Swedish Election Results: Anti-immigration party in

The preliminary election results are in: the center-right alliance led by the Moderates and Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt are still the ruling party but did not win enough votes to have a majority in parliament. Now they will be on razor wire for each vote, wondering if the new party in parliament _ which has been the real story of this election _ will vote for their alliance or the opposition led by the Social Democrats.

Swedish election posters

Newspapers the world over are paying cursory attention to the two main parties in the election. The majority of attention _ and public rancor _ is targeted at the Swedish Democrats (SD), an anti-immigrant party with skinhead roots, which got more than four percent of the votes required to secure seats in parliament (5.7) _ the first time in the party’s history.

Both the ruling and the opposition alliances have flatly refused to work with SD. They were not invited to participate in debates before the election. And 6,000 people gathered in central Stockholm today to protest their election to parliament.

The hatred for the nationalist SD lies in their anti-immigrant stance that has targeted Muslims in particular. They have called Islam the biggest foreign threat to Sweden since World War II, an opinion that does not sit well with the majority in this traditionally tolerant country. But with immigrants making up 14 percent of the population, the party has obviously touched a nerve in their voting block, which is made up of mostly young, unemployed, uneducated men in the rural south of Sweden.

I sat here last night with a group of educated, young Swedes and watched their faces fall and their spirits tumble as they watched the election results roll in. Their disappointment that the Moderate alliance lost the majority in parliament did not compare with their spitting contempt for SD’s election haul. The dissatisfaction was mostly aimed at voters; they felt that those who voted for SD were ignorant and it was irresponsible to vote for a party that will jeopardize the democratic process (they say that SD are likely to vote on anti-immigration policy but for every other vote for which their policies aren’t clear, the party will vote in the way that will give them the most publicity).

Last night was a crash course for me in Swedish politics. It is a system that is so unlike ours in the U.S. in that it is actually democratic. That is only meant to be a light dig at my homeland; the truth is that Swedish politicians aren’t power hungry and often put the best interests of the party and the country ahead of their own ambitions. I also saw an integrity in the political system that would shock me if it were done in America; both major alliances flatly refused to work with SD despite the fact that SD’s support would give either group a majority in parliament, which neither holds now.

I tend to wax lyrical about Sweden in a lot of ways; it is a refreshing example of a successful welfare state that is an excellent model to other countries, and has secured comfortable and happy lives for its citizens. But the election of a party so threatened by immigration and so abhorrent in its rhetoric about Muslims is an indication of a subtle yet powerful and growing movement in Sweden. It is one that has the potential to divide this country and tear down some of its most proud traits: tolerance and acceptance.


Podcast: Swedish national elections

Swedes will go to the polls on Sunday to vote in their national election. This year could see the election of Sweden’s first female prime minister, Mona Sahlin, the leader of the opposition Social Democrats. Or it could see current Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt and his Moderate alliance win another four years in power.

The politics in this Scandinavian powerhouse are complicated and multifaceted. So Urban Pilgrim talked Communists and breast pumps with young Swedish voter Dennis Hedenskog, who works for the Korea Business Center and holds a Master of Science in Business and Economics.

Listen to the podcast here:

Swedish National Elections: Four days away

Butlers for Stockholm’s subways

In American election campaigns, candidates pledge to keep taxes low, balance the budget and stop credit card companies from robbing consumers with high fees. Swedish candidates pledge to offer citizens a butler service. For the subway.

It’s the kind of news piece that sounds like a prank, especially to the ears of a cynical American. U.S. states are battling unemployment, dismally low budgets and in some cases are tearing up paved roads so maintenance costs can be saved. But Sweden, which has had a relatively easy road back to normalcy after the recession, doesn’t face the kind of basic issues with which the U.S. grapples. Its citizens are fully taken care of by the government and its debt is 43 percent of the country’s GDP, compared to the U.S. with 93 percent.

So the Social Democrats, who are considered the underdogs before national elections next month, have proposed to offer Stockholmers “butler” services. No, sadly, this doesn’t mean there will be a kindly older gentlemen in a tailcoat with a towel over his arm offering you afternoon tea. Though that would be a serious bang for your tax buck (or kronor as it were). They are proposing a system of services that would include leaving your dirty laundry at a subway station and picking it up at the end of the day; ordering groceries online and picking them up outside your station; and offering public transport butler services that function like concierges at an airport.

This insane proposal, which was unveiled Monday in an editorial in daily newspaper Dagens Nyheter by two party members, is supposed to give people more time with their families. The amazing thing is that they actually care. Or pretend to. Their flowery editorial is full of trite and sentimental phrases that one wouldn’t expect from a failing novelist, let alone government officials:

“We want everyday services for both those who drink lattes and for those who serve lattes.”

“Everyone’s dreams are unique and different. But we locals are often united around a central factor: time. How do we make enough time for everything we want, and must, do?”

“When should we love? When will we laugh? When should we talk? When should we play with the children? When will we have time to live life as it appears in our dreams?”

Oh boy. This exaggerated sentimentality and seeming alarm about the “suffering” of Stockholmers is either the product of a frantic party behind in the polls or of a city so spoiled it doesn’t know the difference between necessary assistance and indulgence. I can tell you that the people of Stockholm want for very little and enjoy the generous benefits of this social welfare state with its low property costs, free health care and 13 months paid paternity leave.

And though it is very generous for the city to offer to wash my delicates, I think that’s a job I can continue to handle on my own. Thanks.

Protests end … for now

Tuesday saw an end to the violent demonstrations that have gripped the country for the past few days. The already reduced group of 2,000 surrounding Government House have packed up and gone home to celebrate Songkran with their families. Overnight fighting resulted in the deaths of two people after protesters clashed with residents angry over the disruption. And at the end of the day 123 people were injured.

Despite their apparent defeat by the military _ a usually ineffectual bunch who used “soft” means to quell the unrest _ protest leaders have vowed to keep on fighting to force the prime minister’s resignation. It is likely they will regroup at some point and take to the streets again, but the red-shirts hold very little sympathy from the Thai public after plunging their city into chaos.

The turmoil does have an upside _ for Thais. The Buddhist New Year holiday has been extended to give authorities time to ensure the safety of citizens in the capital and to clean up the piles of burnt tires that have littered the city. It’s not such an advantage for expats such as myself, who have to continue to work during this time. We also suffer the inconvenience of getting sprayed by happy revelers while getting lunch in your work clothes and of having to function normally while many shops and services are closed.

But I’m not complaining too much. The holiday has kept smiles on the faces of so many in the midst of so much unrest. And I will not be left out! I plan to put on my dingiest clothing tonight, purchase a $3 super-soaker and get everyone who got me. Look out.

Chaos intensifies in capital. Water fight!

Chaos and crisis are the two words most frequently used to describe the anarchy that has besieged the capital. Another word, uttered more quietly and with reserve, is revolution.

Monday in Bangkok saw early morning clashes that have continued into the afternoon between protesters and the army in several main intersections of downtown. Soldiers have opened fire on the crowds of demonstrators, who have responded by throwing gasoline bombs (Molotov cocktails) and setting at least one city bus on fire and sending it toward a line of troops. There have been no reports of casualties thus far, though at least 74 people have been injured, mostly because of tear gas fired by the troops.

A midday speech by the prime minister promised that the airports, train stations and major ports would be secured. But faith in his leadership is waning quickly as security forces struggle to contain the raging mob.

Another concurrent event that could also be called chaotic? Songkran _ the Thai water festival that ushers in the Buddhist New Year during the hottest month of the year.

On some Bangkok streets, you would never know there is political upheaval of this magnitude. Everywhere Thais are jubilantly dousing each other with hoses, buckets and squirt guns filled with water, and covering their bodies with white powder. Oh and dousing the foreigners despite my pleas to spare me (I got a big bucket of cold water down the back just 15 minutes ago).

It also might be helping to mitigate more severe disruptions, as many Thais use the extended holiday to see their families in provinces around the country, creating the emptiness we might experience in the States on Labor Day. Lines of cars aren’t parked on the side of the street and traffic jams have been minimal (which is a huge feat for this city). The lack of people in the city until Wednesday means that the intersections blocked by commandeered public buses and lines of troops to stem the tide of demonstrators won’t create disruptions of the magnitude it might on a regular weekday.

In a country so plagued by instability it is refreshing to see Thais still take the time to enjoy this revered national holiday. Now if only the protesters would join in, maybe some of the fires and anger could be doused.

Music by Andre Rieu & The Johann Strauss Orchestra and Byron Stingily.

Pilgrim Tweet: Protesters take over APCs

Protesters have now taken over several Thai Army armored personnel carriers in central Bangkok close to the Siam Paragon shopping mall. This is a major weekend hot spot for locals and tourists, especially during hot season. It is also quite close to my apartment and office.

Check out Yahoo news for some incredible photos.

Political crisis goes into overdrive

The government has declared a state of emergency in Bangkok. Thousands of violent protesters stormed the Interior ministry and attacked a car carrying carrying the Thai prime minister. And now there are reports that armored vehicles have begun patrolling the city’s streets.

The chaos that has been steadily intensifying for the last few weeks is becoming a very real threat, not only to the government officials who are being attacked, but also to the people of Bangkok. Rumors are circulating that yet again the airports might be overtaken (though the protesters have denied they will take such action) and that the protesters could turn violent. There are also murmurs that there will be a military crackdown, a possibility seemingly supported by the armored vehicles on the streets.

This kind of political turmoil is commonplace in a country that has had 18 military coups since the 1930s. But the recent unrest has even some seasoned expats concerned that the protesters this time around are playing by completely different rules.

Yellow-shirted pro-royalist protesters _ who shuttered Bangkok’s two airports for eight days _ demonstrated to have allies of disgraced and exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra removed from power. A court then ordered the removal of Thaksin’s allies and the Parliament installed current Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva. Red-shirted protesters _ who are responsible for the turmoil in recent weeks _ are now arguing that Abhisit came to power illegitimately. They are also backed by Thaksin, who was ousted in a military coup in 2006. He has been calling in daily from exile to encourage the red shirts to continue their protests. And thus a vicious cycle continues.

The difference between the protests last year and the recent demonstrations is the lengths to which the red-shirted protesters are going to make their point clear. They want Abhisit to step down and for new elections to be called, and they refuse to stop until it happens. But with the prime minister refusing to step down, the protesters have upped the ante and made it clear that they are a serious threat.

On Saturday, they stormed the site of the East Asia Summit in Pattaya, where leaders from 16 Asian nations were meeting to determine how best to deal with the global economic crisis. They smashed windows, swarmed the lobby chanting and waving flags, and forced the evacuation by helicopter and sea of the Asian leaders. On TV, military personnel could be seen standing aside to let demonstrators pass. The red-shirts declared it a victory. Observers declared it an embarrassment.

Now, with the streets of Bangkok filled with a regrouped mob and armored vehicles, it’s a waiting game to see how far the protesters will go. The police and the government have been completely ineffective in stopping both the red and yellow shirts and there is little faith that if the military steps in, they will be able to do much to quell the unruly group.

Updates from me will come as I get them, especially on how daily life is being affected by this crisis. For now, the reaction among my colleagues and friends is that it is just another step in Thailand’s political turmoil. But many have given a slight pause and the doubt in their face makes it clear that this time around, no one knows what the outcome will be. Tourists, however, have taken note and there are reports that this latest bout of disorder will further cripple the country’s already battered tourism industry. To those hoping to visit soon, I would wait and watch.