LANDSKRONA, Sweden (Reuters) - In Sweden’s last general election, a surge in voter support for an anti-immigrant party in this small, southern coastal town shocked a nation long regarded as one of the world’s most liberal.
That party, the Sweden Democrats, now hopes to win its first parliamentary seats in elections on September 19, a radical departure for the country could make forming a new government more difficult for the established parties.
Svenny Hakansson, 77, looks like a kindly grandfather -- mild-mannered and friendly, with an easy smile. Yet the local councilor’s political views are tough.
“We want to reduce immigration, we want to get it down to the levels of Denmark and Finland, which is about 20 percent of what Sweden takes in,” he told Reuters, sitting in the party’s basement offices in this depressed former shipbuilding town.
“Then we want to expel more immigrants who commit crimes than we do now,” added the former ports chief, describing what the Sweden Democrats call “a responsible immigration policy.”
The rise in support for his party suggests that despite years of tolerance for relatively high levels of immigration, not enough has been done to integrate new arrivals.
It mirrors developments elsewhere in Europe: anti-immigrant parties are already popular in Nordic neighbors Denmark and Norway as well as Italy, France and Belgium and have made strong headway recently in the Netherlands and Austria.
Islam is a particular focus of criticism for the Sweden Democrats, who contend it is not compatible with Swedish values.
“We have religious freedom in Sweden and we shall have that in the future. What I am against is the adaptation of society to the Muslim minority,” said party leader Jimmie Akesson.
Critics say the party is racist. Akesson disagrees.
“Criticizing immigration policy is not racist, it is not racist to demand that the law shall apply equally to all, that we shall not have particular rights for certain ethnic groups in Sweden. That is not racism, it is common sense,” he added.
Center-right Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt this week called the Sweden Democrats “a right-wing, xenophobic populist party” akin to those found in other European countries.
They were inspired by the Danish People’s Party, which grew out of a 1970s anti-tax movement to become one of Europe’s most successful anti-immigrant parties.
The center-right Danish minority government usually relies on People’s Party support in parliament in return for tougher immigration laws.
The Sweden Democrats polled 2.93 percent nationwide in the 2006 election. Sweden has a threshold of 4 percent of votes to win seats in the 349-member parliament and opinion polls suggest the party has a good shot at clearing the hurdle this time.
That in turn could deprive Reinfeldt, whose center-right coalition has a narrow lead over the opposition, of a majority and leave the far right party holding the balance of power.
A poll on Friday gave the government a slim overall majority even though the Sweden Democrats look set to win seats. Earlier surveys showed the coalition falling just short.
Reinfeldt has said he will not work with the Sweden Democrats. But Professor Folke Johansson of Gothenburg University said the prime minister may have no choice.
“When the government is thinking of putting forward a proposal they will obviously think who will support it, whether it will be the opposition or whether the Sweden Democrats are the only hope,” Johansson said.
The rise in support for the Sweden Democrats has come after the party shed its image of skinheads and bomber jackets. A new generation of smartly dressed men and women has taken over.
In Landskrona, the party found fertile ground. The town of 40,000 has high unemployment after the shipbuilding industry was shut down.
Immigration has been higher than elsewhere, said Dragan Kostic, 50, who runs integration work for the local authority.
“It is almost double (the national level),” he told Reuters, saying about 32 percent of the town’s population have an immigrant background versus 16 or 17 percent for the country.
The lack of jobs make people more resentful, he says. Part of his job is to get people from different backgrounds together, particularly the youth.
He rejects the Sweden Democrats’ solutions.
“They do not have a patent on the idea that it (integration) is not working or that there are difficulties,” he said.
“They just deal with the question in a completely different way, in a much more radical way, with much more radical solutions,” added Kostic, himself born in former Yugoslavia.
Across town, Fekri Hamad, 43, is the imam of a makeshift mosque on the ground floor of an old office building. From a distance, there is no sign that it is a mosque.
A poster proclaiming its name is hung only on the inside.
Hamad, who came from the Palestinian territories 10 years ago, also sees problems with immigration, but he says Swedes are partly responsible.
“All young people (of immigrant background) feel that society does not accept them,” he said.
Hamad held up a poster of Social Democrat leader Mona Sahlin wearing an Islamic-style headscarve, paraphernalia distributed by another anti-immigrant group to attack her. “With a veil or without a veil, she is Swedish,” he said.
The imam remained optimistic. “History shows...that Scandinavia is a land of freedom, they like peace...That is the Sweden we know from before and which we still know,” he said.
editing by Paul Taylor