Swedish anti-immigration party struggles to mobilise voters

Jimmie Åkesson. Malmö, 2013. [News Oresund/Flickr]

The populist Sweden Democrats are struggling to mobilise voters before EU parliamentary elections this month, despite polls showing similar parties elsewhere heading for their best results ever.

Party leader Jimmie Åkesson told Reuters on Monday that the Sweden Democrats sympathizers had little interest in European Union politics. “It is obvious that our voters are very reluctant to vote in European elections,” Åkesson said by telephone.

“We thought maybe it had changed a bit since the last election, but it seems as if our voters are very sceptical about even going and voting.” Two polls on Monday put support for the Sweden Democrats on 5.7% and 6.3% respectively ahead of the EU vote, up from 3.3% in 2009.

Movements demanding that national governments reclaim power from the European Union are likely to make major gains in the elections taking place between 22-25 May.

“Some of those parties, like UKIP, for example, are profiled mainly as an EU-critical party,” said Ulf Bjereld, professor of political science at Gothenburg University. “For the average Sweden Democrat voter, EU opposition is not why you vote for them. It is because you want another immigration policy.”

By contrast, a recent poll put Britain’s Eurosceptic UKIP at 29%, 1 percentage point ahead of the main opposition party, Labour, while in France, the far-right National Front could get 20 to 24% of the vote.

Balance of power

For generations, Sweden been seen as a bastion of tolerance. However, the economic downturn and worries that the country can no longer afford its generous welfare state, have sparked a debate about immigration in recent years.

Stockholm, the Scandinavian country’s capital, was hit by the worst rioting in decades, in 2013. In a recent poll for Swedish TV, 44% of respondents said the country had taken in too many immigrants, up from 37% a year ago.

The Sweden Democrats, who have distanced themselves from Sweden’s far-right under Åkesson’s leadership, have seen their support surge.

“I think we are between 9-14% now,” Åkesson said.

The latest polls ahead of Sweden’s general election in September show the Sweden Democrats backed by around 8% of voters, up from 5.7% in the election in 2010.

“Today… people are making the connection between the [immigration] problem and the rising cost of welfare, the fall in school results and so on,” said Åkesson, who wants to cut immigration by 80-90%.

Sweden took in around 29,000 asylum seekers in 2013, three times the figure from 2005.

Åkessonsaid the mainstream parties may have to listen to the Sweden Democrats’ message on immigration in coming years.

“A vote for us (sends) a very clear signal to the other parties that voters are unhappy with the immigration policy,” he said. 

The European elections will be held in all EU countries in May 2014. The Lisbon Treaty states that the European Parliament shall elect the commission president on the basis of a proposal made by the European Council, taking into account the European elections (Article 17, Paragraph 7 of the TEU). This will apply for the first time in the 2014 elections.

The European Parliament, parties and many others have pushed for European political parties to nominate their front-runners in the election campaigns. This will make the European elections a de facto race for commission president, politicise the campaigns and could increase voter turnout, they say.

But others have argued that the European parties’ push for their own candidates may not be the best solution. Raising expectations could easily lead to disappointment, Herman Van Rompuy has repeatedly said, calling for caution in case the council chooses another candidate than the winning party’s frontrunner.

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