WORLD -- September 20, 2010 at 2:51 PM EDT
Sweden's Anti-Immigration Party Gains Toehold in Parliament
Sweden Democrats leader Jimmie Aakesson. Photo by Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP/Getty Images
A political party in Sweden seeking a 90 percent reduction in immigration won seats in Parliament for the first time, denying the ruling center-right coalition a majority and raising questions about anti-Muslim sentiment in the country.
The far-right Sweden Democrats won 20 out of 349 seats in the country's legislative body in Sunday's general election. Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt's Alliance won 49.2 percent of votes and 172 seats, three seats short of a majority. The left-wing opposition coalition got 43.7 percent of the ballot and 157 seats.
"Now we are in the Riksdag! We are in!" a jubilant Jimmie Aakesson, the 31-year-old head of the Sweden Democrats, told supporters at the party's election headquarters, quoted the Agence France-Presse.
"We won't cause problems. We will take responsibility. That is my promise to the Swedish people," he said.
His party wants radical curbs on immigration in Sweden, where 14 percent of the country's 9.4 million population are non-Swedes.
During the 1990s, many people from the Balkan countries moved to Sweden during the third Balkan War. Since 2000, most immigrants came from the Middle East, Iran and Iraq in particular, creating a growing Muslim community in Sweden.
Aakesson has called this Muslim population growth the greatest foreign threat to the country since World War II.
The anti-immigration party's success came as a shock to some Swedes, who generally pride themselves in being progressive and tolerant. Susanne Lindeskog of Malmo, Sweden, told the BBC it was "frightening" that so many Swedes voted for the Sweden Democrats.
"I feel ashamed to be Swedish. There's been a polarization in the immigration debate, it's become more common to separate different groups, you don't talk about one society, but about this part of the other -- the Swedes and the immigrants," she said.
But Markus Johansson said he voted for the Sweden Democrats and was not surprised by their gains since other political parties have failed to raise the issue of integration of immigrants into Swedish society.
"None of our previous governments has been able to deal with the problems of immigration in an acceptable way. It's not just about the numbers of immigrants we welcome, it's about what we do to integrate them. ... Many of them don't speak the language and live in a segregated way," he said, according to the BBC.
In Europe, a growing anti-immigration phenomenon has resulted in wins by far-right political parties in countries such as Denmark, Belgium and Austria, albeit on a smaller scale in Sweden, said Brian Beary, Washington correspondent for Europolitics.
The Sweden Democrats' 20-seat win represents just 5.7 percent of the vote, he said. "So it's not as if there was a huge swell of support, but just enough to push them over the threshold."
But even the 5.7 percent was enough to create a fragile government, said Beary, adding that the Sweden Democrats could have been considered a kingmaker -- if the other main political parties wanted to work with them.
Reinfeldt, whose coalition of four conservative and liberal parties won the most seats but not an outright majority, has vowed not to work with the Sweden Democrats, and instead is looking to the opposition Green Party to build a majority coalition.
However, the Telegraph reported Monday that the Greens have refused to work with Reinfeldt.
Reinfeldt has until the Oct. 5 opening of the Riksdag to form a government and said he is undertaking the task in an orderly way.
"We will do this without using words such as chaos ... but instead exactly as we are -- with the orderliness that is expect of us, at the pace that is outline," he said, according to the Local, a Swedish English-language newspaper.
Sunday's election also dealt a blow to the opposition Social Democrats, who received 30.9 percent of the vote. They had ruled Sweden for 65 of the past 78 years, and this will be the first time in modern history they have lost consecutive elections to a conservative party.
Reuters tracks the latest setbacks for European mainstream center-left parties in places such as Germany, France and Britain.