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Europe

Swedish far-right success underscores larger European trend

The far-right 'Sweden Democracy' party has burst into parliament, securing 5.7 percent of the vote in Sunday's election. The party took seats from the ruling coalition, and may hold decisive votes in a hung parliament.

Jimmie Akesson.

Akesson is just one of Europe's rising populist leaders

Fredrik Reinfeld is the first center-right prime minister in Sweden's history to secure re-election after serving a full term, but, assuming absentee ballots don't change the situation markedly when they are counted on Wednesday, his coalition is set to fall three seats short of a parliamentary majority.

Reinfeld admitted in his victory speech that "this is not the result we had hoped for," alluding to the entry into parliament of the far-right "Sweden Democrats" party, which secured a surprising 5.7 percent of the vote and 20 seats in parliament. Even though an alliance with the Sweden Democrats would provide Reinfeld with a comfortable majority over his traditional opposition, he ruled it out on election night.

"I have been clear … We will not cooperate with or be made dependent on the Sweden Democrats," he told supporters.

Reinfeld said he would reach out to the opposition Greens for support in parliament, although this might be a tough sell for two political groups with little common ground. The most likely scenario for Sweden seems to be a minority government, with Reinfeld seeking bipartisan support for legislation.

New kid in town

Jimmie Akesson.

The youngster has held a council seat since he was 19

The leader of the Sweden Democrats, 31-year-old Jimmie Akesson, has spent five years in charge of the party, trying to transform its ultra-nationalist roots into a more accessible, populist right wing platform.

"I am overwhelmed and it is hard to collect my thoughts," he told cheering supporters after the results came in. "Today, we have written political history, I think that's fantastic."

The leader also dismissed popular concern that his party's new-found success could destabilize Swedish politics.

"We won't cause problems. We will take responsibility. That is my promise to the Swedish people."

The Sweden Democrats want to slow the rate of immigration into Sweden, where immigrants account for roughly 14 percent of the population, according to UN figures. The party also specifically criticizes Islam and Muslim immigrants as un-Swedish.

Akesson arguably took his lead from the populist Danish People's Party, which has been the third largest force in Copenhagen's parliament since 2001, winning 13.8 per cent of the vote in the country's last general election. However, a host of similar parties are on the rise throughout Europe.

Anti-Islam sentiment driving right wing renaissance

Geert Wilders

Geert Wilders compared the Koran to Hitler's 'Mein Kampf'

"The more general phenomenon of populism and of anti-immigration attitudes has been around in quite a number of European countries for a long time," political communication professor at the University of Leiden, Kees Brants, told Deutsche Welle.

"What is new is that it is now openly - and dominantly - focusing on Islam and Muslims. That focus on Islam is fairly recent."

Coming from the Netherlands, Brants is most experienced with the populist Freedom Party, led by Geert Wilders. This group has established itself firmly in the mainstream of a country which, like Sweden, is usually associated with centrist or left-leaning politics. Wilders is the political heir to Pim Fortuyn, who was murdered in 2002. His desired policies include a ban on Islamic face veils and the Koran, and the closure of Islamic schools in the Netherlands, where roughly one million Muslims currently live. Brants believes the charismatic young Wilders is trying - with a modicum of success - to rewrite the political rulebook.

"He is so blunt, and so outspoken, and is using a vocabulary that - certainly in Dutch politics - was anathema for centuries, and now seems to be perhaps not accepted language, but also not objectionable language either."

Pan-Euroepean populism

A picture released by the Swiss far right movement depicting a veiled Muslim with a host of black minarets standing atop a Swiss flag.

Images like this one were plastered around Switzerland before the minaret referendum

"I think most Western European countries, but also some eastern European ones, have some form of populist far-right party," Uwe Jun, politics expert at the University of Trier, told Deutsche Welle. "And the key topics are always the same: national identity, migration, and a rather skeptical attitude towards Islam."

Austria's strongest single parliamentary group, the Freedom party, has called for a special vote on whether to ban minarets and Islamic face veils as part of its regional election campaign for Vienna. Switzerland voted in a referendum last year to ban the construction of new minarets, a proposal put forth by the right-wing populist SVP party, Switzerland's largest.

In Hungary, the far-right Jobbik party entered parliament for the first time in April, winning 47 seats. The group is particularly hostile towards the Roma minority in the country, and said recently that those considered a threat to public safety should be placed in "public order protection" camps.

Nicolas Sarkozy's center-right government in France has also recently drawn attention for its deportation of Roma living in illegal camps in the country. Sarkozy's UMP has been gradually moving towards the right over the past decade, looking to win back voters from the far-right National Front, a powerful force in French politics for over 20 years. Sarkozy's policy is supported by Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and his controversial coalition allies, the anti-immigrant, separatist Northern League.

Germany lacking popular populist

An image of the city of Dresden in ruins after the notorious Allied air raid of 1945.

The legacy of WWII means postwar Germany gives right-wingers a short leash

Far right parties in Germany have made gains at a regional level, especially in the former Communist east of the country, but are still well adrift of the five per cent threshold required to enter the federal parliament.

Because of the country's history with fascism, the German political landscape is very hostile towards far-right views and organizations, both in terms of public opinion and at an institutional level.

The future and legality of the country's most notorious far-right party, the NPD, has repeatedly been called into question, as politicians try to balance the right to freedom of expression with the constitutional guarantees to protect the country against fascism.

Nevertheless, after two prominent mainstream politicians lost their jobs recently for making public comments that were perceived to be politically incorrect, rumors abound in the German press that there might be scope for a breakaway "straight-talking" right-wing political party, most likely founded by disgruntled members of Angela Merkel's moderately conservative Christian Democratic Union.

"There is a sentiment in parts of the electorate that the Christian Democrats are less than a conservative party," University of Trier's Jun told Deutsche Welle. "The conservative element is largely missing, an open discussion on issues like national identity and migration is missing, and I think that is because of Germany's unique history."

"What's really missing in Germany, though, is a kind of popular leader to give such a party a brand, and a face."

Author: Mark Hallam
Editor: Jennifer Abramsohn

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