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September 19, 2018

Jimmie Akesson, the architect of Sweden's rising far right

Jimmie Akesson, the architect of Sweden's rising far right
'Akesson has seen his political star rise after the arrival of more than 160,000 asylum seekers in 2015' - By: TT NEWS AGENCY/AFP/File Mats ANDERSSON

Jimmie Akesson, the leader 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.

His party is tipped to take around 20 percent of the vote in Sunday's election, according to an average of seven opinion polls in the last two weeks, which would make it the second or third biggest party in the country.

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.

Akesson has headed SD since 2005, guiding what was initially a fringe party into parliament for the first time in 2010 with 5.7 percent of the vote, before climbing to 13 percent 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.

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

His supporters also relate to what they see as down-to-earth qualities: he's 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," Karin Svanborg-Sjovall, head of the free-market think tank Timbro, told AFP.

- 'Wolf in sheep's clothing' -

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

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

Akesson has tried to sweep away the traces of the SD's origins in the fascist movement "Bevara Sverige Svenskt" ("Keep Sweden Swedish") and purge the party of outspoken racists.

"He's a talented communicator. He's been able to paint a picture that his party represents an alternative, something entirely different from the other established parties," said Kajsa Falasca, an assistant professor of communications at Mid Sweden University.

However a number of SD officials have made headlines for racist remarks in recent years and more than a dozen candidates were kicked out of the party in the campaign's final week after their backgrounds in neo-Nazi movements were uncovered by the media.

- Young nationalist -

Born in southern Sweden to a mother who worked in a nursing home and a father who owned a floor-laying business, Akesson's parents divorced when he was young 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".

His political activism began in his teens, and he went on to study political science, law and philosophy at Lund University but dropped out before earning a degree.

Akesson is seen as a tireless worker and campaigner, pushing himself so hard in the 2014 election that he suffered a burnout. Doctors put him on sick leave for six months.

The same year, he admitted to spending 500,000 kronor (47,000 euros, $55,000) on online gambling, along with his partner Louise Erixon.

It wasn't the first time the private life of Akesson and Erixon, who have a four-year-old son, had made the headlines.

In 2014, Erixon's mother, an SD member of parliament, quit the party over her opposition to efforts to make the party more politically correct. Akesson, who was on sick leave at the time, later called her behaviour "shameful".

However Akesson has called Muslims "our greatest foreign threat since the Second World War" and said that immigrants must fully assimilate into Swedish society to be considered Swedish.

He wants Sweden to leave the European Union and scrap Swedes' right to dual nationality.

And he caused an uproar during a televised debate on Friday when he said foreigners had more difficulty finding jobs "because they're not Swedes".

"They don't fit in in Sweden and of course then it's hard to find a job."

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