Car burnings are not a rare sight in Sweden these days. Last month, a masked gang ran amok in Gothenburg, Sweden’s second-largest city, and set 80 cars alight. A masked man speaking on a video blamed the attack on police, politicians and society. "Treat us like animals and we will behave like animals,” he warned.
Over the past decade, the number of car arsons has steadily risen, reaching 1,457 last year. The fires are typically in heavily immigrant neighbourhoods. While Sweden remains a low-crime country, certain types of crime are on the rise. Gang and gun crime are prevalent in immigrant districts. Sexual assault has soared. Ambulances are attacked in some neighbourhoods. Innocent bystanders get blown up with grenades left over from some forgotten war. All that helps to explain why immigration and crime figured so heavily in Sunday’s election – and why the far-right Sweden Democrats made their best showing yet.
The Sweden Democrats are reviled and rejected by many Swedes for their neo-Nazi roots. But now they have become the party for many rural and working-class voters. People were relieved that they captured only 17.6 per cent of the vote. That’s not enough to vault them into second place. But it is enough to give them a certain amount of influence as the fragmented coalitions of the centre-left and centre-right jockey for power.
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“Nobody wants to co-operate with the Sweden Democrats,” says Anders Sannerstedt in an interview. (He is a political scientist at Lund University who is an expert on the party.) But that may not matter, because the Sweden Democrats have already changed the conversation.
Ten years ago, Swedes were proud of their status as the most humanitarian, refugee-friendly country on the planet. Polite society and the mainstream media avoided any criticism of immigration policy or problems, for fear of being called racist. And so, as in other countries throughout Europe, when popular unrest broke out over immigration, the elites were caught flat-footed.
In Sweden, the watershed was 2015. That was the year the country took in a record 163,000 refugees – more than any other European country on a per capita basis.
In all, about 400,000 newcomers came in to Sweden in the past six years, largely from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq – the equivalent of 4 per cent of the population. In Canada, the equivalent number would amount to more than 1.4 million people.
“The year 2015 was a turning point for the debate in Sweden,” Prof. Sannerstedt says. “After that, things were said that had been taboo before.”
The settlement problems were (and are) substantial, and were in part created by the government. Most immigrants are ghettoized in subsidized housing in the suburbs. Restrictive labour laws mean that newcomers can’t find work. On top of that, poor school performance is widespread and integration has been very slow. “These are very much debated. But nobody has answers,” Prof. Sannerstedt says.
In response to popular pressure, the government has overhauled its immigration policies dramatically. It introduced border checks, restricted family reunification, denied asylum to many applicants and imposed strict new volume limits. “This was to send a signal that Sweden wouldn’t be such a paradise any longer,” Prof. Sannerstedt says. This year the intake of refugees is down to around 24,000.
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Sweden’s economy is strong. But the fractured results of this election – with mainstream parties losing votes to a proliferation of smaller parties – show that people have lost faith in the old established parties that have endured so long. "No one won," Prof. Sannerstedt says. Despite the strong economy, a whopping 73 per cent of Swedes think the country is going in the wrong direction, according to one poll.
One reason for the discontent may be the new, and growing, class divide between ordinary Swedes and newcomers. This is a distressing subject in a society that prides itself on being egalitarian.
“Sweden’s experiment with large-scale immigration from the Third World to a welfare state has been unique in its scale but has in many ways failed,” writes Tino Sanandaji, an economist with the Stockholm School of Economics. “Sweden’s social problems are becoming more and more concentrated in that part of the population with an immigrant background.”
No wonder the Swedes are feeling a bit insecure these days. “No country cares more about its reputation,” Mr. Sanandaji says in an interview, “We like to think we are the best in the world. We don’t like the idea that we are no longer being seen as Utopia. It’s really hurting our self-image.”