Asylum seekers or welfare? Swedish election breaks immigration taboo

Mon Sep 1, 2014 8:37am EDT
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By Johan Ahlander and Simon Johnson

STOCKHOLM (Reuters) - A Swedish anti-immigration party is likely to score its best ever general election result this month, as a growing number of voters question the cost of the country's open door asylum policy.

Opinion polls show that a majority in Sweden, where 16 percent of the population is foreign-born, still backs the liberal regime which over the decades has welcomed refugees from Chile and Yugoslavia to Somalia and Syria.

An absolute political consensus in support of the policy, however, is no more in a nation divided over record numbers of asylum seekers as Sweden's cradle-to-grave welfare system comes under strain.

A decade ago questioning the policy of granting refuge to those fleeing oppression and war was almost taboo, even though a sizeable number of Swedes have long believed that it is too lenient. Now high unemployment, declining welfare and worsening standards in schools have helped to put the debate center stage in the election campaign.

In August, center-right Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, facing defeat in the Sept. 14 vote, broke an unwritten rule among mainstream parties of supporting the policy unreservedly. The cost of receiving new asylum seekers, he said, would leave little room for more spending on boosting jobs and improving schools.

"The Prime Minister has confirmed it - the election is a choice between mass immigration and welfare. You choose on Sept. 14," Jimmie Akesson, leader of the anti-immigration Sweden Democrats, immediately tweeted after Reinfeldt's speech.

Opinion polls give the Sweden Democrats around 10 percent support - almost double their showing four years ago - and they could become the third biggest party in parliament behind the favorites, the center-left Social Democrats, and Reinfeldt's struggling Moderates.

A study by the SOM Institute at Gothenburg University shows that many voters have doubts about the asylum policy. It found that around 44 percent believe the country should take fewer refugees. That figure has been largely stable in recent years, although it is down from around 65 percent in 1992 when Sweden was suffering a financial crisis.   Continued...

A sapling stands in front of blocks of flats in the Taby suburb of Stockholm June 10, 2014. REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton