ÖREBRO, Sweden (AFP) — Jimmie Akesson, the head of the far-right Sweden Democrats, is a charismatic speaker who has succeeded in attracting mainstream voters with his efforts to cleanse the party of its neo-Nazi roots.
With his Sweden Democrats tipped to get around 20 percent of the vote in the September 9 election, a record high for the party, Akesson has become a key adversary of Prime Minister Stefan Lofven.
The anti-immigration populist has seen his political star rise after the arrival of more than 160,000 asylum seekers in 2015.
Despite his relative youth, the 39-year-old will be standing in his fourth legislative elections in 12 years at the helm of SD, which has steadily climbed in popularity to become one of Sweden’s biggest parties.
When Akesson was elected party leader in 2005, few observers anticipated he would be able to transform the small party’s fortunes, sweeping away the traces of SD’s origins in the fascist movement “Bevara Sverige Svenskt” (“Keep Sweden Swedish”) and distancing it from violent racist groups active in the 1990s.
Formed in 1988, SD entered parliament for the first time in 2010, garnering 5.7% of votes.
“He started with very little… people didn’t know what the (Sweden Democrats) were,” party supporter Christer Bostrom, who used to vote for the left wing, told AFP at one of Akesson’s election rallies in the central town of Orebro.
By the time the September 2014 election rolled around, the Sweden Democrats had soared to become the third largest party, grabbing 13% of votes.
But the endless days of campaigning had taken their toll on Akesson. He suffered a burnout and went on sick leave for six months.
‘Always been a nationalist’
Born in 1979 in the southern town of Solvesborg, Akesson’s mother was a care provider and his father a businessman.
He studied political science, law and philosophy at Lund University, dropping out before earning a degree.
His political activism began in his teens when he joined the youth wing of the conservative Moderates. But he was rapidly disillusioned by their economic liberalism and support for Swedish EU membership in 1995.
It’s unclear whether he joined SD in 1994 or 1995.
Akesson claims he joined after March 1995, when the party’s then-leader Anders Klarstrom, a former member of the neo-Nazi group Nordiska Rikspartiet, was forced out along with several other officials with neo-Nazi pasts.
But old documents written by Akesson and uncovered by the media suggest he joined before that.
“I’ve always been a nationalist… When I was little, I refused to play table hockey if I couldn’t have the blue and yellow players,” Akesson wrote in a 1999 publication by the Sweden Democrats’ youth wing.
A former web designer, Akesson has worked hard to change Swedes’ perception of the far-right.
“At the beginning, it was a racist party, but (Akesson) managed to change that,” said 50-year-old Bostrom, wearing a T-shirt with the party’s symbol of a blue and yellow flower, Sweden’s national colors.
In October 2012, Akesson introduced “zero tolerance,” vowing to purge the party of racism and extremism.
Others would however argue that Akesson has merely changed the party’s official rhetoric.
A number of SD officials have in recent years made headlines for racist remarks and hate speech.
And in the final week of campaigning, more than a dozen SD candidates were kicked out of the party after media revealed their backgrounds in neo-Nazi movements — though they said they had informed the party of their pasts.
Akesson insists that “those who are not democrats cannot be Sweden Democrats.”
Nazism is “an anti-democratic ideology, socialist, racist, imperialist, internationalist and violent.”
The politician has focused his campaign on the party’s central themes, namely its strong stance against immigration, gang violence in disadvantaged suburbs, and the link between the two, which has been exacerbated since the wave of asylum seekers in 2015.
Akesson has also been particularly outspoken against Islam and wrote in a 2009 editorial for the daily Aftonbladet that Muslims are “our greatest foreign threat since the Second World War.”