Fascist Party Wins in Swedish Election Signals Further Concern for Religious Freedoms
After eight years of center-right rule that championed the free-market approach – and which saw Sweden’s economy recover faster than any other in Europe – the Swedish voters recently turned their backs on the governing coalition in favor of left-leaning parties. The darling of the September 14 elections, however, turned out to be the Sweden Democrats who captured 13% of the vote – good for third place – doubling their seats in the Parliament. More importantly, the Sweden Democrats are now in a position of power as both the center-left (43.7%) and center-right (39.3%) blocs lack a clear majority.
The Sweden Democrat party has a far-right nationalist platform that has its roots in a white supremacist organization (‘Keep Sweden Swedish’) and a xenophobic populist movement. In 1988, when the party was founded, its members wore Nazi uniforms to meetings. In a quest for mainstream recognition, the party toned down its radical elements – purportedly rejecting Nazism outright in the late 1990s. It has since aligned its interests with nationalist parties of Europe considered more moderate, such as the National Front party, which currently stands at the precipice of power in France.
Still, the Sweden Democrats have retained some of their radical origins, and local journalists and historians describe the party’s ideology as fascist. The party’s most distinguishable policy proposals are comprehensive restrictions on multicultural activities as well as a 90% cut in immigration numbers – a central feature of its campaign. Although its members are careful to portray a polished, conformist image, there is an occasional glimpse into the party’s dogma. Such was the 2012 video of three Sweden Democrat MPs threatening – with a metal bar – Swedish-Kurdish comedian Soran Ismail, exclaiming that Sweden was “my country, not your country.” This election cycle saw immigration at the forefront of the country’s political agenda.
According to the UN, Sweden received the most per-capita asylum applications in the world from 2009 to 2013. The current influx of immigrants into Sweden is at its highest level in two decades with refugees primarily from Syria, Somalia, and Iraq. In 2014, approximately 80,000 people will apply for asylum – up about 33% from the previous year. The number of foreign-born Swedes has now reached 15% of the total population, compared with 11% in 2000. Polls have shown that a quarter of Swedes would like to see more immigrants while a full 50% would prefer that the number be reduced. Rather than remaining a fringe issue, the governing party inadvertently made immigration a central focus.
In an attempt to fend off a challenge from the left promising increased welfare spending, the reigning Prime Minister, Frederick Reinfeldt, warned that such spending could not be “financed responsibly.” That was so, he continued, due to the “vast cost” of integrating tens of thousands of refugees. The Sweden Democrats immediately capitalized on the Head of State’s nexus between spending and immigration, buttressing their platform around the 90%-cut policy. Conventional election concerns, such as schools and housing, became intertwined with the rising anxiety about immigration numbers – an issue fraught with prejudicial inclinations.
Although skinheaded neo-Nazis have been a constant political presence in Europe, their parliamentary representation has been nominal. The Telegraph’s Jake Wallis Simons sees “the boots of the 1930s marching through Europe“ – not in the form of Nazi uniforms but through a subtler, more sanitized version of the same message.
Scandinavian far-right parties still maintain a preoccupation with Nordic ethnicity and culture, welcoming only those newcomers that strip all semblances of their identity to embrace the “Swedish way.” But their representatives look, sound, and act mainstream. Less threatening logos have been adopted. Public exposure of anything perceived as “racist” is handled internally with swiftness. The Norwegian far-right official that spoke of “the flow of beggars from outside Norway,” was summarily banned from government. The Sweden Democrat politician who suggested that “ethnic Swedes should be armed” to counter the “immigrant threat” was ousted from the party. Any appearance of bigotry has been carefully whitewashed.
Prior to 2010, the Sweden Democrats failed to crack the 4% threshold to gain Parliament seating. The 2010 election saw the party gain 5.7% of the Swedish vote for 20 of the 349 Parliament seats. In addition to the 49 seats Sweden Democrats will occupy in the upcoming Swedish Parliament, the party also netted 9.7% of Sweden’s seats in the European Parliament. The evolution and progression of the far-right is part of a wider trend in the region. Far-right parties in neighboring Norway and Denmark are part of the respective coalition governments where they are able to directly assert their influence to set policy. Some of their far-right counterparts in the rest of Europe, such as the National Front party’s Marine Le Pen in France, are poised to assume majority control in upcoming elections.
For minorities in Europe, the trend of far-right influence is disconcerting. As demonstrated by the rise of overt European anti-Semitism during the summer’s Israel-Hamas conflict, Jews – in particular – are in the line of fire. Generally viewed as one of the most tolerant nations in the world, Jewish life in Sweden is already effectively restricted. Safety issues persist with direct and indirect threats against the Jewish community as well as verbal and physical attacks on Jewish individuals.
Permanent security personnel are needed at the Jewish school, camp, and synagogue. Shechita (Jewish ritual slaughter) has been effectively banned since 1937. With the law requiring stunning prior to slaughtering, any kosher meat must be imported. In recent years, ethical considerations around Brit Mila (circumcision) have gained steam, this year culminating in Swedish medical groups calling for its ban.
With the emergence of the far-right as a serious participant on the political scene, advocates are unlikely to reverse the prevailing conditions constraining religious freedom.