Integration and the Swedish elections: how polarization deteriorates native-migrant relations

Hand voting at political elections

Måns Lundstedt

PhD in Political Science and Sociology, MIM - Malmö Institute for Studies of Migration, Diversity and Welfare

Local communities’ attempts to facilitate integration are ultimately dependent on trust and functioning relations between public agencies and migrants. In their absence, welfare agencies, employment offices, housing, taxation, and other authorities  will not be able to disseminate correct information, their motives will not be trusted, and they will not be able to broker functioning collaboration with relevant and trusted civil society associations.

Visiting six Swedish municipalities as a researcher in the Swedish section of the Whole-COMM project, I had the mixed blessing of seeing these problems first hand. What is more, I saw how they were exacerbated – and sometimes immediately caused by – issues and events that had become salient during the Swedish electoral campaign. As such, the timing of the fieldwork allowed me to make some reflections on the indirect impact of national-level politics on opportunities and challenges for integration in local communities.

In this entry, I will briefly expand on how the campaign highlighted and exacerbated existing tendencies toward polarization between migrants and natives. This issue will be followed by a second entry focusing on the Swedish election, in which I will consider how these problems translated into the experiences of public agencies (including researchers), and what the chances are to improve the situation.

A polarizing election

The Swedish elections, held on September 11, signalled a sea change in Swedish politics. It marked a new point in the deterioration of migrant-native relations and it appeared to consolidate nationality and citizenship as central elements of the Swedish cleavage structure. Following the examples set by neighbouring Denmark and Norway, the national winning coalition combined conservative and right wing liberal parties with the ethnonationalist, social conservative Sweden Democrats. In the lead-up to the elections, the new conservative coalition pushed for more restrictive immigration policies, demands-based and less inclusive welfare policies for migrants, and a number of targeted social interventions in migrant-dense neighbourhoods. Against them stood a fragmented centre-left opposition, whose only point of convergence was its common opposition to the most striking elements of the conservative coalition’s migration and integration policies. Even the Social Democrats, however, supported many of the same calls for restrictions on immigration and migrants’ access to public welfare. In an electoral campaign that otherwise centred on an alleged explosion of gang violence, most parties subscribed to a racialized linkage between criminality, migration, and integration.

Signs of polarization were also visible outside of the mainstream, national parties. All through 2022, the Danish–Swedish nationalist Rasmus Paludan repeatedly burned Qurans in public places as part of a one-man electoral campaign. In April, a series of such events led to escalating confrontations between counter-protesters and the police. To date, the riotous protests have resulted in multiple prison sentences, including at least two forced deportations of foreign citizens. The campaign also resulted in a loud debate between Muslim associations, migrant groups, and others regarding the police authority’s decision to grant Paludan the right to assembly. While Paludan and his one-man party Stram Kurs only received 156 individual votes, the campaign itself was impactful on Swedish public debate, and it appears to have affected many Swedish Muslims’ perceptions of the Swedish police and political system overall.

Responding to the wider political developments, the newly founded Nyans party attempted to mobilize voters in opposition to Islamophobia and racism. During their electoral campaign, one of the party’s central demands was an investigation into the municipalities’ implementation of the social services act. This demand grew out of a widely disseminated conspiracy theory, which states that Swedish municipalities are using the social services act to systematically apprehend Muslim children. While widely rejected as false, this idea has been gaining a foothold in many communities. Before Nyans, however, no organized and widely visible political actor had given it public support. Mobilizing primarily in areas with large migrant populations, the party managed to gain municipal mandates in Landskrona and the Stockholm suburb of Botkyrka.

The events around the recent elections reveal the growing polarization and deterioration of relations between (some) migrant groups and the Swedish native population. In the past, open opposition to migration, to integration, and even to particular migrant groups tended to be fringe phenomena, limited to the political mobilization of far right organizations and the Sweden Democrats. Likewise, the mistrust and disinformation that has always circulated among parts of the migrant population used to be limited to private and closed settings, lacking political channeling and legitimation. As such, what we are seeing now risks exacerbating problems that already exist, while also creating new problems for the future.

Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

Hand voting at political elections
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