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Election gains by anti-immigration party shatters Sweden's image as bastion of tolerance

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Sept. 20, 2010: Sweden's Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt of the centre-right coalition addresses media during a news conference at the Government Offices in Stockholm, Sweden, the day after the national elections.AP

STOCKHOLM (AP) — A far-right group's election breakthrough has shattered Sweden's reputation as a bastion of tolerance after years of being seemingly inoculated against the backlash on immigration seen elsewhere in Europe.

Sunday's election showed that the country's welcome to refugees is not universally accepted: Nearly 6 percent of the population voted for a nationalist group that accuses immigrants — especially Muslims — of eroding Sweden's national identity and its cherished welfare state.

It's a bitter pill for a nation that frowned upon Denmark's vitriol toward Muslim immigrants, Swiss attempts to ban minarets and France's crackdown on Gypsy camps.

"The banner of tolerance has been hauled down and the forces of darkness have finally taken the Swedish democracy hostage, too," the Expressen tabloid wrote in a post-election editorial.

"It's Monday morning and time for Swedes to get a new self-image," read a bold front-page headline in Svenska Dagbladet.

Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt's coalition won the election but lost its majority in the 349-seat legislature, weakening its ability to push through crucial legislation.

The Sweden Democrats, a small nationalist party, entered Parliament for the first time, winning 20 seats to hold the balance of power between the 172 seats captured by the four-party center-right bloc and the 154 seats won by the three-party leftist opposition, according to preliminary returns.

Hardening attitudes toward immigrants have helped far-right radicals gain influence elsewhere in western Europe.

The Netherlands, which built a reputation of open-minded policies, took a hard right turn against immigration in 2002, when populist politician Pim Fortuyn broke all taboos against speaking out against multiculturalism and said Holland was "full." Anti-immigrant parties have been significant factors in every election since then.

In June, anti-Islam politician Geert Wilders, who has denounced the Quran as a "fascist book" and campaigned to halt more Muslim immigration, more than doubled his seats in Parliament and is the kingmaker of the emerging right-wing coalition. Wilders goes on trial next month for "hate speech" for some of his most outspoken anti-immigrant remarks.

The U.S. also has seen a backlash, underscored by the uproar over Arizona's attempts to get tough on illegal immigration and plans to build an Islamic center near ground zero in New York.

Sweden became barren ground for such groups after the sudden rise and fall of a right-wing populist party in the early 1990s. Since then, Swedes have dealt with immigration issues delicately, at times even apologetically.

When a mainstream political party eight years ago suggested basic Swedish-language skills should be mandatory for citizenship — an uncontroversial requirement in many other countries — it was accused of catering to xenophobes.

Swedish leaders also lashed out at Scandinavian neighbor Denmark for sharply tightening immigration in 2002, and reacted with horror to the anti-Muslim statements by leaders of the nationalist Danish People's Party.

That helped cement Sweden's reputation as being a haven for immigrants, and was one the reasons the nation of 9.4 million attracted more Iraqi refugees following the U.S. toppling of Saddam Hussein than any other country in the West.

To many, that era is over with the election of the Sweden Democrats to Parliament.

"During the 15 years I have lived in Sweden, I've always been proud of being able to say that if there's racism in Sweden, it's to a small degree," said Richard Aliaga Tello, a 36-year-old immigrant from Peru. "It's sad not being able to have that pride anymore. On the contrary, I'm going to feel a bit ashamed."

Led by Jimmie Akesson, the Sweden Democrats won 20 parliamentary seats and the balance of power between the center-right government and the left-wing opposition. Both main blocs refuse to work with Akesson, 31, and are likely to seek a deal across the political divide just to keep him out."They will be forced to change their policies, above all on integration and immigration if they don't want to keep losing votes to us," a defiant Akesson told Swedish Radio.

Akesson denies allegations of racism, saying his party has nothing against immigrants as individuals. It's their large number that's a burden on the Swedish welfare state, he says.

"We haven't had the capacity to receive all those who have been let in. We haven't had the capacity to get them out into society, get them to work, to assimilate them into Swedish society," Akesson told The Associated Press in a May 24 interview at the group's secret Stockholm office.

Sweden has undergone a dramatic demographic shift since World War II when it was a largely homogenous country. Labor migration from southern Europe was followed by waves of refugees fleeing Chile's dictatorship, Iran's revolution, Iraq's oppression of Kurds and the Balkans' ethnic strife.

Today, one in seven Swedes is foreign-born, slightly more than the European average, said Jan Ekberg, an economist at Linnaeus University in Vaxjo who has studied immigration across Europe.

While providing a generous welcome, Sweden has struggled to integrate them into the job market. In 2006, 57 percent of immigrants were working, compared with 80 percent of native Swedes, Ekberg said, citing official statistics.

"It's in areas where you see the weakest integration of immigrations in the labor market where the Sweden Democrats have the strongest support," he added.

Akesson wants to cut Sweden's admission of asylum-seekers and immigrants seeking reunification with their families by 90 percent. Last year, Sweden took in 45,000 people in those categories.

He is especially concerned about Islam, calling its impact on Swedish society "our biggest foreign threat since World War II." He mentions cases of public schools that have stopped serving pork and no longer celebrate the end of the school year in church.

A TV campaign advertisement by the Sweden Democrats showed an elderly Swedish woman trying to reach an emergency brake labeled "Immigration" before a mob of burqa-clad women pushing strollers could get to another brake with a sign saying "Pensions."

A Swedish private TV network refused to show the commercial, saying it was inciting hatred against Muslims.

To the Sweden Democrats, it was one of many examples of how mainstream media and the political establishment were trying to silence its views. Akesson was not invited to the final party leader debate on Swedish national broadcaster SVT even though polls suggested his party would enter Parliament.

On Monday, Reinfeldt had difficulty digesting the fact that 330,000 Swedes had voted for the Sweden Democrats, whose roots go back to an explicitly xenophobic movement in the 1980s.

They couldn't all be xenophobes, he said at a news conference, but instead may be people who have lost faith in the way integration has been handled in Sweden.

"There is every reason to try to understand and try to address those feelings," Reinfeldt said.

Daniel Poohl, the editor of anti-racism magazine Expo, suggested Sweden's self-image "as the world's most tolerant nation" was wrong.

"Racism and xenophobia constitute a serious problem for society," he said. "Combined with dissatisfaction and frustration, it has now gotten a voice in parliament."

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Associated Press writer Malin Rising contributed to this report.