(Bloomberg) -- Even Sweden, the global benchmark for social equality, could be swept up by the populist wave that’s crashing in on the western world.
That’s the prediction of Jimmie Akesson, leader of the Sweden Democrats, a nationalist, anti-immigration party that some opinion polls show could emerge as the biggest political force after elections in 2018. He’s betting on tapping into the same sentiments that led to Donald Trump’s upset win in the U.S. and the U.K.’s Brexit vote.
“The movement will come here as well,” Akesson, 37, said in an interview last week at his office in Stockholm. “The discrepancy between the elite and the people has grown, and continues to grow. Sooner or later there will be a reaction to that.”
In different guises, populists are advancing all over the west, gaining support with calls for economic equality and trade protectionism as well as anti-immigrant rhetoric after years of austerity. Sweden’s Prime Minister Stefan Lofven, a former union boss, and other prominent European Social Democrats warned last week that the EU is at risk of collapse unless wealth is shared and workers are better protected from the fallout of globalization.
That’s a flawed analysis, according to Akesson, who first gained elective office when he was 19 and, as leader since 2005, has scrubbed his party of its neo-Nazi roots propelling it into parliament for the first time in 2010. Some polls over the past two months show the party may get more than 20 percent of the vote, roughly double its 2014 election result.
“It’s a typical socialist view that if only the working class gets better conditions they won’t protest and then we will manage to control them,” he said. “A little bit like the Soviet Union, but a Swedish version.”
Sweden, a nation of 10 million, has by most accounts benefited from globalization. Its model of collective bargaining and generous welfare system have contributed to wage increases that have included blue-collar workers over the past decades. In the U.S., wages have declined for the poorest 90 percent.
Akesson said his movement’s rise in Sweden shows it’s not about economic well-being, but about cultural identity and divisions between rural voters and those who live in the city.
“It’s not mainly about money,” said Akesson, who grew up in Solvesborg, a town of about 17,000 people in southern Sweden. “It’s mainly about values. It’s about how we manage to keep society together.”
Akesson is now gearing up for the new political forces emerging in Europe to trigger a domino effect that will break up the EU. Grim stories about the effects on the global economy and financial markets won’t be able to prevent this, according to Akesson.
“It’s just scare tactics,” he said. “When we were about to enter parliament in 2010, it sounded the same, that interest rates would go up and there would be chaos in the stock markets. That’s not what happened.”
Stock markets soared after Trump’s victory in the U.S. and markets also recovered in the aftermath of the Brexit vote.
“The leftist and liberal establishment, with open borders, free immigration, that nation states should be removed -- all of that -- there’s never been any popular support for that but they’ve managed to dominate the western world for decades,” he said.
While sharing Trump’s views on immigration, Akesson doesn’t agree on trade.
“If capital has an interest in open borders, I don’t have a problem with that,” he said. “I believe in free trade -- I think that’s great. The problem has been the free movement of people as it’s led to big strains on welfare in Sweden.”
Akesson blames many of the socioeconomic problems that Sweden is grappling with on its generous immigration policies. Immigrants and their direct descendants now make up almost a third of the population, up from less than a fourth a decade ago. The Social Democratic-led government has now tightened rules after a quarter million refugees arrived over the past three years, overwhelming many government functions.
The country is struggling to get jobs for immigrants. In contrast to native Swedes, unemployment in that group has risen in the last decade and is now more than three times as high at 15 percent.
The Sweden Democrats have generally backed the budget of the Moderate Party, the former ruling conservatives. The nationalist party advocates higher pensions, more spending on welfare and law and order, but doesn’t want higher taxes.
The surge in populist sentiment abroad has the Swedish establishment worried. Carl Bildt, a former prime minister who served as foreign minister in the government ousted two years ago, wrote in the Washington Post last month that Trump’s victory could mark “the end of the west as we know it.”
That’s music to Akesson’s ears.
“It’s the end of Carl Bildt’s world,” he said. “He’s one of Sweden’s foremost globalists and biggest deniers of the nation state and national identity. If he’s unhappy, I’m happy.”