Sweden's changing

The challenge of an emergent xenophobic populism in Sweden is provoking thoughtful centre-left voices to seek an effective response, finds Mats Engström in Stockholm.
Mats Engström
10 December 2009

“An interesting thing is that people here represent all parts of Sweden”, I hear myself say to the 17-year-old visitor at the biannual Social Democratic Party conference. We know each other from Tensta, a suburb of Stockholm. “It’s fun to hear all the country’s dialects, from Skåne [in the south] to Norrbotten [in the far north]”, I continue.

We talk about Swedish politics in the approach to the elections scheduled for 19 September 2010. Will Mona Sahlin, the chair of the Social Democrats, be able to defeat the the Moderate Party prime minister Fredrik Reinfeldt; can the three red-green parties emulate the skilful policy-coordination that helped the four centre-right parties to ride to power in 2006; and will the Sweden Democrats - a rightwing populist force, founded in 1988 - get enough votes to enter the Riksdagen (parliament), perhaps thwarting the centre-left’s chances of forming a government?

The mention of this notoriously anti-immigrant party crystallises the half-formed thought in my head. Did I lie when I said “all” Sweden’s dialects? For like many Swedes (though admittedly only a few at the party conference), my friend speaks with a definite “dialect” - the Swedish-with-a-foreign-inflection found in many urban areas where immigrants and their children live. This is one area where the Social Democrats - so successful in achieving equal representation between men and women - have been deficient: few Swedes of foreign background, names, and accent are represented at higher levels in the party.

In this sense politics has failed to keep pace with changes in Sweden’s economy and society, where immigration has long contributed to development and increased in importance since 1945. It was the influx of foreign workers in the post-war decades that made possible rapid economic growth; later generations of immigrants arrived seeking refuge from persecution in their home countries. Sweden has welcomed more refugees per capita than many other European Union countries in recent decades; in 2009, a quarter of children under 18 years old has at least one parent born in another country.

In consequence, the face - and the voice - of Sweden is changing rapidly. The way the country’s political parties respond might decisive for social cohesion in the long run. Some among the Social Democrats are thinking hard about the issue - and about how to fashion policies that become the foundation of electoral victory.

A poised politics

Sweden has been less welcoming to xenophobic and anti-immigrant parties than many other European countries. The fiasco of New Democracy - a populist formation that held parliamentary seats from 1991-94 - has contributed to this, as have relatively immigrant-friendly attitudes in the population. But the rise of the Sweden Democrats is changing the calculations.

Many current opinion-polls show a slight lead for the red-green parties (Social Democrats, Greens and the [former communist] Left Party) over the centre-right Alliance for Sweden (Moderates, Liberals, Christian Democrats and the Centre Party). But support for the Sweden Democrats is often above the 4% required to qualify for seats in the Riksdagen; if the party achieves this aim in the 2010 elections, it could deprive Mona Sahlin’s party - which has pledged to refuse any cooperation with it - of the numbers needed to create a centre-left coalition.

In principle, the red-green parties stand a good chance to form the next government. True, Fredrik Reinfeldt’s achievement in 2006 was remarkable: by leading a united centre-right coalition to power after twelve consecutive years of Social Democratic rule, and by rebranding the Moderates as a party for ordinary workers in a way that enabled him to talk more about jobs in the election campaign than the Social Democrats.

But four years on, Sweden is severely buffeted by the economic crisis. An unemployment rate of 8.3% (already a very high level for Sweden) is expected to reach double-digits in 2010, and many citizens are further hurt by social-security cuts. The opposition accuses the government of benefiting the rich by tax-reductions and failing to invest in creative employment policies such as lifelong education.

In response, Fredrik Reinfeldt has sought to use Sweden’s presidency of the European Union from July-December 2009 to build an image of international statesman who can rise above petty domestic disputes. This doesn’t seem to be working - though he is still rated ahead of Mona Sahlin in voters’ assessment of leadership capability.

The situation of the smaller coalition parties is a further problem for the government. The Christian Democrats risk failing to clear the 4% hurdle for the next parliament, and the Centre Party is also performing badly; though the Liberal People’s Party had some success in the European elections of June 2009.

A seductive call

The sense of a broadly favourable political tide helped the Social Democratic Party conference to end on a high note. Most political analysts saw it as a success for Mona Sahlin, who consolidated her support among the party while avoiding decisions that could alienate more prosperous voters. At the conference’s climax, the Green and the Left party leaders appeared in an attempt to assure voters that the three parties can govern together.

The display of unity highlights the fact that the Social Democrats can no longer expect what they once took for granted: the ability to hold power by themselves. Indeed, “Sweden became a democracy like others at the moment when Mona Sahlin accepted organised cooperation with the Greens and the Left Party”, wrote political analyst Lena Hennel in Svenska Dagbladet.

The question now is whether Sweden will follow another European trend, and see a strong populist party of the right represented in parliament. Many Social Democrats are concerned. The trade-union chair Wanja Lundby-Wedin drew strong applause at the Social Democratic conference when she condemned the Sweden Democrats’ xenophobic views of the; she expressed the fight against that party - which scored 5.1% in a poll published on 10 December 2009 - in terms of solidarity, pointing out that many low-paid workers are immigrants.

Indeed, progressive and well-organised trade unions have long been a deterrent to the growth of populism in Sweden. But the Social Democrats too are adapting to social trends: Mona Sahlin’s party is abandoning integration policy as a specific area, replacing it with a broader concept of social cohesion, job-creation and equality. Will this be enough to convince workers afraid of losing their jobs and blaming immigration for rising crime-rates?

For their part, the Sweden Democrats claim to be a respectable nationalist party that guards “traditional” values. But it has roots in neo-Nazi circles, a heritage it seeks to disown - though party leader Jimmie Åkesson’s reference to an increase in Muslim immigrants as the biggest foreign threat to Sweden provoked intense criticism.

A Sweden for all

The search for an effective strategy that can Sweden’s Social Democrats to avoid both the growth of xenophobic populism and of increasing social tensions is active. The answer may be found in another question: can a new kind of “Swedishness” be defined?

I pose the question to Luciano Astudillo over coffee at the party conference. This 37-year-old member of parliament was born in Chile, and grew up in Sweden’s third-largest city of Malmö where 38% of the population has a foreign background. He has given more thought to the political challenge of multiculturalism than most Swedish politicians.

“We must find a new way of describing ourselves as a nation”, says Astudillo. “We need to change the traditional concept in Sweden that much depends on where your parents were born, what passport they carry and how they look. The populists’ worldview is old - their form of society does not exist anymore in an era of globalisation and open borders.”

Luciano Astudillo’s blog is called Jag Älskar Sverige (I love Sweden). He is trying to prevent rightwing populists from claiming ownership of such symbols as the Swedish flag and the national day. “Nationalism can be an extremely dangerous force when it is based on race, religion, distrust of foreigners. I believe we must embrace an open nationalism - and by that I mean describing the nation we want, based on democracy, equal rights and a strong welfare state.”

For many years, Astudillo has been involved in civil-society efforts in Rosengård, a poor area in Malmö where most inhabitants have a mother-tongue other than Swedish. The long history of popular movements in Sweden is an asset in building a new concept of the nation, according to Astudillo. He is also one of the Social Democrats who sits down with voters attracted by rightwing populism and tries to understand their concerns. “For me, the interesting thing is not to talk about the Sweden Democrats, the point is to talk to people who vote for them, listen to their views and fears.”

Luciano Astudillo is also a prominent voice on employment-policy issues and on small- and medium-size enterprises. Creating jobs is key to social cohesion, he believes; speed of entry into the labour market and a smooth introduction of children into schools is vital for immigrants.

I ask if the Social Democrats are running a risk by abandoning integration as a political concept. Astudillo responds that it would be worse to have a specific policy for a part of the population because of their ethnic background, no matter how long they have lived in Sweden. For that reason, the Social Democratic working-group on migration he is chairing will focus on immigrants’ first years in Sweden, while also defining a more general policy on cohesion. Another working group, chaired by Anders Lago from the industrial city of Södertälje, will propose how the many areas built during the 1960s that have become sites of poverty and exclusion could be made more attractive. Social Democrats are also making jobs the big issue for the 2010 elections, and are proposing to mend some of the holes in the social safety-nets.

Will these policies and this approach prove attractive enough to traditional working-class voters, especially those now thinking about voting for the Sweden Democrats? That will to a large extent depend on whether the Social Democratic leadership listens to people like Luciano Astudillo and Anders Lago - and all the “dialects” of Swedish, old and new alike.

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