Sweden’s general election campaign ended with the Sweden Democrats in a huff and boycotting SVT, the state broadcaster, because it issued a statement distancing itself from comments made by Jimmie Åkesson in the leaders’ debate that it broadcast. Having a supposedly neutral state broadcaster pass judgement is the perfect gift for Åkesson, who said it demonstrates an establishment stitch-up and institutional bias.
But actual debate itself offered a fascinating glimpse into how much the debate has shifted in Sweden - with leaders of all parties offering immigration-related facts that make a British listener gasp.
We had seven party leaders, most of whom expressing views that they’d have denounced as racist not so long ago. The Sweden Democrats has certainly lost its monopoly on discussing immigration-related problems. If it flops tonight, this might be why.
Åkesson has certainly succeeded in framing the discussion. A section of the debate was devoted to immigrant-driven gang crime (subject of a Spectator cover story two summers ago) but it started discussing the Sweden’s notorious trouble with integrating immigrants. The debate moderator dropped in a shocking fact: that immigrants are four times as likely to be unemployed as natives (in Britain, there’s no difference). They discussed why.
Immigration and unemployment
Åkesson said that the other seven leaders should ask why it is so hard for these people to find jobs. He then offered an answer: they're not Swedes and don’t fit into Sweden. A stupid choice of words (as the centre party's Annie Lööf nosily pointed out, video here) and contradicts his oft-stated position: that anyone can become Swedish by embracing the country's values. It was clear from the context that his point was about language and integration. Failure in integrating newcomers, he said, had led to a segregated society with immigrants ending up as outsiders.
Stefan Löfven, the PM and Social Democrat leader, was his usual dour self, showing no sign of life and saying nothing of interest. His attacked Ulf Kristersson, the conservative opposition leader (head of the Moderate Party, pictured below), for overseeing the start of the immigration flood. He promised more policemen, to deal with the mess that his government has overseen. He boasted about progress: it now takes a mere five years for an immigrant to find work in Sweden, he said, down from eight years. (Yes, years. In Britain, newcomers can find a job in eight hours.)
Gangland crimes and murders
Kristersson (who may well soon be prime minister of a minority government) said that Sweden is not a racist country but a lot of Swedes can see all around them the consequences of a failed integration policy: gangs, criminality and welfare dependency. Look at the suburbs, look at the shootings: 320 casualties last year and 32 dead (yes, dead) so far this year. We have not solved the problem of integration. Then, to Löfven: which of the immigrant integration results are you happiest with? The shootings? The unemployment? As he let rip - to the audience's laughter - my Swedish wife, who was only half-watching the debate, asked if this was Jimmie Åkesson talking. Time was when no one would mistake the populists for anyone else. Now, they have pretty decent imitators.
Islamist free schools
Jan Björklund, liberal party leader, said all parties should admit they have waited too long to discuss Swedish values. He declared he has changed his mind on an important issue: he now thinks religious groups should not run free schools. Why? Because, he said, Islamists (yes, Islamists) are running free schools. I thought he misspoke but it turns out that there is a suspected Salafist free school in Borås, which locals think is a bit much. Part of a general trend of Salafism in Sweden.).Why, asked Björklund, should the Swedish government fund Salafism?
"Honour repression" and female genital mutilation
Ebba Busch Thor ( the Christian Democrat leader pictured, above) said multiculturalism had led to a failure to be clear about Swedish values which has led to “hedersförtryck” (honour repression). It means when children flee repression abroad, only to end up victims of repression in their own homes due to brutal (Islamist) practises. Sweden’s National Board of Health and Welfare has estimated, for example, that 38,000 women in Sweden have been exposed to some form of genital mutilation). Busch Thor offered her own statistic: 240,000 youths live under such repression in Sweden. More police are needed to deal with this, and a special category of ‘honour crimes’ introduced in law.
The bottom line is that for much of the past ten years, most party leaders have been attacking Åkesson as neofasict. Now, they are coming up with different variations of his message. This might mean he will be denied what he wants tonight: to finish first. Or they might be seen as lacking credibility, coming to all of this too late.
Had his opponents changed tack earlier, and realised how much Swedes are worried about the ‘honour repressions’ and Islamist free schools, Åkesson would not have had this territory to himself for so long. His rivals were thinking too much about him, and not enough about the legitimate concerns of the Swedes supporting him.
But have they done enough to take the wind out of his sails? I suspect so. We’ll find out tonight.