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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 September 2018

Does the rise of the Sweden Democrats signal the end of a great bastion of European liberalism?

The electoral gains made by the far right are demoralising and unsettling, but there are valuable lessons to be learnt from them

Sweden Democrats party leader Jimmie Akesson in Stockholm the morning after the country's general election.
Sweden Democrats party leader Jimmie Akesson in Stockholm the morning after the country's general election.

Sweden has a long history of generosity towards refugees and migrants stretching back as far as the Second World War. In 2015, at the peak of the Syrian refugee crisis, it welcomed 163,000 asylum seekers in an act of national compassion.

Yet at the same time, the far-right Sweden Democrats were poisoning the minds of disenchanted people across the country. It was an early indicator of anti-immigrant sentiment, informed not by a genuine hatred of migrants but by issues within the Swedish welfare system, education sector and job market.

Three years on, little has been done to remedy these concerns and the Sweden Democrats on Sunday achieved their best electoral result to date, collecting an 18 per cent vote share in parliamentary elections. While they performed slightly worse than many feared, they have thrust their agenda to the forefront by denying both major parties a majority.

Solving many of the concerns aired in this election will be muddied by months of protracted negotiation to form a government. Needless to say, migrants and refugees themselves – many of whom have fled war and poverty to arrive in unfamiliar societies, where they are all too often met with suspicion – are not the problem. And the rise of the far right in Sweden, famous for its Nordic welfare model, is nuanced.

Indeed, in 1988, when the Sweden Democrats were founded, there was little appetite for their white supremacist agenda. But the party has been highly effective in the past decade at cultivating a more palatable image. The party’s current leader, Jimmie Åkesson, has the air of a dapper young professional, but he is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, exploiting the concerns of disaffected Swedes by blaming foreigners for wider economic and societal problems.

His assertions have no basis in reality, because migration is a force for economic and cultural progress. For instance, in parts of Italy, which has also lurched to the right, migrants are now reviving dilapidated towns such as Riace.

Sweden’s ruling Social Democrats – perhaps Europe’s most successful centre-left party – suffered heavy electoral blows, mirroring the losses of their counterparts in France, Italy, Germany and the Netherlands. But while the rise of the far right might be Europe-wide, the traction it has gained in Sweden is especially demoralising, given the country’s history of generosity, particularly during the Second World War and the expansion of the Soviet Union in the 1950s and 60s, which propelled thousands of political refugees from Hungary and Czechoslovakia into the country.

Today, most Swedes are welcoming to outsiders, but the vulnerabilities some feel as a result of economic challenges provide fertile ground for demagogues. When it comes to refugees and migrants, benevolence remains the only appropriate response. And we must be alert to the strategies of those who manipulate the legitimate economic concerns of voters to suit their own prejudices and to use migrants as scapegoats. Because if Sweden is not safe from xenophobia, then few places are.

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