In parallel to Cologne, Sweden's own sexual harassment scandal threatens to benefit the Sweden Democrats
News from Cologne of widespread sexual harassment on New Year’s Eve prompted reports of similar cases in Sweden. One of the main daily newspapers, Dagens Nyheter, reported that there had been a high number of sexual harassment cases of young teenage girls during a music festival – We Are Sthlm – in 2014 and then again in 2015.
According to internal police reports the paper had seen, the perpetrators were often young foreign men or boys, mostly from Afghanistan, who had come to Sweden without their parents. The police apparently never publicised the assaults but rather claimed that the festivals had been relatively orderly. It took Cologne for news of the assaults in Stockholm, as well as in other cities, to come out.
Some commentators in Sweden were quick to play the race card and argue that the perpetrators’ lowest common denominator was their origin. They came from highly patriarchal countries where, it was argued, values differed fundamentally from those in Sweden and women were valued less than men. Other commentators have played the sex card arguing that the lowest common denominator was not nationality, ethnicity, or religion but rather that they were men. What happened at the festival was not an isolated instance of harassment but a reality that all women live with.
The main focus of the debate, however, has been on the police’s handling of the complaints and its decision to not make the news public. The officer in charge at the festival told Dagens Nyheter that the police does sometimes not dare say how things are because this would play into the hands of the anti-immigrant Sweden Democrat party. Several police officers to whom the newspapers spoke suggested that the police deliberately avoided reporting on incidents that had links to perpetrators with non-Swedish backgrounds.
The notion of a police cover-up has become the subject of particular outrage. The police has promised a thorough investigation. The Minister of Interior has been summoned to the Parliament to explain what happened. The Prime Minister has said that this was a “double betrayal” of women in Sweden and a problem for Sweden’s democracy. The Sweden Democrats have made the most of the supposed cover-up and called for the police chief’s resignation.
Predictably, the Sweden Democrats have also been at the forefront in linking the harassment to Sweden’s immigration policy and, in particular, the newly arrived refugees by trying to argue that what happened was a new phenomenon explained by culture.
The left-wing government has shunned this linkage. Instead they have framed the debate as a broader one about the need to protect girls and women against sexual assault and the importance of changing the attitudes of boys and men. By not making this a question of immigration and integration, the government has tried to stay clear of a discourse defined and driven by the Sweden Democrats.
The government’s approach is underpinned by the generally positive view of immigration in Sweden. Swedes still have one of the most positive views of immigrants in Europe notwithstanding the government’s shift towards a much more restrictive immigration policy late last year.
It also reflects a desire by the mainstream parties to not fall into the same trap as in Denmark and Norway where the anti-immigrant parties have been treated as normal parties and thereby been able to largely set the agenda on immigration.
Instead, in Sweden the political mainstream has sought broad agreements across party lines on immigration policy and effectively established a cordon sanitaire to insulate themselves from the Sweden Democrats. Sweden has in this way avoided a race to the bottom in its immigration policy.
But this has also meant that the Sweden Democrats have benefited by attracting the anti-immigrant vote from both the left and right. The party now polls at 20 percent making it the third largest party. It remains to be seen whether the party will now gain even further.
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The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.