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As anti-immigrant rhetoric grows, is Sweden’s democracy feeling the strain?

Migration & Democracy
Political Parties

Image credit: International IDEA.

Sweden’s election may still be over a week away, but there is already one clear victor—the far-right Sweden Democrats.

A decade ago, the party’s anti-immigration rhetoric was shunned, their party cadres mainly in the news for neo-Nazi pasts. Now its agenda is mainstreamed as traditional parties compete to convince voters that they can address the country’s alleged ills, including what was long a political taboo—an explicit link between crime and immigration.

Taken aback by support for the Sweden Democrats that is as high as around a fifth of the electorate (some polls show they outgun the main center-right opposition), politicians of left and right are outdoing each other to persuade voters they, too, can be tough on immigration and crime.

It was a sign of the times last week when center-left Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson said Sweden did not want ‘Chinatowns’ or ‘Somalitowns’. It came as her Immigration Minister argued that there should be no more than 50 per cent of ‘non-Nordic’ people in any housing area. Not to be outdone, center-right politicians have called for children in so called ‘vulnerable areas’ to be given rapid tests for ADHD. 

All this has raised the question—Is this Sweden’s ugliest ever election?

Andersson’s statement may fly in the face of studies showing ‘Chinatowns’ and equivalents are crucial for integration, acting as bridges for contacts between immigrants and native populations. But more fundamentally, it is also a sign of how playing political catchup can make for bad policy.

In some ways, Sweden Democrats have underscored how democracy functions. They enjoy support because they highlight issues long ignored by mainstream parties, especially on crime. But catching up does not mean having to copy rhetoric. Sweden already has one of the EU bloc’s most restrictive immigration policies. 

Why does this all matter for Swedish democracy? Sweden has long scored sky high as a democracy. It has a record of welcoming refugees and identifies as a humanitarian superpower.

Firstly, Sweden’s expensive welfare model is based on pragmatism, policy efficiency and its ability to make effective reforms. President Barack Obama was envious of how Sweden was run by straight thinking technocrats. But this new rhetoric risks sidelining serious policy debate. Are Sweden’s top-down integration policies failing to embrace existing immigrant communities? Are restrictive labor regulations harming immigrants’ employment? How can Sweden free up bureaucracy to foster immigrants’ creative energy?

Secondly, Swedish social contract is based on trust. Swedes are happy to pay high taxes because they think their government does a good job, and that everyone is in the same boat. But rhetoric over immigration and crime undermines that coziness. If new arrivals are seen as a risk to safe streets and welfare, anti-immigrant sentiment will rise. The social contract, fundamental to Sweden’s democratic consensus, may fray.

When I recently mentioned this to a former lawmaker, he told me not to worry. Common sense will prevail, he said.

It reminded me of British people commonly uttering Don’t worry, we’ll muddle through when facing adversity. It may also have been a stance that hid Britain’s steady decline.

Tolerance and pragmatism are in no country’s DNA.

Swedish democracy; you may be top of the class, but you still need to study. 

Disclaimer: Opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the institutional position of International IDEA, its Board of Advisers or its Council of Member States.

About the author

Head of Communications and Knowledge Management
Alistair Scrutton

Alistair Scrutton is the Head of Communications and Knowledge Management as of 23 March 2020.

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