Swedes will cast their votes this weekend in what is expected to be one of the most important general elections in the country’s recent history. Polls predict a narrow win for the ruling Social Democrat-Green coalition, but all eyes are on the populist, anti-immigration Sweden Democrats, which has been gaining ground.
Five days ahead of the election, opinions polls showed Sweden’s governing center-left bloc, which has ruled the country for the past four years, has a small but stable lead over the center-right Alliance.
The Social Democrats -- with their junior coalition partner the Greens and the Left Party -- were polling about 4 percent ahead of the center-right opposition bloc.
If he wins a majority on September 9, Prime Minister Stefan Lofven is expected to try to persuade members of the opposition parties to form a new government.
But it is the striking performance of another party that is being most closely watched. The Sweden Democrats, an anti-immigrant party with roots in neo-Nazi groups, is polling at 16-18 percent. Other surveys put the party’s support at nearly 20 percent.
Sunday’s election will be the first since 2015, when Sweden took in 163,000 migrants and refugees – more per head of population than any other European nation. In some Swedish towns, asylum seekers now make up about a quarter of residents.
The Sweden Democrats’ (SD) popularity has climbed steadily since it entered Parliament in 2010 with 5.7 percent of the vote. At the next election in 2014, it won 13 percent, becoming the third-largest party.
Many believe the growing support for the SD reflects disillusionment with the governing coalition, in particular, its earlier open-door policies towards migrants. Welfare is also an important factor, despite the fact that Sweden is one of the EU's richest countries with strong economic growth and low unemployment.
"This election is a referendum on welfare or whether we have continued asylum immigration. I choose welfare," Sweden Democrat leader, Jimmie Akesson, said in a televised election debate.
The party has also campaigned strongly on what it claims is a link between immigration and gang violence in poor districts. Akesson has been outspoken against Islam, saying in 2009 that Muslims are “our greatest foreign threat since the Second World War.”
Voices in Sweden
Morhaf Dawedry, a Syrian journalist based in Sweden, told InfoMigrants that many members and supporters of the Sweden Democrats are themselves immigrants. He claims that 60 percent of the party have an Eastern European background. The party's platform is to “intimidate” people with the “threat” of refugees, he said.
Residents of the town of Ljusnarsberg told Reuters they resented what they saw as preferential treatment of asylum seekers.
"They get a better deal, all of them, at the dentist, with the doctor, they are first in the queue always," 65-year-old SD-voter Torbjorn Lundgren said.
Asylum seekers receive welfare payments, subsidized housing and additional money for food and other essentials, including healthcare, Reuters reports.
Fake supporters claim
Support for the Sweden Democrats has been amplified on social media. Automated Twitter accounts – bots – have been found to be 40 percent more likely to support the Sweden Democrats than genuine accounts, according to the Swedish Defense Research Agency.
Swedish officials have also alleged Russian interference in the election campaign, saying Russia is trying to create divisions by highlighting the problems of immigration and crime, Reuters reports.
Sweden, land of migration
Prior to the arrival of 125,000 refugees from the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, the issue of migration was of little concern to the Swedes.
Since the 1970s, the country has accepted refugees from Vietnam, South America and the Middle East.
In the 1980s, it welcomed Iranians, Lebanese, Poles and Kurds. And between 2012 and 2017, the Swedish Migration Agency registered around 400,000 asylum requests, nearly a third of which were from Syrians.
Last year, about 18 percent of Sweden’s 10 million people were born outside the country.