Trouble in Paradise: Sweden's Creeping Political Decay

Ali Hasan

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Sweden, long held as a paragon of social excellence, the humanitarian conscience of the Western World, is currently facing a challenge unheard of in its near-utopic modern history - political decay accompanying changing ethnic demographics as a result of its open door asylum policy.

Of all the European countries, Sweden has taken in the most refugees per capita. In 2015, 165,000 individuals (primarily from Africa and Asia) applied for asylum in Sweden. Consequently, the following year saw a drop in the percentage of Swedes stating that they would “definitely” help asylum-seekers (a drop from 54%→30% between 2015 and 2016). Additionally, Swedish current events have been dominated by a spike in vigilante action against refugees, the emergence of nativist activism (especially groups like the ‘Nordic Youth’, who specifically focus on teens and young adults), and, most importantly, increasing support for the Sweden Democrats - a previously defunct far-right political party with Nazi origins.

The Swedish Democrat party was formed in 1988 as a successor to the Bevara Sverige Svenskt (“Keep Sweden Swedish”) network. The party’s first leader, Anders Klarstrom was previously affiliated with the Neo-Nazi white supremacist Nordic Realm party; Gustaf Ekstrom, another early party figure, was a veteran of the Schutzstaffel (better known as the Nazi “SS”) and had been a member of the Nazi-inspired Svensk Socialistisk Samling (National Socialist Workers’ Party of Sweden) before helping form the Democrats. A Democratic candidate in 1988 was charged with assaulting a 14-year old migrant. And, even through the 90s, Democrat rallies had primarily been dominated by skinheads and neo-Nazis. However, in 2005, Jimme Akesson took control of the party, adopting more palatable policy goals, ousting problematically-racist members, and softening public rhetoric - transforming the party into what it is today. In 2010, the Democrats passed the 4% threshold to gain official representation in the Riksdag (the Swedish parliament) and have been growing exponentially since then. Prime Minister Stefan Lofven still maintained that the group was “a Nazi party” in 2016, but, despite that, people are still flocking towards these political newcomers, signalling the power of their platform.

In preparation for the 2018 Swedish elections (which occurred on September 9, 2018), the Democrats organized an aggressive and savvy campaign strategy aimed at downplaying their problematic past and taking advantage of the contentious social issue of refugee settlement to push their brand of “Sweden-First”, law-and-order preservationism. In framing their politics as in-defense of Sweden rather than racial bigotry, the Democrats have been instrumental in shaping public discourse around the refugee situation. The center-left government, led by the Swedish ‘Social Democrat Party’, has been running in circles in an attempt to remain in the public’s favor over the refugee asylum issue while still maintaining their pro-refugee platform: they’ve started to limit the amount of asylum-seekers that will be allowed in the country - planning to allow-in roughly only 14,000-15,000 asylum-seekers (in comparison to the 165,000 who applied, and 163,000 accepted in 2015) - and possibly less as time goes on, the Swedish government has also closed the previously-open port of Malmo, started prioritizing Syrian refugees over other asylum-seekers (something that has caused internal rifts within the Swedish refugee community), and attempted to focus public attention away from the issues of refugees and crime.

However, despite its attempts to navigate through the refugee issue in one piece, the Social Democrats failed to maintain control of the Riksdag and the left-wing bloc lost control of the Swedish government on September 9th with the Social Democrats seeing their lowest turnout in more than a century. Not only did the left-wing bloc face challenges from far-right groups and increasing anti-refugee discourse and violence, but the Social Democrats’ equivocation on the refugee issue (a tactic used to attract moderate votes and preserve the left-wing majority in the Riksdag) alienated many of its supporters as well. Many leftist activists have taken to civil disobedience in illegally housing refugees (particularly Afghan refugees who have been disproportionately deported over Syrians), fracturing the rule of law in this Scandinavian kingdom that had heretofore been considered near-flawless.

While discontent over refugees is still fundamentally established in bigotry, it is largely-manifested in the preservation of the Swedish welfare state. Though the changing racial demographics in such a homogenous state alone may unsettle some Swedes, it is when the issue is predicated on preserving the Swedish standard of living (a rhetorical point adeptly adopted by the Democrats) that it becomes a solvent political issue. Mainstream Swedish politics and the Democrats are largely differentiated by social, not economic, policy. The Democrats’ argument is that, to preserve the welfare state and the famed Swedish standard of living, it is imperative to greatly restrict or completely stymie the flow of refugees. While an inflow of migrants would, theoretically, benefit a developed country with a rapidly-aging population and low fertility rate, Sweden’s advanced commercial infrastructure (which often requires vocational or advanced training for gainful employment), coupled with Swedish society’s necessity of proficiency in Swedish and English results in Sweden’s refugee population’s 20% unemployment rate. In order to support themselves, some unemployed refugees occasionally resort to petty crime, leading to the widespread stereotyping of the refugee population as dangerous parasites leaching off of Swedish generosity. This, along with the speculation that a large population of unemployed and discontented Muslim refugees are increasingly-susceptible to recruitment from radical fundamentalists, feeds into the Democrats’ agenda that refugees threaten the social fabric of Swedish society.

As previously mentioned, in the 2018 elections, the Social Democrats, while still receiving the highest amount of votes, were unable to secure a majority for the left-wing bloc, resulting in the ousting of Social Democrat Prime Minister Lofven, via a vote of no-confidence. Currently, the left-wing bloc (comprised of the Social Democrat, Left, and Green Parties) hold 144/349 seats, the right-wing bloc (comprised of the Moderate, Liberal, and Center Parties) hold 143/349 seats, and the Democrats - with 17.8% of the vote (up from less than .1% in 1991) - hold the remaining 62/349 seats. In this hung parliament, the Democrats, who had previously been reviled by both blocs, are given the power of kingmaker. While the Democrats would likely refuse to join the left-wing bloc, they can stall the creation of a new administration until the right-wing bloc concedes on the Democrats’ terms. The Moderate Party (historically the 2nd-largest party, after the Social Democrats, and leaders of the right-wing bloc), who had previously been vehemently opposed to the Democrats, has already softened its attitude towards the formerly-unthinkable political position of allying with the Democrats. The Democrats have, in just a few election cycles, ascended from an irrelevant fringe party to possibly shaping the course of Swedish history - all due to the refugee issue.

Additionally, Sweden’s economic system is already in the midst of a sustainability crisis with foreign investors (especially in the tech industry) opting for cheaper areas, household debt increasing to 185% of household income, and speculation that, in order to keep-up with growing demands, all new Swedish jobs must be solely based in the public sector until 2035. This, along with the mass unemployment amongst refugees discussed above (who require resources but lack the necessary paths to support themselves and thus rely on government support), spells disaster for Sweden’s “perfect” welfare state. Due to a combination internal factors slowing the economy, and the needs of refugees, Sweden has already had to drastically decrease the number of refugees it was accepting. The aforementioned cap of 14,000-15,000 refugees was not just a political stunt, but a labor of necessity as housing and supporting refugees becomes increasingly costly, especially with the issues already plaguing the Swedish economy (sans refugees).

As with most things, the Swedish budget is a zero-sum game. The more resources allocated to refugees, the less resources left for the native Swedish taxpayers. Over 643,000 Swedes have already turned to private health insurance (an increase by more than 500,000 since 2000) as their government-provided insurance failed to properly address their needs due to financial constraints. Similarly, many Swedes are turning to the private sector for pensions and unemployment insurance, two fields that are hauntingly indicative of the state of the Swedish economy. The Swedish government has already been set on the path to including more private corporations in its welfare system via policy enacted during the Moderate Party’s Reinfeldt administration (2006-2014) at the outset of the Refugee Crisis, and will likely continue on that trend for the coming future.

Assuming the inevitable, the right-wing bloc will eventually form its majority government, supplanting the caretaker government temporarily controlled by now-interim Prime Minister Lofven. And, as pressure from refugee populations increases, the public will likely continue on the trend of fleeing to the private sector in place of the government. The record showing for the Democrats has already alluded to the fact that a sizable (and growing) minority of the population believes that the refugees’ presence encroaches upon their state-guaranteed benefits, and, when the Democrats officially merge with the right-wing bloc, the obvious solution will be to abandon the concept of state-guaranteed benefits and opt for private options run by Swedes for Swedes - a synthesis of nativist populism and fiscal conservatism. As government institutions supporting refugees are undermined by populists and fiscal conservatives, their likelihood of success in Sweden proportionally decreases, allowing more to follow the trend of crime and possible extremism that has already been seen in Sweden, only justifying the further restriction of support to those refugees most in-need of it. This could lead to a myriad of negative outcomes, one of which being the very-real possibility that a desperate individual from the already desperate and crime-prone refugee population will commit some crime (beyond the petty theft typical of unemployed refugees) and be made an example of. This trigger event will likely be used as propaganda to discredit any institution (government or otherwise) that would help a “criminal” refugee when the native Swedish population is already facing dire straits. To be clear, this is pure speculation, and in no way is this writer advocating for such an event to happen, but an unfortunate incident such as the above is well within the realm of possibility, and may lead to widespread distrust of the refugee community at-large and directly contribute to the wholesale breakup of Sweden’s idyllic welfare state.

Sweden has long stood as the model of excellence in political stability, humanitarianism, and welfare economics, yet it finds an existential threat, not from the intake of refugees, but the internal response to it. Sweden finds its distinguishing excellence threatened by an issue that is largely based on the overreaction of many due to fearmongering and latent bigotry resulting from influence from other parts of Europe that have given into similar movements, cherry-picked events and facts, and plain falsehood spread by many who fear the refugees’ settlement in Sweden. Poland, Austria, Italy, France, and even the United Kingdom have seen some variation of a rapidly-increasing far-right sentiment, but, to many, Sweden was supposed to be different - supposed to be better. This calamity, with the potential to disrupt Swedish politics for the coming future, leaves us with a haunting question about the refugee crisis in Europe - if Sweden can’t handle it, who can?

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