Anti-immigration election gains divide Sweden, worry rights groups

4 minute read

Moderate party leader Ulf Kristersson delivers a speach at the Moderate party election watch at the Clarion Sign Hotel, in Stockholm, Sweden, September 11, 2022.TT News Agency/Fredrik Sandberg via REUTERS

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  • Sweden Democrat election gains have immigrants worried
  • Civil rights advocates warn of threats to democracy
  • Sweden Democrats likely to have significant say on policy

STOCKHOLM, Sept 15 (Reuters) - The populist, anti-immigration Sweden Democrats' rise to real power after Sunday's election has civil rights groups and many immigrants worried about what the future might hold in a country long known for tolerance and openness.

Social Democrat Prime Minister Magdalena resigned on Thursday, meaning Moderate Party leader Ulf Kristersson must now try to form a new government. He cannot do so without the support of the Sweden Democrats, who became the second biggest party with 20.5% of the votes. read more

The gains for the Sweden Democrats come on the back of what many voters saw as failed immigration and integration policies.

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The party, which declined Reuters' requests for comment for this article, tapped into anger over crime and gang shootings, mostly by blaming immigrants for the violence. read more

It has set out a 30-point programme aimed at achieving the lowest immigration in Europe, including legislation that would make it possible to deny asylum to anyone saying they are fleeing persecution for being gay, or for changing their faith. read more

"Welcome to the repatriation train. You have a one-way ticket. Next stop, Kabul!" read a tweet from the Sweden Democrats' law and order spokesperson Tobias Andersson weeks before the Sept. 11 election.

It is the sort of rhetoric that has left many of the country's roughly 2 million inhabitants that were born abroad worried and frustrated.

"If they think I'm going back they must be dreaming," said Geza, a 54-year old restaurant worker who came to Sweden from Somalia 30 years ago.

"I live here, I work here, I pay taxes here. I have a Swedish passport. I am Swedish."

The Sweden Democrats have several proposals to send people back to their countries of origin. Those who have not "adapted to society in a good way, should be encouraged to return," the party said in a manifesto.

"We want to get started right away to achieve a sustainable migration policy. We wish our ideas had been heard 10-20 years ago, then we wouldn't have the problems we have today," Henrik Vinge, the party's first deputy leader, said on election night.

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Outside central Stockholm's biggest mosque, just a couple hundred yards from where Sweden Democrat leader Jimmie Akesson held a rally a month ago and promised to slash immigration, a group of young Muslim men stood around and talked.

"It wasn't easy to be a Muslim here before and I am worried it will become tougher now," said Muhammed, a 24-year-old student.

He said he had found most Swedes welcoming, and it was hard to take in that one in five of them had voted for the Sweden Democrats.

Akesson has described Islam as the biggest foreign threat to Sweden since World War 2. The party wants to ban Muslim schools.

A white paper commissioned by the Sweden Democrats themselves showed 18 out of the party's 22 founding members in 1988 came from white supremacist group Keep Sweden Swedish. About ten of them had links to fascist or Nazi organisations, it said.

Civil Rights Defenders, an international human rights watchdog and advocacy group based in Stockholm, said it had gone through all parties' proposals on law and order, democracy and immigration and found those from the Sweden Democrats troubling.

"In all these areas we see proposals that restrict human rights, that weaken rule of law and undermine democracy," Civil Rights Defender Legal Director and Deputy Executive Director John Stauffer said.

Stauffer said examples included proposals to revoke citizenship, increase surveillance without probable cause, toughen punishment and make more actions illegal.

"This is exactly what we have seen happening around the world. Parties come to power democratically in democratic elections, but then slowly but surely, right by right, they begin to weaken democracy," he said.

Reuters told The Sweden Democrats about the criticism from the Civil Rights Defenders by email and phone, but the party declined to comment.

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Reporting by Johan Ahlander; editing by Niklas Pollard and Andrew Heavens

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