Sweden’s beleaguered bastion of decency


THE good news from the Swedish general election is that the Islamophobic Sweden Democrats failed to achieve their promised breakthrough. The bad news is that the two mainstream parties, the Social Democrats and the Moderates both lost seats. Indeed, the Social Democrats, the dominant liberal force in Swedish politics, recorded their worst result since 1945. Sweden Democrats boosted their vote, adding 13 seats to their 2014 tally, giving them 62 seats in the new parliament.

The country’s system of proportional representation means that there is now an extended period of horse-trading before a coalition is formed. The outgoing government led by the Social Democrats in alliance with the Greens and backed in parliament by the Left Party will have to seek other partners if it wishes to return to power. The opposition center-right Alliance was formed in 2004 in frustration at the Social Democrats long headlock on power. Led by the Moderates, until now the Alliance had been made up of the Center, Liberal and Christian Democrats. Pundits are dubious that any of the smaller parties will jump ship and join up with former rivals.

A period of considerable suspense therefore lies ahead. But there is at least one certainty, which is that both of the two main parties have vowed they will not work with the xenophobic Sweden Democrats. Built on the rump of a blatantly racist movement, under the leadership since 2005 of Jimmie Akesson this party has sought the shed its extremist image, which Akesson clearly saw as inimical to the values of moderation and social justice, which are the bedrock of Swedish character.

In 2010 the party won its first parliamentary representation with 20 seats which figure rose to 49 in 2014. In an effort to clean up its public image the leadership has actually expelled members for “racist” comments. Nevertheless, its vigorous anti-immigration policies have played up concerns at the arrival of refugees, almost all of them Muslim.

Sweden’s record in giving shelter to those driven from their countries by conflict has been outstanding, in relative terms outstripping the humanitarian policies of Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel. In the last 15 years, the 650,000 asylum-seekers who have arrived in Sweden mean that, per head of population, the country has accepted more refugees than any other country in the developed world.

As in Germany, among refugees who have been welcomed, there have been those who bring deep discredit to their fellow Muslims. Recent fighting between rival Somali gangs in the city of Gothenburg saw a five-year-old Muslim boy killed by a grenade. The widespread torching of dozens of vehicles has been blamed on angry Muslim youths, though there is evidence that some at least of these crimes may actually have been carried out by white racists. The fact that they happened in the run-up to the election adds to this possibility.

Mainstream Swedish politicians now face some key decisions. Most importantly, can enough of them agree to work together in government to freeze out Sweden Democrats? But equally, can they resist the temptation to steal some of the racist’s political clothes by abandoning their humane and generous welcome to the refugees who are already in Sweden and those who wish to come to a country still widely seen as a bastion of decency?