STOCKHOLM, Sweden (AP) — Sweden is holding an election Sunday that is expected to boost a populist anti-immigration party that is vowing to crack down on gang violence that has shaken many people’s sense of security.
The Sweden Democrats won seats in parliament for the first time in 2010 and have steadily gained more votes in parliament with each election. The party’s fortunes have risen following massive migration in recent years, particularly in Europe’s crisis year of 2015, and as crime has grown in segregated neighborhoods.
The populist party was founded by far-right extremists decades ago, but in recent years has worked hard to change its image. For many years, voters viewed it as unacceptable and other parties shunned it. That is changing.
Polls ahead of the vote projected that the Sweden Democrats, which won 13% in 2018, would take about 20% of the vote this time and become the second-largest party in the parliament. That would put it only behind the center-left Social Democrats of Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson.
Andersson, the 55-year-old leader, enjoys high approval ratings. She became Sweden’s first female prime minister less than a year ago and was at the helm as Sweden made its historic bid to join NATO following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Zeth Isaksson, a sociologist specializing in electoral behavior at Stockholm University, said her image has benefited from her experience in government, first as finance minister, through crises including the COVID-19 pandemic and, as prime minister, in the negotiations to join NATO.
“Magdalena Andersson is one of the most important factors in this election,” Isaksson told The Associated Press.
But many voters have also tired of her party, which has been in power for eight years, blaming it for high taxes and for failing to stem the shootings that have made Sweden one of Europe’s most violent countries.
“She has had eight years to do everything that she’s now saying she’s going to do,” said Bosse Adolfsson, a 70-year-old partly retired electrician who joined a rally of the Sweden Democrats Saturday evening. “She is asking for four more years to not do anything.”
There are two major blocs: one with four parties on the left and another with four on the right. The polls leading up to the election showed the blocs running neck and neck.
Even if Andersson’s wins the most votes of any other party, if the left-wing bloc does poorly, she might not be able to form a government with a majority in the parliament. In that case, it would go to the party in the No . 2 spot to get its chance to form a government.
On the eve of the vote, Andersson campaigned in an immigrant diverse suburb of Stockholm, Rinkeby, speaking to a crowd after a warmup act by a Swedish hip hop artist with Somali roots.
Andersson said she was concerned about the rising popularity of the Sweden Democrats, characterizing it as a “far-right” party whose rhetoric and beliefs could affect how welcome people could feel in society.
“It could be a different Sweden that we could have in four years,” she said.
The Sweden Democrats wrapped up their election campaign Saturday with a loud, rock music-filled event, just meters from the country’s parliament building in central Stockholm. Jimmie Akesson, the 43-year-old leader who has helped revamp the party’s image, addressed his supporters from a state decorated with the party’s daisy symbol along the city waterfront.
The party has clearly tapped into the social mood, and other parties have been moving closer to its positions, as many Swedes believe that they can no longer bear the costs of the country’s generous refugee policies of the past. Rising crime under eight years of left -wing rule are also convincing some to give it a chance.
Tobias Andersson, a 26-year-old member of parliament for the Sweden Democrats seeking a second term, said his party is being unfairly characterized as racist by opponents because it serves their interests.
“I wasn’t even born when my party was founded, I don’t really care who founded it. I look at the values and policies that we support today,” he told the AP at the party really.
He said that other parties who have accused the Sweden Democrats as racist are now “pushing forward the same policies themselves.”