 

Before the interview, we asked readers on The Local’s Living in Sweden Facebook page if they had any questions, and several people asked if his party was hostile to those who, like many readers of The Local, have come to Sweden to work. 
He stressed that his party welcomed highly skilled labour migrants. 

“We have a lot of migrants that contribute to Swedish society and the Swedish economy. They work and they pay taxes, and that’s fine,” he said.

“They are not the problem. The problem is more those 700,000 immigrants that cannot support themselves and that are in need of social benefits and that kind of support. That costs a lot of money,” he said. “That is the problem, not the good immigrants that are working and contribute to society.” 

He reversed his party’s past position, and told The Local that he did not think that Sweden should return to the old system whereby unions got to work together with government and employers to determine which skills faced sufficient shortages to justify importing workers. 

“We don’t want the unions to have the power to decide who gets permits to come to Sweden,” Åkesson said. “But we want society, in some way, [to] have to see if it’s needed or not, and exactly how we’re going to do that I cannot say at this time.”  

He said he believed “a better solution” than a return of union involvement would be something similar to proposals made by the Christian Democrat and Moderate parties, who want to increase the minimum salary that those seeking work permits are being offered. 

When it came to the formation of the next government, he said that the low level of trust he has for his potential partners in the Moderate, Christian Democrat and particularly in the Liberal Party, means that he would rather that the Sweden Democrats join the ruling coalition, but he said his priority is getting policies enacted. 

“If I could decide on my own, of course, we would want to be in government, but the thing you should always put at the centre is what policies will they make and what decisions they will take,” he said.

“We have a lot of proposals that we think are important, and we expect that if we support the government, they will make us happy and use our proposals to a degree that we can accept. I think that’s that’s the most important thing, not how the government looks, and what parties are in it.” 

Parties on both sides of the political divide are now competing hard to seem tough on immigration and crime, moving squarely onto the Sweden Democrats’ old territory. When the Social Democrats in Denmark took a critical, populist approach to immigration a few years ago, the shift was followed by a dramatic fall in support for the country’s equivalent of the Sweden Democrats, the Danish People’s Party, which is now on just two percent of the vote, down from over 20 percent. 

But Åkesson said that although he had initially been worried that other parties would win back some of their voters, so far his party did not seem to be facing the same sort of trajectory. 

“I had this feeling, especially when the Moderates came closer to us on immigration, that they would take more of our voters. But we haven’t seen that. We’re quite stable in the polls, and it looks like we will stay quite stable, so I’m not that worried.

“And I think if we now get the chance to be part of the government or support the government, that will also show voters that they need us for things to happen. We are needed. So I think that’s that’s positive.” 

Asked whether he would be upset if the party went backwards in its share of the vote on September 11th, winning less than the 17.5 percent it won in 2018, Åkesson was sanguine. 

“If we get a new government, that’s not that important. Our own numbers are not that important in the team. But of course, it would be a different situation, because we’ve never, ever lost an election in that way. But the most important thing is that we get a new government, and that’s our focus.”

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‘Sweden seeks the support of one dictator to protect itself from another’

The independent MP Amineh Kakabaveh tells The Local why Sweden should immediately withdraw from the Nato accession negotiations to protect its "values and dignity".

'Sweden seeks the support of one dictator to protect itself from another'

Amineh Kakabaveh is one of the Kurdish Swedes whom Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has labeled a terrorist. In the Turkish state media she is mentioned in one breath with the PKK (the Kurdistan Workers’ Party – designated as a terrorist organisation by the EU) and the Gülen movement, which Erdogan blames for orchestrating a 2016 coup attempt. The Turkish ambassador to Sweden has even asked for her extradition.

“I thought it was an April Fool’s joke,” she tells The Local of her dismay at being named. “I’m not even from Turkey. I have never fought against the Turkish government, I have never been a member of the PKK. I am simply a politician who cares about minorities, human rights and equality. I am a strong woman who is not afraid to speak out. That makes Erdogan feel threatened.”

‘Politically wild’

Since Kakabaveh left the Left Party in 2019, she has been an independent politician – or a political wild, as it is called in Sweden. In that capacity she’s had disproportionate power. Without Kakabaveh’s vote Magdalena Andersson wouldn’t be Sweden’s prime minister today. 

The government needs her vote for a majority, so she has been able to extract concessions, striking a deal with the Social Democrats last November which guaranteed funding and support to the Kurdish independent region of Syria.  

READ ALSO: Why is Sweden’s government risking Nato talks for a single MP?

The Kurdish cause has always been close to her heart. During her teenage years in Iran, “forced between life and death”, Kakabaveh became a peshmerga, a member of the Kurdish militia in the Komala socialist movement. When faced with the death penalty, she fled to Sweden in 1992. Since then, she says she is no longer affiliated with any Kurdish organisation. These days she only fights – nonviolently – for justice, within Sweden and abroad.

As part of its deal to win Turkey’s support for its Nato accession application, Sweden, according to Erdogan, has promised to extradite 73 so-called terrorists to Turkey. The Turkish president claims these people are associated with the PKK and the Gülen movement.

In addition, Erdogan commands that Sweden stop supporting the Kurdish Democratic Union party, or PYD, whose armed wing in Syria is fighting the Islamic State. Erdogan alleges that this party is no more than a thinly veiled cover for the PKK and that the Nordic country is providing a haven for outlawed Kurdish militants.

In this political power game, Sweden is looking for a delicate balance between appeasing Turkey while maintaining its own moral high ground. The Swedish government has promised Ankara to take counter-terrorism measures. Is Sweden willing to sacrifice the Kurdish community in exchange for a Turkish ‘yes’ vote?

Swedish Justice Minister Morgan Johansson tried to allay doubts by assuring that “we apply Swedish law in Sweden” and that Swedish citizens had nothing to fear.

“Non-Swedish citizens can be extradited at the request of other countries, but only if this is compatible with Swedish law and the European Convention,” he said. 

‘Throwing the Kurdish community in front of the bus’

Not everyone is reassured. In recent months, Kakabaveh has been approached by “hundreds of people” who are deeply concerned for her and their own safety, who no longer dare to attend protests, who are wary of the Swedish security service Säpo, and who fear that, when going abroad, they could be seized and extradited by regimes loyal to Erdogan.

“As a Member of Parliament I have often been threatened so I have bodyguards. But that is of course an exception. Most Kurds have no such security.”

Sweden isn’t just leaving Kurds out in the cold, Kakabaveh argues, it is also squandering its humanitarian ideals and solidarity. Many Swedes, including Kurdish Swedes, are in favour of Nato accession. “But not at any cost. Not by throwing the Kurdish community in front of the bus.”

“We must not forget that the Kurds are heroes who saved the entire world from Daesh [ISIS]. It is the Kurds who have imprisoned thousands of supporters of the Caliphate. We in the west also benefited and still benefit from this. Kurds deserve our support, not our persecution.”

Erdogan not that different from Putin

Apart from the fact that the west needs Turkey, she believes that Erdogan is essentially not all that different from Putin. “The opposition in Turkey is similarly silenced and locked up. If Erdogan had had as much power and resources as Putin, he would have been just as violent. Erdogan’s bombs and administration kill with great regularity. But the moment people like the Kurds defend themselves against a government that threatens to kill them, they are dismissed as criminals.”

The Swedish-Kurdish politician sees it as “very interesting that Sweden is willing to make concessions to Turkey that have absolutely nothing to do with the North Atlantic alliance”.

“Erdogan uses downright racist policies that Sweden then complies with. How can we dance to the tune of such a regime? Sweden seeks the support of one dictatorship to protect itself against another,” she says.

“Sweden must immediately withdraw from these negotiations. We cannot jeopardise our values, dignity and foreign policy. Look at the alliance’s history: has there ever been a Nato country that requested the extradition of a laundry list of people? We must demand the release of the political opposition in Turkey.”

Kakabaveh still has about a month to assert herself in parliament. After that she’ll have to give up her seat and her career in the Swedish Riksdag will – at least for the time being – be over.

Will she miss that position?

“No, I actually don’t think so. This last term in office has been very special, but also turbulent. I played a crucial role during the governmental crisis and I’ve had a decisive vote in subjects that are close to my heart. Legislation against child marriage, honour crimes, extra contributions for retirees, you name it. In fact, I don’t think anybody else could have taken on the task. Being politically independent, I didn’t have to follow a certain party line and I was guided exclusively by my standpoints and ideals.”

‘Sweden has changed due to stupid political decision-making’

She says she has not been tempted to return to the parliament. 

“I won’t be on the electoral list for the coming term of office. There is currently no party I want to be part of. All left-wing parties have shifted to the middle, all parties now engage in economically liberal politics. No party seems to have answers to society’s major problems.”

In her eyes, Sweden’s socialist welfare state has been hollowed out during her years in the country. 

“I arrived in Sweden running from political persecution and have seen the country slowly change. You don’t know how good we had it! When I sought asylum here, there was solidarity, a well-functioning health care system that really cost you nothing, elite schools didn’t exist, and everybody went through the same educational system. The welfare state, schooling, an equal start for children: these form the foundation for an egalitarian society. In the 1990s, when I first moved to Sweden, everyone was talking about the svenska folkshem, the Swedish peoples’ home, about folkbildningen, or educating the people.”

“In the meantime, the situation has changed drastically due to stupid political decision-making. Education and healthcare have gone up for sale and teaching materials no longer correspond to the world we live in.”

“Class differences have increased enormously due to privatisation. Our overconsumption causes environmental problems, poverty and war, while Europe prefers to keep out the refugees created by these crises.”

‘Young Swedes expect someone else to solve their problems’

All today’s problems are interrelated, she believes. 

“But politicians don’t seem to have the energy to adopt a broader perspective. They ask a single question – that’s, apparently, what makes you an adequate policy maker these days.”

After her departure from parliament, Kakabaveh wants to focus her attention on grassroots politics. In 2005 she co-founded Varken hora eller kuvad (Neither Whore nor Oppressed), a feminist and anti-racist movement based on the French example Ni Putes Ni Soumises. She will, among other things, continue her work for that organisation.

“There is a need for progressive, popular movements. I hope more people want to get involved. I can count on broad support among women and others in socio-economically vulnerable neighbourhoods.

“Nowadays very few Swedes are politically engaged. We are all so concentrated on the individual, on our own career, on outward appearances. In France and Spain people still take to the streets. But the younger generations in Sweden expect someone else to solve their problems.”