Populist politics gain traction as Sweden prepares to vote

Far-right Sweden Democrats backed by elements linking rape and violence with migrants

Swedish politician Jimmy Akesson was not quite 10 when the far-right Sweden Democrats (SD) were formed in 1988. And on Sunday the bespectacled ex-web designer will be not quite 40 when, his supporters hope, he becomes the kingmaker of Swedish coalition politics.

On a campaign stop in Malmö in southern Sweden, the man to watch on election night found not everyone wanted to hear him discuss their social problems.

As one sign in the crowd said: “Go away, Jimmie, so we have one problem less.”

There were no eggs or tomatoes as on a previous stop, but his forthright views on immigrant gang violence and “giant mosques” are fighting words in this city of 330,000 where one in five is Muslim and one in three are foreign-born.


Nearly one in five Swedes says the SD has their vote on Sunday, a doubling of support since the party leader described Islam as the greatest threat to the country since the second World War.

For cheering SD supporters in Malmö, such warnings now sound prophetic. Three years after this country of 10 million took in 163,000 people – proportionately more than even Germany – a strong economy and low unemployment have been no consolation for SD supporters who only see rapes, riots and other immigrant-linked violence.

Crime is back up to 2005 levels, but official figures show a complex picture that has as much to do with socio-economic factors as ethnicity, and that cannot be directly linked to immigrants or the recent refugee wave.

But the SD has stoked suspicions of an official cover-up of immigrant crime and, in Malmö, its leader shares concerns of a Muslim takeover of swimming pools and obligatory headscarves in kindergartens.

Fears about migrants

“Even a year ago you couldn’t express fears about migrants without being called a racist, but that’s all changed thanks to Jimmie,” said Gunnar, a 52-year-old supporter in Malmö.

Immigration is second only to healthcare concerns in this election, but SD strategists draw a line between the money required to support new immigrants and chemotherapy waiting lists.

With Brexit looming, and energetic competition from the new, EU-critical “Alternative for Sweden” party, Akesson has also made his own the push for “Swexit”, saying “the EU is trying to scare other countries” into staying.

The party has come a long way from its one-time fascist “Keep Sweden Swedish” roots, party officials insist. But not even a series of scandals in the election campaign – the expulsion of candidates with neo-Nazi pasts, members’ mocking of child Holocuast victims – has dented his party’s appeal.

"The SD is such a fixture as the go-to party for political – or general – dissent now that their voters will accept literally anything," said Lisa Bjurwald, a long-time analyst of Swedish extremism.

“Even as news of their representatives’ Nazi sympathies surface, the next morning you’ll wake up to reports that they’re up 1 or 2 per cent in the polls. It’s pretty insane.”

With other parties playing catch-up on migration issues – the Social Democrat-led government tightened up asylum in 2016 – the SD’s headstart here means supporters view them as the original guardian of Swedish national interests.

‘Alliance’ parties

All that is keeping the SD out of power are promises from Sweden’s other political leaders not to co-operate with Akesson. But a strong SD result, or the prospect of power, may weaken the resolve of some of the so-called centre-right “Alliance” parties. Already one in four voters of the liberal-conservative “Moderates”, neck-and-neck with the SD in polls, favours co-operation.

Such support could grow if, as pollsters predict, Sunday’s result is a draw between Sweden’s centre-left and centre-right camps.

With almost one million voters still undecided this week, no one is sure whether the SD can reverse a last-minute slide in support for an election-night surprise.

But Sweden is on track to follow a rising populist pattern elsewhere in the EU, with the populist SD as much a beneficiary as a cause of a changing political landscape.

“The established parties underestimated the demand for a more radical policy on immigration and assimilation, and left a wide space open for a populist party to expand,” said Andreas Johannsen Heinö, author of a forthcoming book on the SD. “The result is a much more fragmentised party system and a more polarised debate in Sweden.”