STOCKHOLM (Reuters) - A deal between Sweden’s mainstream political parties aimed at neutralizing the far-right and avoiding a snap election could backfire by legitimizing the nationalist Sweden Democrats as the main opposition and focusing debate on immigration.
Last week’s unprecedented accord between the center-left and center-right cements their hold on power by making it easier for minority governments to pass a budget.
But it also risks painting the Sweden Democrats as the only alternative for a growing number of voters disenchanted with the country’s established parties.
“We are, in fact, the only opposition party now,” Sweden Democrats spokesman Henrik Vinge told Reuters.
While Sweden has been a by-word for tolerance, the party has surged in polls, moving from the extremist fringe a decade ago to become the country’s third-biggest party in September elections with the support of around 13 percent of voters.
They flexed their muscles earlier this month, blocking the Social Democrat-Green coalition’s budget and threatening to make Sweden ungovernable for either political bloc unless it curbed rising immigration.
Their support was boosted by riots in immigrant-heavy suburbs around Stockholm last year, raising fears that integration policies were failing. Attacks on mosques - including two firebombings in recent days - are a reminder of tensions still simmering.
To avoid deadlock and to sideline the Sweden Democrats — who want to cut asylum seeker numbers by 90 percent — the center-left and center-right opposition agreed rules to allow the minority coalition to continue in office.
A planned snap election — which polls suggested would have given the Sweden Democrats even bigger support and left the major blocs still equally balanced — has been canceled.
“The Sweden Democrats have strong momentum among voters and I don’t think this agreement is going to stop that,” said Magnus Hagevi, political scientist at Linnaeus University.
“If they can get voters to see them as the only opposition party, that could win them support.”
A poll for Swedish television showed one in three Swedes saw the “December Agreement” between the mainstream groups as undemocratic.
Far-right parties have been gaining ground across Europe, blaming the region’s economic malaise on the failure of mainstream politicians and the costs of immigration.
In the Nordics, the Danish People’s Party heads polls ahead of next year’s election and the populist right-wing Progress Party is part of the government in Norway.
In Sweden, the far right has been able to couple a debate about falling standards in welfare and schools with record numbers of asylum seekers — as many as 105,000 next year, according to the Migration Board.
Continued support for the Sweden Democrats — which recent polls put as high as 17 percent — will depend on a number of factors, not least whether the four-party center-right Alliance can balance cooperation on key issues with adversarial politics in others.
“They have to convince voters that there are two sides who think differently in the questions that are important for voters,” Ulf Bjereld, political science professor at Gothenburg University, said.
The cross-party agreement could open the door to greater debate on how to address the lack of housing, jobs and access to schools and welfare — big barriers for new arrivals to Sweden and major reasons why many voters think integration policies are failing.
“I think that politicians are going to start talking about how we take in refugees, not whether we should take them in,” said Gothenburg University’s Bjereld.
Additional reporting by Johan Ahlander; Editing by Andrew Heavens