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David J. Michael

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Swedish Identity and the Rise of the Sweden Democrats

Posted: 09/23/10 05:07 PM ET

About a week ago I found myself at the groundbreaking ceremony for a new Romanian Orthodox church in Sölvesborg, Sweden. I'm not Orthodox, but the Romanian monk who invited me said there would be free lunch, so I gladly came along. I understood nothing of the service, which was in Romanian and old Slavonic, save for the political speeches given by local politicians accepting certificates of gratitude from the Romanian bishop for their support of the local Romanian community. At the time, I was not aware of the import and irony of the construction of the Romanian church in Sölvesborg, which is the home of Jimmie Åkesson, the controversial leader of Sweden's nationalist party, the Sweden Democrats [SD]. When the community voted to allow the Romanians to build their church, the one dissenting vote came from Åkesson's party.

A week after the church dedication, Sweden joined the swelling ranks of European countries with a nationalist party in the legislative branch as Åkesson launched his party into Sweden's Parliament, the Rikstad, garnering well over the four percent of votes needed with the party's platform of curbing immigration and "taking our land back."

I moved to Sweden from the U.S. in August to pursue a master's degree in English Literature because I'd read enough of Stanley Fish and Mark Taylor articles to be leery of taking $40,000 in loans for the religious studies program I was admitted to at the University of Chicago. Higher education in Sweden is free -- even for international students -- and as a dual U.S. and Swedish citizen, I could actually get government aid -- about $400 dollars a month -- along with government rent-reductions. But I also wanted to improve my Swedish language skills, spend time with my grandmother and put down some roots in Sweden. As the son of a Swedish mother who migrated to the U.S. for college and an American-Jewish father, I wanted to explore the Swedish half of my identity and determine what it meant to be Swedish. It appears that the rest of Sweden must now also grapple with that question.

Questions of national identity plague much of Northern Europe, which has seen a rise in immigration from Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Anti-immigrant sentiments have been fierce in countries like Denmark and Holland. (Recall the cartoons of the prophet Muhammad published in Denmark.) Germany, where nationalism has been taboo since WWII, continues to fail to integrate its large population of Turkish immigrants while accepting scores of Russians with "German blood," descendants of those Germans who left for Russia under Catherine the Great. But Sweden has long been seen as a bastion for immigrants. Approximately ten percent of the country's population was born abroad, and the Swedish government gave asylum to 40,000 Iraqi refugees in the first four years of the U.S. invasion -- quite a few, considering the total population of just over nine million.

SD claims that Sweden's problems stem from this influx of immigrants. ("What problems?" one might quip; Sweden has one of the strongest economies in Europe.) Thus they have run on a party platform of curbing immigration and providing money for refugees and immigrants to return to their home countries. SD, though, is particularly concerned with stopping Muslim immigration, and SD party secretary Björn Söder went so far as to claim that an Islamic Revolution could sweep through Sweden. This rhetoric was evident in SD's campaign ad, which depicted a pensioner on her way to collect welfare payments being overrun by a hoard of Muslim women in burqas. The ad was banned by Swedish television station TV4, but SD may have profited from the censorship. To date, the ad has received more than 700,000 hits on YouTube.

All eyes continued to be focused on SD on election night, though the party only won twenty seats in Sweden's 349 seat parliament. But that is enough. Though there is still some discrepancies over the results, the center-right Alliance is currently two seats short of the majority in Parliament. If the Alliance is unable to court the Green Party into coming over from the leftists, the Sweden Democrats may be in a position of great power, forcing the party's agenda into the conversation in exchange for votes for the Alliance's agenda. This may not happen. The majority of the country despises the Sweden Democrats. In fact, the uproar over SD's election was large enough to make "Åkesson" a trending topic on Twitter. Perhaps not surprisingly, then, both the Conservative-Moderate Alliance and the Leftist Alliance have said they refuse to work with SD.

When the Åkeson addressed the party faithful after receiving the news that the party had made it into the Riksdag, he was greeted with the "Jimmie Åkesson, Sha-la-la-la-la." (Ironically, the chant comes from the Caribbean song "Brown Girl in the Ring," famously performed by Boney M.) Then, in what can only strike Americans, with our plethora of cable-news networks, as strange, the party leaders arrived one-by-one at the Swedish National Television studios for post-election interviews. For all his Swedishness, Åkesson showed up in a German car: a Mercedes Benz. (The fireball leader of the Left Party-who arrived in a Volvo-refused to have his makeup done in the same room as Åkesson.) In the studio Åkesson was jaunty and arrogant: "We are in!" He boasted that SD had just made political history. He went on to say that he hoped that Sweden would follow in the footsteps of Denmark, which has curbed immigration following the Danish nationalist party's election to parliament.

When I interviewed Niklas Orrenius, a journalist who has spent the last ten years covering SD for the Swedish newspaper Sydsvenskan and has written a book on the Sweden Democrats, he remained confident that Sweden would not mimic Denmark:

Here in Skåne, in the South of Sweden, SD is already the fourth largest party. They have representation in almost all the municipalities and also in the body that governs the healthcare, here. And that hasn't happened in Skåne -- that the other parties have adjusted their rhetoric. They haven't become more hostile towards immigrants. Not at all, actually.

Åkesson, however, was more confident as he addressed Swedish television: "Tomorrow is a different day... I believe we will be able to have conversations with the other parties." Perhaps the Sweden Democrats will be able to force some of their agenda through Parliament. If that's the case, I'll take my repopulation money to get out of Sweden... just as soon as I finish this master's degree.