After years on the fringe, Sweden Democrats take centre stage

·3-min read
Sweden's Democrats Party leader Akesson attends news conference in Stockholm

By Simon Johnson and Johan Ahlander

STOCKHOLM (Reuters) - For years, Jimmie Akesson travelled Sweden talking to tiny far-right crowds, belting out nationalist anthems with the pop group Adorable Kids and being frozen out of mainstream politics.

That has all changed. After giving his right-wing, populist Sweden Democrat party a makeover, he played a leading role in parliament passing a vote of no-confidence vote in centre-left Prime Minister Stefan Lofven this week.

Now with 60 seats in the 349-seat parliament, the Sweden Democrats are being wooed by parties which once shunned them because of their roots in the white-supremacist fringe and hard-line anti-immigration policies.

With the likelihood of a snap election growing, the Sweden Democrats will be in a position to be part of any centre-right coalition that comes to power - or at the least, help define its policies.

"Ousting the prime minister for the first time in Swedish history is of course a triumph we value very highly," Akesson told Reuters in written comments after Monday's no-confidence vote.

"Of course, it felt very good. Good for me as a Sweden Democrat, but above all good for Sweden's citizens."

Lofven has a week to resign or call a new election and is holding talks on rebuilding his minority coalition.

"We hope that this leads to a snap election so that the chance for real change is even better," Akesson said. "We head into a potential election campaign with strength."

Akesson, now 42, joined the party in 1995 and has dragged it into the mainstream.

A burning torch party symbol mirroring that of the neo-fascist British National Front has been replaced with a flower.

Some of the party's more radical policies, such as the reintroduction of capital punishment and limits on non-Nordic adoptions, have been dropped.

Dozens of openly racist party members have been ejected.

After gaining its first seats in parliament in 2010, it won 17.5% of votes cast in the last election, three years ago.

THE ONLY WAY IS UP

The party's rise reflects a backlash in Sweden against decades of liberal immigration policies and disillusionment with multi-culturalism.

It coincides with factors such as globalisation and rising inequality that are mirrored across Europe from Denmark to Hungary and Germany.

"We have a new political landscape," Prime Minister Stefan Lofven, a Social Democrat, said after the no-confidence vote.

Sweden has abandoned its open-door policy on asylum seekers amid worries over suburban segregation, gang wars and the highest rate of shooting deaths among young men in Europe. Almost all parties now back a restrictive asylum policy.

Immigration and law order remain top issues for voters, according to an opinion poll released this week by Novus market research group.

An Ipsos poll for daily Dagens Nyheter on June 22 gave a centre-right bloc comprising the Moderate Party, Christian Democrats and Sweden Democrats a slim majority, if an election were held today.

"It is assumed now that the Sweden Democrats are an essential part of the parliamentary majority of a right-wing prime minister," Nicholas Aylott, Associate Professor of political science at Sodertorn University, said.

"Until not so long ago, that was not obvious at all. Now it is."

Akesson said this month he would want his party's influence over any future right-wing government to reflect the size of its vote. That would imply a hardening of some policies, particularly on immigration.

Akesson has called the spread of Islam in Sweden "the biggest threat since the Second World War". The Sweden Democrats have said they want many of those who have been granted asylum in Sweden in recent years to leave.

(Reporting by Simon Johnson and Johan Ahlander, Editing by Timothy Heritage)

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