Populism on the rise in the Nordic region
A populist and hard-right wave is washing up over the Nordic countries, and with it, anti-immigration rhetoric and policies that were unthinkable just few years ago, with political consequences for traditional politics in the region.
Despite their rapid rise, most extreme right-wing parties in the Nordic countries still lack significant voter-support on election day, with Sunday's (19 September) Swedish election result to be the next test.
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Just a year ago, the far-right anti-immigration party – Swedish Democrats (Sverigedemokraterna) – was a small and unknown outfit. But its provocative anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim statements have given it significant support especially in areas with high unemployment.
Opinion polls suggest that the Swedish Democrats may exceed the four percent threshold needed to win seats in the Riksdagen and possibly hold the balance of power between the left alliance led by the Social Democrats and the governing centre-right coalition.
In Finland, the tone of the immigration debate has changed dramatically over the last year. The topic has moved from being a marginal discussion to become one of the central debates in Finnish politics.
As much as 60 percent of Finns are now against an increase in the number of immigrants arriving in the country – a number that has increased considerably compared to previous years, according to a survey by Finnish daily Helsingin Sanomat.
Public support for the opposition hard-right True Finns party led by MEP Timo Soini, who is a member of the European Parliament, has lately risen past 10 per cent, according to a survey in September commissioned by the same paper.
In Norway however, the far-right wave seems to have ebbed considerably. Following the polemic with the caricature drawings of the Prophet Mohammed a few years back some political parties were accused of being soft on Muslim fundamentalists for supporting a dialogue with the Muslim immigrant community. Consequently, the parties took on a stricter tone in the immigration debates, stealing the far-right's thunder.
However, in one of the debates, talk of introducing a ban on burqas and niqabs in public places, was ultimately seen as a breach of human rights and the measure was discarded by all parties except the extreme right-wing Fremskrittspartiet.
In Denmark, on the other hand, critics say that the far-right party, the Dansk Folkeparti, has won the anti-immigration debate. Danish politics has changed dramatically over the last decade and supporters of the change argue that it was needed while critics say the change has been an embrace of populism.
The rise of far-right parties
The ground the anti-immigrant parties have gained in the Nordic region over the last few years could be linked to a number of facts, according to Nordic reports.
Firstly, the number of asylum requests have increased in most Nordic countries during the 1990s. Immigrants have arrived mainly in the Scandinavian countries while Finland has received somewhat fewer and Iceland only very little immigration from non-European Union states, according to numbers from Nordic statistics.
Secondly, the power vacuum left by political infighting and internal splits in the traditional political parties has also boosted the rise of populist anti-immigration parties.
Thirdly, although many of the right-wing parties have been around for a long time, they have previously been marginal due to their links with Nazism and other extreme political views. However, in the past few years they have had a clean-out of their ranks.
In Sweden, for example, the Swedish Democrats ejected former criminals and Nazi members and has now become more accepted among the mainstream population.
Fourth, the current global economic crisis has also played its part in the increase of xenophobic attitudes among the Nordic people. In Finland, there is a growing discontent with not only immigration but also with the European Union (EU) and the euro – another topic widely deployed by populist parties to gain support.
Also in Iceland there has been a rise in the population's mistrust of the EU as well as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which is closely co-operating with the Icelandic authorities on the country's economic recovery.
Voting for a laugh
Compared to the rest of the Nordic countries, the picture is somewhat different in Iceland when it comes to populist politicians. On the north Atlantic island, the people have become so disillusioned with their traditional politicians following the country's economic collapse, that the Icelandic people turned to a popular comedian when they went to the ballot boxes in May.
Jon Gnarr and his semi-serious political group named 'The Best Party' was the big winner in Iceland's latest local elections. Following a recent hard-hitting report about the facts behind Iceland's economic crash and the political links to the banks, local elections were held in an atmosphere of much distrust of mainstream parties, politicians, incumbents and bank directors.
The Best Party's general message is anti-politician and Mr Gnarr notably promised a cocaine-free parliament by 2020, free towels at swimming polls and a new polar bear for the zoo in Reykjavík during his election rally. Experts argue though that the Icelandic people did not really vote for Mr Gnarr but rather against the traditional political parties as a punishment for their failure to prevent the financial collapse in Iceland.
Language is cruder
All across the Nordic countries, the language in immigration debates has become ever more coarse. Previously unthinkable political statements are now used on a regular basis.
In Sweden, the Swedish Democrats at one point wrote in an opinion piece: "The Muslims are our greatest threat – as a Swedish Democrat, I see this as our greatest foreign threat since the Second World War and I promise to do all within my power to turn this trend when we go to elections," party leader Jimmie Akesson wrote in a debate article in Sweden's biggest daily Aftonbladet on 19 October 2009.
In Denmark, Peter Skaarup from the far-right Danish People's Party (Dansk Folkeparti) wrote in a press release on 29 May this year: "if non-western immigrants and descendents worked to the same extent as the Danes, then the economic situation would immediately be 24 million Kroners [€3.2 million] better, the sustainability problem would be solved and growth in the Danish economy would take off."
He added that his party would continue a "socially balanced policy that will press more immigrants to find a job, take up education or maybe go home if it does not work out for them staying here in the country."
Few politicians in power dare to stand up against this kind of wording from the extreme right parties. Many politicians have even altered their statements to align themselves with the latest polls, which often suggest xenophobic and anti-immigration tendencies in public opinion.
In Norway, for example, traditional political parties have tightened asylum policies and become less tolerant in their integration policies.
In other cases, mainstream politicians need the support of the anti-immigration parties. In Denmark, the centre-right government depend on the parliamentary support of the Danish People's Party to push through legislation.
This has also led to the fact that the recently introduced Danish economic recovery plan is focussed on cuts in areas that hit immigrants hardest, critics argue. Child allowances, for example, have been cut to families with more than two children, and so has funding for translation services used, for example, in hospitals.
Recently, former member of the European Parliament and current Finnish foreign minister Alexander Stubb in an interview with Helsingin Sanomat in March this year protested against the change of tone in the language used in Finland over the last few years.
"Lately, I have seen far too few people saying that immigration is something good for Finland", Mr Stubb said, adding that he found the prevailing immigration debate for repulsive.
A change of politics
The rise of the populist politics is a sign of how politics have changed in the Nordic region, as with many nations in Europe where populist and demagogic rhetoric has gained ground during election time. The consequent change in toward hard-right language and policies now being adopted by traditional mainstream parties have led to a change in the way immigration policies are conducted.
But there are also tendencies of people pushing in the other direction as in Sweden, for example, where recent polls show that the acceptance among the Swedes towards immigrants and immigration is increasing. Also in Norway there is a wind of change as the authorities have chosen to remain in close dialogue with the Norwegian Muslim communities to stamp out potential cultural clashes.
Despite this, Nordic countries are sending a clear message to the world, saying that immigrants can no longer easily enter the Nordic countries.
And the message they are sending is having an effect. In Denmark, for example, the number of asylum requests has dropped more than 85 percent between 2000 and 2008 – a period in which the centre-right government, with the parliamentary support of the Danish People's Party, has been in power.
Norwegian Prime Minister centre-left Jens Stoltenberg has succeeded in his ambition of curbing the growth in the number of asylum seekers in the last few years, embracing the anti-immigrant discourse.
The change in traditional politics towards increasing demands of integration for immigrants in some of the Nordic countries has had an effect on the extreme right-wing parties: Despite the fast rise and considerable media attention devoted to these parties, as well as a growing interest from the electorate, they still only have limited support when Nordic voters go to the polls.
This analysis is based on articles from the Nordic Council / Nordic Council of Ministers' online news magazine, Analys Norden