STOCKHOLM (AP) — The longtime leader of the nationalist Sweden Democrats says he’s hoping for a stronger role as a “blow torch” in Swedish politics after a parliamentary election next month even if he doesn’t get a seat in the next government.
Jimmie Akesson, who for almost two decades has sought to move his party from the far-right fringe toward the mainstream, has joined forces with a center-right opposition bloc in a bid to unseat the Social Democratic minority government led by Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson.
Akesson’s party already has had a significant impact on politics in Sweden. Both the center-left government and the opposition in recent years have adopted tougher stances on crime and immigration — core issues for the Sweden Democrats.
“Fundamentally, it is a good thing. We want to change society. We want to make things better. So we welcome when other parties adopt our policies,” Akesson, 43, told The Associated Press after a campaign speech Monday in the southern city of Helsingborg.
Because of its far-right roots, Akesson’s party was treated as a pariah by all other parties when it first entered parliament in 2010. The Sweden Democrats were seen as a threat to fundamental values in Swedish society, including tolerance toward asylum-seekers from conflict zones in the Middle East and Africa.
But the debate on migration has shifted amid growing concerns about how well some immigrants are integrating, increasingly segregated cities and a rise in gang violence.
After losing two consecutive elections, three of Sweden’s four center-right parties are now campaigning to form a government with the support of the Sweden Democrats after the Sept. 11 vote and making similar promises of longer prison terms for violent criminals and more restrictive policies for asylum-seekers.
Polls show the the opposition neck-and-neck with a center-left bloc led by the Social Democrats. The Sweden Democrats are polling around 18%-19%, slightly better than the party’s 2018 election result of 17.5% of the vote.
Akesson told the AP that while he would prefer to be in government, he’s not at this stage demanding Cabinet seats if the center-right opposition win the election — as long as he can wield influence from the outside as a “blow torch, a watchdog that makes sure that they actually carry through” on their promises.
His party, which says it rejects fascism and Nazism, recently published a study into the roots of the Sweden Democrats. Swedish newspaper Expressen revealed the author was a party member. Nonetheless, the investigation confirmed that several of the party’s founders in the 1980s had links to fascist and neo-Nazi movements.
Akesson said it was good to get an “academic” review of the party’s past, though he thinks the results were of limited political value since the party’s origins were already well known.
“Those who founded our party are no longer taking part,” he told the AP. “Most of them disappeared already after one or two years. So the Sweden Democrats today is something different from what was founded about 30 years ago.”
Akesson joined the Sweden Democrats in the mid-’90s and took over as party leader in 2005. He softened the party’s image, changed its official logo from a torch to a flower and expelled the most radical members.
But critics say the party’s roots shine through in the rhetoric of its top officials. Social Democratic and center-right officials criticized the party’s spokesman on criminal justice issues, Tobias Andersson, last week for a tweet regarding the Sweden Democrats’ campaign advertisement on the Stockholm subway.
Posting a picture of a train car covered in the party logo, Andersson wrote: “Welcome to the repatriation train. You have a one-way ticket. Next stop, Kabul.”
Andersson refused to apologize for the tweet, saying it was mocking those who were offended by the party’s campaign posters. Social Democratic Justice Minister Morgan Johansson responded that the tweet showed the true nature of the group that center-right parties were trying to form a government with.
Like many far-right and right-wing populist parties in Europe, the Sweden Democrats have also been accused of sympathies toward Russian President Vladimir Putin. A week before the Ukraine invasion, when asked in an interview with public broadcaster SVT which leader he preferred — U.S. President Joe Biden or Putin — Akesson replied “it depends on the context.”
Speaking Monday, Akesson said the party’s line on Putin’s government was clear.
“We said 12 years ago when we entered Parliament that we must build up the armed forces because Putin is getting more and more aggressive, and then other parties said that’s not necessary,” he said. “Today, Russia is more or less a full-scale dictatorship that in addition is carrying out crimes against international law against its neighbors.”
The Sweden Democrats used to be skeptical toward NATO membership but, like the governing Social Democrats, turned in favor of joining the alliance together with neighboring Finland after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The NATO application is undergoing a ratification process and is not an issue in the election.
___ Associated Press contributor Anders Kongshaug in Copenhagen contributed to this report.