Once denounced as neo-fascists, Jimmie Akesson’s Sweden Democrats look poised to translate more voter-friendly nationalist policies into big electoral gains in a country long famed for liberal tolerance.
In 1995, Akesson joined a tiny party supported by skinheads in steel-toed boots. Since he became leader in 2005, he has toned down the Sweden Democrats’ image and broadened their appeal with his message that immigration is tearing the country apart.
Eight years after winning their first seats in parliament, the Sweden Democrats have upset a political order once defined by right- and left-wing blocs, and shaken the country’s idea of itself as a progressive society.
Relaxed in a suit jacket but no tie, Akesson, 39, is watching a World Cup game on television in his corner office in parliament, a building where many had hoped he would never be let in. He is confident he can no longer be ignored.
“If we are the second biggest or biggest party in parliament and the other parties still believe we can be ignored, and pretend we don’t exist, then we must flex our muscles,” Akesson said in a Reuters interview.
Prime Minister Stefan Lofven called the Sweden Democrats neo-fascists in 2014, a charge they reject.
But events played into their hands during the refugee crisis of 2015, when Sweden took in 163,000 asylum-seekers, more than any other European country per capita. That put immigration firmly in the spotlight, where it has remained.
With opinion polls suggesting the Sweden Democrats may rival the biggest parties – Lofven’s Social Democrats and the right-wing Moderates – at more than 20 percent of the vote in the election on Sept. 9, Akesson’s years as a political pariah may soon be over.