One in ten Swedes is born outside Sweden. But Sweden, which has been one of the most inviting countries for immigrants and refugees, is on the verge of joining the swelling ranks of Northern European nations which have nationalist parties in their legislative branches. The Sweden Democrats, Sweden’s nationalist party, have risen in popularity with the rise of anti-Muslim sentiments in Sweden. If the party can garner four percent of votes in the September 19th election, they will find themselves in the Swedish Parliament.
Niklas Orrenius, a journalist for the Swedish newspaper Sydsvenskan, has been following the Sweden Democrats for the last decade and recently wrote a book on them (Jag är inte rabiat. Jag äter Pizza.). Wunderkammer recently spoke with him to talk about why nationalism has gained a stronghold in what is generally considered one of the world’s most progressive countries.
Wunderkammer: Why do you think the Sweden Democrats have gained such popularity in Sweden?
Niklas Orrenius: Well, it depends on how you define popularity. Only one out of twenty Swedes says they support the Sweden Democrats [SD]. But yes, the Sweden Democrats have more popularity now than they used to. I think that some Swedes share their views—everybody knows that there are streaks of hostility towards Muslims—immigrants in general and Muslims in particular.
Before the party was not taken very seriously; people thought of them as extremist political clowns. But they have worked very hard the last five years to change that image, and I think they have succeeded. It's not that more people have the same views as SD than did before. It's just that it has become a more professional, serious political party. So now, more people find them to be a [viable] alternative. It's also that they have a real chance to get into the parliament now. Before they didn't, so a vote for them was a wasted vote. You have to have four percent in Sweden of the votes to get elected into the Parliament.
WK: They've been at four percent or higher in recent poles. What will happen if SD is elected into the Parliament? How will that change the dynamics, particularly since neither of the Swedish political alliances want to work with SD.
NO: Right now the center-right coalition, Alliansen, has very strong numbers, so maybe it will get the majority of the votes. In that case, the Sweden Democrats won't really change anything because the coalition won't need to seek support from other parties for their political agenda. If the Sweden Democrats do have [the deciding vote], then it actually will be a political crisis in Sweden after the election because it's very hard to rule the country if you're in a minority government. You have to seek support, and you're vulnerable. So, it could lead to a new election.
But it's hard to say. In Sweden you have two blocks: the center-right block, with four parties [the Moderate Party, the Centre Party, the Liberal People's Party, and the Christian Democrats] and the Green Party and the socialists [the Social Democrats and the Left Party] in the other block. The Green Party has historically not been affiliated with one of these two blocks. So, maybe when the heat of the election night is over and a couple of weeks have passed, the Green Party could go over to the center-right coalition, and they could rule together.
It will be turbulent, if SD gets elected, that's for sure. In Denmark, they had the same situation ten years ago with a very similar party—the Dansk Folkeparti—which really changed the [political] dynamic and the way that politicians talked about immigrants and immigration. They set a much harsher tone. Denmark became less tolerant. I don't think the same thing will happen in Sweden because all the seven parties in the parliament hate SD, so these parties really want to show that they're not after SD’s voters. Here in Skåne, in the South of Sweden, SD is already the fourth largest party. They have representation in almost all the municipalities and also in the body that governs the healthcare, here. And that hasn't happened in Skåne—that the other parties have adjusted their rhetoric. They haven't become more hostile towards immigrants. Not at all, actually.
I know a lot of Swedes who don't like SD are worried that they will change the way that Swedes and Swedish politicians look at immigrants, but I don't think that will happen, actually.
WK: Why have the Sweden Democrats been able to gain so much ground in Southern Sweden?
NO: I think they haven been able to tap into the mistrust which exists here in the South of Sweden towards the central government in Stockholm. The South of Sweden used to belong to Denmark, but in the 17th century it became Swedish. Ever since, there has been a certain distrust towards the Stockholm government, particularly among older people here. The Sweden Democrats have been able to tap into that a little bit.
But there is also a history of far-right support in Skåne. During the Second World War, the Nazis were stronger here. I'm not saying that SD is Nazi, because it isn't, but this is the only nationalistic party that we've had here since the thirties. SD is also very much anti-establishment. And there are a lot of people in the South who like that.
WK: Do the Sweden Democrats have any roots in the Neo-Nazi movement, as is rumored?
NO: There is some truth in that. In the first years of the SD—in the late 80s and the early 90s—they had a small number of people who were members of a small Nazi party at the same time as they were members of SD, though they hid that fact from the party. But there was an acceptance of ex-Nazis in SD.
And also, during the first years of the SD, it was an openly racist party. The first leader was worried that different races would be mixed in Sweden, and said that we risk having a Negro as a foreign minister if you vote for any party other than his. This rhetoric is, of course, impossible now in today's SD, but it says something that the party has these roots. None of these people are in SD anymore; if they find someone who had Nazi leanings in their early years, they will kick him out of the party because they try to keep it clean. But one can wonder why they didn't start a new party, because the party today is so different than the SD of the early nineties. So, yes, there is some truth to SD having connections to the Nazi movement.
WK: Do you think that the current leader of the Sweden Democrats, Jimmie Åkesson, has done a lot to help the party's image?
NO: Yes, I do think so. He is only thirty-one years old, and he was actually only twenty-five when he was elected party chairman. It was a bitter fight with his predecessor, Mikael Jansson, who had been the leader for ten years, though a not-very successful leader. He was more introverted, but Åkesson has made the party more extroverted. He seems to many people a regular Swedish guy—he likes football and crime novels.
There are some real hotheads in SD who can talk for hours about how horrible the Muslim people are, but he is always the man to tone down these rants from his party members. He will say, "Well, I understand this frustration, but I wouldn't use these words." This is very attractive to many Swedes, I think, because Swedes like someone who is a little bit nuanced and moderate. He's more you're average neighbor.
WK: What should we make of SD's claims that they are persecuted?
NO: There is some truth to that. I've written several stories about Sweden Democrats who lost their jobs, most notably a teacher who lost his job five years ago for being a Sweden Democrat. He is now the editor of their party newspaper.
Many Sweden Democrats have received threats. They have been beaten, or their cars have been smashed. There are some violent extreme left organizations that think this is a good way to fight the SD. They think that they will scare people into not having these views, or at least to keeping quiet about them. It's kind of small-scale terrorism.
But that being said, these attacks have become less frequent. And of course these attacks don't have the support of the majority of Swedish people.
WK: What sort of integration problems is Sweden facing, particularly in cities like Malmö, which has a large immigrant population?
NO: I live in Malmö, and I think the problems that immigration brings are mostly problems for the immigrants, actually.
I was interviewed by a journalist for the Guardian the other day, and he said that he had been to Rosengård [literally "Rose Garden"], which is the notorious Swedish ghetto. But he couldn't stop laughing. He had heard all about this ghetto, but he found a lush, green area with lots of nice people. So, it's not comparable to projects in other countries. He thought it was sort of an idyllic place.
But there are problems, and the problems are in some of these areas. The unemployment rate is high, and there are some, though not many, extreme, very conservative Muslims who make life difficult for the women. They demand that they cover themselves. Sometimes they arrange marriages for kids, actually—fourteen-year-olds. At Rosengård, there are about ten children every year who are forced to get married to some cousin or someone from their home country that they don't know, that they don't want to marry. In school, all Swedish pupils have to learn how to swim because we have so many lakes. It's seen as an important part of their education. But some of these very conservative men are keeping their girls, even if they're seven, eight, or nine-years-old, at home because the swim groups are mixed. These girls don't learn how to swim, and they're not really allowed to be a part of the modern Swedish western society.But it's more a problem for [the immigrants]. It's not a problem for me, who am of Swedish origin.
But if the immigrants aren't getting into Swedish society, this will be a problem, because the Swedish society has always been a very together society—everyone is a citizen and everyone is equal. If there are some groups, some people, who are not part of that society—if they don't feel that they are a part of the society and the Swedes don't feel that they are a part of the society—of course that is a problem in the long term. You will have people who are not working, who are, perhaps, abiding by some other law—Sharia law or Islamic law. There are some problems with extreme teachings of the Koran in Rosengård. And of course there is unemployment, and these problems go hand-in-hand. If you don't find a job, you will despair, and maybe if you are twenty or twenty-two, you will turn to crime, or you will turn to a charismatic religious leader. And if that leader's views are not really democratic or if he doesn't think that women and men are equal, that is a problem. You will then have citizens of Sweden who don't adhere to the view that all citizens of Sweden are equal. So, there are some problems.