Stockholm’s largely immigrant suburbs have seen their fourth night of rioting as groups of young people set restaurants and cars ablaze. The unrest, which appears to have been sparked by a fatal police shooting in the suburb of Husby on May 13th, may have shocked many in a country known for high living standards and liberal immigration policies, but the events of the last few days have nonetheless been easily incorporated into existing policy critiques across the political spectrum.
The far-right Sweden Democrats (SD) have already seized on the riots as an example of an ‘irresponsible’ immigration policy. Like other nativist, European far-right parties, the SD has seen its popularity increase along with higher unemployment rates and now stands in third place in polls. In an editorial in the daily Svenska Dagbladet, party leader Jimmie Aakesson and spokesman Richard Jomshof pointed to what they say are unprecedented levels of government spending in immigrant-heavy suburbs, a charge that simultaneously criticizes the policies of the current, center-right government and attempts to undermine liberal critiques centered on inequality.
Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, appearing wary of entertaining more substantive arguments for the underlying cause of the riots, has attributed them to ‘hooliganism.’ While conceding that perhaps some of the problems underlying the unrest were related to failed immigrant integration policies, Reinfeldt’s comments on the issue have centered on the ‘transition period between different cultures’ and Swedish language education, all the while skirting around inconvenient facts like the disproportionate rate of unemployment between native-born Swedes and immigrants (6% and 16%, respectively).
Broader systemic issues related to the erosion of Sweden’s social welfare model have been the focus of leftist critiques of Reinfeldt’s Moderate Party for some time and the riots have been seamlessly incorporated into that narrative. The Left Party has blamed ‘cuts, reduced future opportunities, segregation and stigmatization’ for setting the context within which such riots could take place. In a more showy challenge to the Moderate Party, Social Democrat Stefan Löfven, head of the country’s largest opposition party, made a secret visit to Husby Tuesday night shortly after Reinfeldt said that neither he nor his government’s ministers had plans to visit the area. Löfven used the opportunity to meet with local activists and to discuss his party’s proposals to allocate more resources for vulnerable areas.
The ongoing unrest will be certain to amplify the role of issues like immigration, inequality, and unemployment in the political discourse leading up to general elections scheduled for 2014. With nearly 15% of Sweden’s population foreign-born — but with a growing political threat from the right– Reinfeldt’s tepid response to the violence is understandable. However by not articulating a firmer stance on the underlying problems behind the riots, he will leave himself increasingly vulnerable to more compelling arguments from both sides.