Meteoric Rise of Sweden’s Nationalists Stuns Establishment

(Bloomberg) -- The meteoric rise of the Sweden Democrats has stunned those who thought Scandinavia’s biggest economy was beyond the reach of nationalist extremists.

From being an after-thought with barely 3 percent of the vote 12 years ago, polls now show it could win the backing of almost 20 percent of the electorate on Sunday. Some polls even suggest it might become the biggest group in Sweden’s parliament.

Meteoric Rise of Sweden’s Nationalists Stuns Establishment

It was formed as far back as the late 1980s, tracing its roots to Bevara Sverige Svenskt (Keep Sweden Swedish), a white supremacy group. The party has since evolved into a socially conservative nationalist group that officially rejects Nazism and counts Steve Bannon among its fans.
Read more about what Akesson has said about Bannon

The party’s current success can in large part be attributed to leader Jimmie Akesson, a clean-cut, bespectacled 39-year-old who took the helm in 2005. He has scrubbed the party of its most overtly racist elements, making it more palatable to a broader set of voters. Akesson led it into parliament for the first time in 2010, when it won 5.7 percent of the vote.

Meteoric Rise of Sweden’s Nationalists Stuns Establishment

It gained considerable traction during the financial crisis, riding a global wave of anti-establishment sentiment epitomized by the U.S. election of Donald Trump, the rise of Matteo Salvini in Italy and Britain’s vote to leave the European Union.

Akesson’s party has capitalized on voters’ resentment toward a ruling class that has traditionally avoided discussions on immigration, often in the name of political correctness.

“For a long time, we were the only ones who warned of the problems created by the other parties,” the Sweden Democrats write on their website. “We warned of the emergence of areas of alienation, the rise in aggravated sexual assaults, organized crimes, human trafficking, honor violence, religious extremism, and galloping migration expenses –- while the welfare has been wrecked.”

Turning Point

The big turning point came with the refugee crisis of 2015, when the nation of 10 million people was transformed by a record number of asylum seekers. Foreign-born residents now make up 18 percent of the population.

Akesson has managed to entice voters from both sides of the political spectrum with a message of more welfare, lower taxes and savings based on immigration cuts. The party also wants to leave the European Union, but that is not a majority view in Sweden.

Meteoric Rise of Sweden’s Nationalists Stuns Establishment

The leader of the Swedish Trade Union Confederation (LO), the largest union umbrella group, says the mood on shop floors across the Nordic nation has changed, with more and more workers shunning their traditional party of choice, the Social Democrats, and backing the Sweden Democrats.

According to an analysis of its supporters by pollster Novus, only 5 percent think Sweden is heading in the right direction. The voters are almost two-thirds male, have below-average educations, tend to live in rural areas and make less money than backers of the two biggest parties, the Social Democrats and Moderates. Their top issues are immigration, law and order, and health care.

Campaign Promises

The party has vowed to halt immigration, but also wants to cut taxes, eliminate job market programs and reduce union influence over unemployment benefits. It has called for increased spending on pensions and for higher salaries for policemen and other municipal workers.

It has already said it won’t back a center-right Alliance government that also includes the pro-immigration Center Party.

But its call for Sweden to hold a referendum on EU membership, or a Swexit, has garnered the most attention abroad, spooking currency markets. The party wants to stay in the single market while putting some limits on the free movement of people. Looking further abroad, it wants to move Sweden’s embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, is against joining NATO and calls for a strengthening of the Swedish monarchy. The party has proposed to cut support for contemporary art and establish an official canon for Swedish culture. It also wants to limit access to abortion.

The election campaign has seen a proliferation of new “bots” on Twitter that are primarily stumping for the Sweden Democrats and attacking the ruling Social Democrats. Akesson says he views Russia as Sweden’s traditional archenemy.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.