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14 September, 2018 00:00 00 AM
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Outcome of Swedish election

Rashmee Roshan Lall
Outcome of Swedish election
Sweden Democrats leader Jimmie Akesson at an election party

Until it was over and almost all the results counted, the Swedish election was being painted in morbidly bleak tones. The most emotive talking points of the election this week – immigration, integration, identity, religion – were said to continue a familiar European theme that showed the continent as increasingly lost – lost to Enlightenment values and globally focused humanitarianism, to all good sense and to the politics of principle.

Going by that storyline, post-election Sweden would no longer be about Scandi-cool so much as Nordic noir. Think Sweden and the image would no longer be the planet’s most fashionably functional must-haves – Ikea, Skype, Spotify, H&M. Instead, it would be a less desirable, more niche melange of downright insular ideas.

But that is not entirely true for many reasons. First, the Swedish election did not signal the further rise to dizzying heights of European populism. The Sweden Democrats, a relatively young party that’s routinely described as far right, gained a larger vote share on Sunday but not by as much as was feared and forecast. Second, the Sweden Democrats’ political agenda is not that different from the country’s other, more established parties, although they shout louder about sensitive issues. All parties want to tighten immigration controls. However, it is only the Sweden Democrats who argue for a temporary freeze in order to work through the social, administrative and cultural challenges posed by the entry of 163,000 migrants in 2015, the majority from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Third, neither the Sweden Democrats nor any other party seeks to cease their country’s active promotion of human rights and generous gifts of foreign aid. The Sweden Democrats, however, advocate for more targeted aid for refugees “close to their own home”, in the words of the party’s foreign affairs spokesman Markus Wiechel. And Mr Wiechel admits his party wants to end all asylum-seeking in Sweden “as long as we don’t have a conflict zone close to our country”.

Finally, Sweden’s governing Social Democrats still won the largest share of the vote, as they did four years ago, albeit with a slightly reduced margin. What’s clear then is Sweden has not become unrecognisable. It is not abandoning the distinctive virtues that led veteran diplomat Pierre Schori back in the 1980s to define Sweden as “the moral superpower”, a model of righteousness compared to the real superpowers, the US and what was then the Soviet Union. That said, the Swedish election does continue a distinctly European narrative, as told via the ballot box over the past two years. Starting with the Brexit referendum in June 2016, electorates in France, the Netherlands, Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovenia, Poland, Germany, Austria and Italy have manifested their anxiety about immigration, cultural cohesion and domestic security. Electorates have offered an attentive ear – and varying levels of support – to politicians who appear to understand their concerns. As Sweden Democrats’ parliamentary group leader Mattias Karlsson put it, parties like his are a “channel” for people’s feelings.

It would be easy to dismiss those feelings as outright bigotry but the voters’ message might be a bit more nuanced. Europe as a whole still wants to help the damned, the disinherited and the dispossessed in other parts of the world, it just doesn’t think it necessary to import whole populations. It doesn’t want large numbers of migrants, at least for the foreseeable future. It is wary – as has been obvious from the recent Swedish campaign – of immigrant ghettoes, with all the attendant implications for crime, poverty, joblessness and cultural clashes.

Native-born Europeans are anxious about the strain too many outsiders might pose to the welfare state, school and healthcare systems, especially if newcomers insist on lifestyles that preclude them from the jobs market or serve as a barrier to eventual assimilation. Call it selfishness or survival, the European message is more unambiguous than ever before and it needs to be parsed without hysterical accusations of racism and demands for open borders. Perhaps European countries are simply trying to attain happiness, a point made by this year’s UN world happiness report. It focuses on global migration and the editors – economists John Helliwell, Richard Layard and Jeffrey Sachs – note that “over the last quarter-century, international migrants increased by 90 million”. It states another 700 million people want to move between countries but haven’t yet done so. The happiest countries on the report’s list are also the most “international” in terms of foreign-born residents as a share of the population. But, the report’s editors write, there are limits “to the annual flows which can be accommodated without damage to the social fabric that provides the very basis of the country’s attraction to immigrants”.

The writer specialises on strategic affairs

 

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Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman
Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

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