Sweden's Fraying Tolerance

By Teitelbaum, Benjamin R | International New York Times, September 17, 2014 | Go to article overview

Sweden's Fraying Tolerance


Teitelbaum, Benjamin R, International New York Times


The rise of a small anti-immigration party is challenging the nation's pride in its reputation for civilized politics.

"I'm ashamed of my country," a member of Sweden's Liberal People's Party told reporters in a shivering voice during a broadcast on Sweden's TV4 on Sunday, as she reacted to the results of national elections. After eight years in power, her party's center-right bloc had been swept out in favor of a left-wing coalition built around the Social Democrats. But her party's loss and the power shift from right to left were not what caused her outrage. It was a rise in support for a far-right party that is both undermining Sweden's reputation for tolerance and testing its commitment to democratic process.

The nationalist, anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats had unexpectedly earned 13 percent of the vote, leaving many Swedes wondering if they could still think of themselves as invulnerable to the social tensions afflicting the rest of Europe.

The overall results left the winning left-wing coalition short of seats needed to build a majority government. As a result, the traditional left and right blocs have a difficult choice: cooperate with each other to pass bills, or face the politically treacherous prospect of aligning with the nationalist kingmakers. Cooperation on centrist-leaning policies seems the likeliest outcome, since the center-right parties have said they want nothing to do with the Sweden Democrats.

But the outcome is still a nightmare for a vast majority of Swedes, who see their cherished reputation for civilized politics challenged by the nativism of the far right and an increasing tendency on the far left to fight back with vicious personal attacks and a measure of violence.

The Sweden Democrats, who first entered Parliament in 2010, remain a small party compared with nationalist parties in France, Hungary and Austria. But their very emergence undermines Sweden's cherished identity as a global beacon of tolerance and social progressivism that have kept the far right at bay. Desperate to maintain their society's openness and reputation, a broad field of teachers, public intellectuals, journalists, activists and politicians mobilized against the party during the election campaign. While many of these efforts were courageous and civil, others stooped to pseudo-intellectual and anti-democratic attacks, as well as violence; Swedes now face the challenge of upholding liberal democratic standards while dealing with a reviled political minority. While other anti-immigrant parties in Western Europe trace their roots to longstanding right-wing populist movements, the Sweden Democrats emerged only in the 1980s, from neo-Nazi activist groups that initially operated in tandem with a fierce domestic skinhead subculture. More recently, the party has established dress codes, tempered its ideology and undergone two turnovers in leadership. But it still attracts Swedes who have anti-Semitic and racist sympathies, even though a more moderate and increasingly vigilant party establishment threatens to expel them. In short, party reform has moved slowly, and the group's persistent association with extremism has prevented it from realizing its potential.

Indeed, there is fodder on which it can grow. A nationwide opinion poll conducted last May suggests that 44 percent of Swedes want cuts in immigration, a sentiment most likely traceable to concerns that the influx of foreigners will overwhelm their welfare system. …

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