Immigration issue has changed Sweden

The Yomiuri Shimbun

Heidi Avellan

The Yomiuri ShimbunMALMO, Sweden — The result of Sweden’s general election on Sept. 9, in which the far-right anti-immigration Sweden Democrats (see below) political party increased its number of parliamentary seats, sent shockwaves throughout the world.

What has driven anti-immigration sentiment, which has been widespread throughout Europe, such that it also is taking root in Sweden, where people have long been believed to respect openness and diversity?

Heidi Avellan, political editor in chief of Sydsvenskan (The South Swedish), a Swedish newspaper based in Malmo, gave her views on the issue in an interview with The Yomiuri Shimbun. The following are excerpts from the interview.

Ordinary people feel anxious

The Yomiuri Shimbun: There is a sense of shock, especially among Western countries as well as Japan, that even Sweden has become a more closed society. How do you assess the impact of the immigration issue on Swedish society?

Heidi Avellan: It seems that images of what Sweden means have been changing among Swedes since the 2015 influx of immigrants. Up to that point, the narrative about Sweden had been that it was a liberal, open society and a socially democratic country that was kind to the vulnerable.

Such self-recognition has changed as we have witnessed the immigrant issue. Today, there are issues of immigrants, criminality and other things that are going backward. While some of these are true, it is just a sense in a lot of cases. You change the narrative, focus on different things and have a different angle. This is what has been happening on social media. It is the same story the alt-right movement tells everywhere. If you focus on what is not good in a society, you make ordinary people, Swedes in this case, insecure, make them lose hope for the future, and that has been done on purpose. Sometimes it is more than things really are.

Q: Are the allegations made by the Sweden Democrats reasonable?

A: The important thing is that people who voted for the Sweden Democrats are not necessarily far-right racists. One can say that they probably agree when it comes to immigration policies, but there is something else. It was the Sweden Democrats, not other established political parties, that were able to respond to people’s anxiety.

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The other parties have a responsibility to try and find out what’s wrong and see if there is anything they can do. The Sweden Democrats are now really big and the other parties can’t ignore them.

The portion of votes for the party was around 17 percent — much lower than the previously expected 25-30 percent of votes. Seemingly, many voters were calm enough to disconnect welfare or unemployment issues from the immigration problem.

The Sweden Democrats are a single-issue party, or at least they were. They have been growing for decades and will not go away. The Sweden Democrats will probably grow a little bit more at some point. I think once they reach the level of 20 percent of support nationwide, there will be no further significant growth.

Move into tripolar politics

Q: In Skane County in southern Sweden, where Malmo is located, the Sweden Democrats are popular, receiving the largest number of votes among parties in 21 out of 33 municipalities in the county.

A: The county is the birthplace and base of the party. It is located closer to the European continent and is one of the areas where the most pro-Nazi sentiment was present in Sweden during World War II, I have been told. The sentiment spread elsewhere through the country from there.

Moreover, with the opening of the 16-kilometer Oresund bridge in 2000, connecting Malmo and Denmark, the volume of transportation with the continent has increased massively. Most of the immigrants coming to Sweden have crossed the bridge and people in Skane County have felt the real impact of the immigration issue. Things happen here first and then move on to the rest of Sweden. All these things together, I think, result in this support for the Sweden Democrats in Skane.

Q: In your view, will the Sweden Democrats be able to influence other political parties?

A: The party has severely criticized the government over the 2015 immigration crisis and set the course for the ruling bloc — led by the Social Democrats — to lean toward restricting immigration. Sweden will shift from bipolar politics with the center-left and center-right blocs, to tripolar politics, with the addition of the Sweden Democrats, for the first time in its history.

I moved to Sweden as a correspondent from Finland in 1990. I have always admired Sweden for being moral, taking responsibility for the rest of the world, and keeping their doors open, an open and liberal society.

Sweden is a member state of the European Union. Amid the anti-immigration movement rising within the EU, Sweden cannot be the only one to avoid it. It shows both the positive and negative sides of globalization. Key values among Swedes have changed from respecting generosity to being an ordinary EU member state.

It would be strange if this did not happen, since the EU is important and Sweden is a part of it. Lots of our laws and policies are made by our politicians in Brussels and the parliament in Strasbourg, while we cooperate with neighboring countries.

The core argument the Sweden Democrats present is to reject being affected by globalization. The party promotes the restoration of “Swedish-ness” by evoking the nostalgia of the 1950s [a period before globalization’s arrival] and exit from the EU and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. They want Sweden to be as it was in the 1950s. Their idea is somewhat based on an image of how it was — friendly, safe and great. It does not articulate it, but it is like, “Make Sweden great again.” It actively uses the image of something that probably never was. The claims made by the party overlap with those of U.S. President Donald Trump and reactions seen in Poland and Hungary following Trump’s remarks.

Q: Moving on to Russia — has it meddled in the Swedish election?

A: Various kinds of cyber-attacks have already been confirmed by the ruling bloc, and we have reported on possible Russian involvement many times. Of course there is a Russian interest in creating instability in societies in Sweden, Finland and probably the Baltics. Sweden has been a very stable society where people trust authorities such as the government and parliament. It is hard to have an impact on a society that’s solid, so what you try and do first is to make it less stable. After that, you can get into people’s hearts and minds and decrease trust in society.

From the Russian viewpoint, it will be strategically welcoming to see Sweden — an EU member and a Nordic state with a long historical background with Russia — become socially destabilized. We will probably learn better in due course.

— This interview was conducted by Yomiuri Shimbun senior political writer Keiko Iizuka, who is based in London.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Sep. 15, 2018)

■ Heidi Avellan / Political editor in chief of Sydsvenskan

Avellan was Born in Finland and moved to Sweden after reporting on mainly financial news. She has served in her current position since 2005 and also appears on TV and radio programs to deliver her political views. She earned a master’s degree in political science from the University of Helsinki.

■ Sweden Democrats

Since being founded in 1988 in Skane County in southern Sweden, the party has advocated anti-immigration policies based on nationalism. The party is said to have neo-Nazi roots and is viewed as a party for the far-right or populists. Having gained 20 parliamentary seats for the first time in the 2010 general election, the party increased the number of its seats to 49 in 2014 and 62 recently. During the election campaign, the party pledged to work on such issues as health care, uniting Sweden, immigration and law and order. It calls for “changing the present situation in which high taxation has been spent on immigration issues rather than welfare for the elderly.” Jimmie Akesson, 39, who has led the party since 2005, calls for a “Swexit” referendum to ask Swedes about leaving the European Union.Speech

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