Charismatic party head wins voters with cool head, grassroots charm

Sweden Democrats leader Jimmie Akesson has won over mainstream voters with his efforts to cleanse the party of its neo-Nazi roots.
Sweden Democrats leader Jimmie Akesson has won over mainstream voters with his efforts to cleanse the party of its neo-Nazi roots.PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

STOCKHOLM • Mr Jimmie Akesson, the leader of the far-right Sweden Democrats (SD), is a charismatic speaker who has succeeded in attracting mainstream voters with his efforts to cleanse the party of its neo-Nazi roots.

His party picked up 17.6 per cent of the national vote in Sunday's election, taking 62 parliamentary seats in the process.

The anti-immigration populist, whose political star has risen since the arrival of more than 160,000 asylum seekers in 2015, has become a key adversary of Prime Minister Stefan Lofven.

Mr Akesson has headed SD since 2005, guiding what was initially a fringe party into Parliament for the first time in 2010 with 5.7 per cent of the vote, before climbing to 12.9 per cent in 2014.

The 39-year-old with slicked-back hair and an easy-going manner has proved popular with many in a country where politicians tend to come from grassroots movements rather than elite circles.

Born in southern Sweden to a mother who worked in a nursing home and a father who owned a floor-laying business, Mr Akesson was young when his parents divorced and he was raised by his mother.

The politician says he developed his nationalist streak at an early age.

In a 2014 television interview, he recalled an incident from his early childhood that made him "sceptical about immigration": Some refugee children pushed him off his bicycle and called him a "bloody Swede".

Often casually dressed, cool-headed in debates and talented at deflecting criticism, Mr Akesson is seen as a straight talker, unafraid to tell interviewers "I don't know" when he cannot answer their questions.

His supporters also relate to what they see as down-to-earth qualities: He is a fan of crime novels, has admitted to an online gambling problem and his favourite pizza is topped with gyro meat, bacon, jalapenos, hot sauce and french fries.

"He's perceived as an ordinary person by some who may see other politicians as actors with roles to play," Ms Karin Svanborg-Sjovall, head of the free-market think-tank Timbro, told the Agence France-Presse.

But Ms Lisa Pelling, chief analyst at progressive think-tank Arena Ide, vehemently disagrees.

To her, the populist politician is just "a wolf in sheep's clothing", strategic about how he presents himself and the party.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 11, 2018, with the headline 'Charismatic party head wins voters with cool head, grassroots charm'. Print Edition | Subscribe