The lesson from Sweden | Daily News

The lesson from Sweden

Sweden is envied by people from all over the world for its high standard of living, remarkable beauty and relative political stability. However, if Sunday’s election is an indication, the political climate is changing in Sweden.

Sweden was the very epitome of racial and religious tolerance until recently. But certain far-right politicians have invoked the fear of “the other” as Sweden opened its borders to an influx of immigrants and refugees that burdened the country’s extensive welfare system to some extent. (Around 18.5 percent of its 2017 population is foreign-born). Experts also say that lengthening queues for critical operations, shortages of doctors and teachers and the failures of police to deal with gang violence have shaken faith in the “Swedish model”, built on a promise of comprehensive welfare and social inclusion.

This saw support for the nationalist Sweden Democrats surge at the election. This is in line with the trend where far-right parties have made spectacular gains throughout Europe in recent years as anxieties grow over national identity and the effects of globalisation and immigration following armed conflict in the Middle East and North Africa. In Sweden, an influx of 163,000 asylum seekers in 2015 - the most in Europe in relation to the country’s population (10 million) - has divided voters and political parties and fractured political amity.

What is worrying about Sweden’s election is the rise of the far-right, which campaigned on an anti-immigrant platform inspired by neo-Nazi white supremacist rhetoric. The alt-right Sweden Democrats (SD) won nearly 18 percent of the vote up from 13 percent in the last election four years ago. This is the biggest gain by any party in Sweden’s Parliament, the Riksdag, in recent memory.

Fortunately, the prediction that the SD would become the largest party had not come true, mainly because many voters in Sweden are still reluctant to fully embrace an unabashed campaign against immigration. SD leader Jimmie Akesson’s had earlier predicted 20 percent of the vote or more. But this did not stop him from telling a rally that the SD was nevertheless the ‘winner’ of the election. Thankfully, a poll ranking the issues citizens placed at the top of their agenda saw healthcare, education, gender equality, law and order and elderly care come out on top. Migration and asylum came only eighth.

However, the chilling reality is that extremist politics and politicians are gaining ground in Europe and other parts of the world. There is a strong showing by far-right parties across Europe, with Germany’s AfD now the country’s third biggest party and the League in power in Italy. The European Union was set to vote Wednesday on whether to punish Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban for undercutting democracy and breaching “common values of the EU”, including pushing the passage of anti-immigrant laws.

Moreover, Steve Bannon, a former advisor to US President Donald Trump and one of the most high-profile proponents of far-right politics in the world has been touring Europe touting his ultra-conservative views on immigration, race and other issues. Amidst a debate on what it means to be a Swede or Italian or Hungarian, many people have unfortunately sought refuge in the politics of racism and xenophobia.

These elements abhor the very concepts of freedom that include equal recognition to all communities, open borders and a welcoming atmosphere for refugees. In fact, Sweden’s SD wants Sweden to leave the EU and freeze immigration. The country already has border controls, though it is still in the EU Schengen Visa scheme. Worse, the SD’s rise is likely to embolden Eurosceptic groups ahead of the European Parliament elections in May and thwart efforts at closer EU integration.

Extremist politics is the bane of any nation. As the EU and even the US grapple with extremist politics, this seems to be a familiar story for Sri Lankans, who are used to seeing extremist politicians on all sides trying to sabotage every move aimed at national amity and reconciliation. This is in fact how Sri Lanka’s internal conflict assumed such monstrous dimensions over the course of 30 years.

These politicians rely on the easiest trick in the political playbook – inflaming racial passions among the populace and demonizing the other communities. Sadly, even after the conflict came to an end, they continue on the same old path in the hope of gaining an electoral advantage. Here in Sri Lanka, they are intent on thwarting every attempt made to forge a truly Sri Lankan identity sans ethnic and religious labeling.

It is time that voters saw through this façade and eschewed their brand of incendiary politics. Such politics of hate can bring nothing but destruction to societies and communities. Ethnic integration can sometimes be challenging, but there is hope for a better future because today’s young generation does not think in terms of race or religion. In Sri Lanka, schoolchildren are learning all three languages which will enable them to understand each other perfectly. Legal instruments such as the proposed new Constitution will help, but in the end peace and unity should come from within our hearts.


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