Gangs of black-clad men torched cars with assembly-line precision in Sweden’s second city Gothenburg last month. The episode reinforced the notion that this country is struggling to control gang violence, which many Swedes blame on immigrants.
It’s a fear that could help the Sweden Democrats, a far-right group with neo-Nazi origins, become one of the largest parties after today’s elections.
Long considered toxic in this traditionally liberal nation, the Sweden Democrats have undergone a repackaging. They’ve traded jackboots for business suits, purged some of their overtly racist elements and adopted more urbane messaging.
Immigration, though, remains their overriding focus. Leader Jimmie Akesson once called Sweden’s growing Muslim population “the biggest foreign threat since World War II”.
In this campaign, he has linked immigration, crime and the decline of the Swedish welfare state.
His party is polling about 20%, up from 13% in the last elections in 2014, before Europe’s migration surge. If the election results come close to matching the polls, the Sweden Democrats have a shot at becoming the second-largest party in the country.
Some analysts believe they could even soar to the top, deposing the ruling centre-left Social Democrats from a perch they have held since 1917.
The party is unlikely to formally join a ruling coalition, as far-right forces have done in Italy and Austria, because other parties still consider the Sweden Democrats noxious enough that they don’t want to give them cabinet positions if they can avoid it.
But the support of the Sweden Democrats still could be key during frantic post-election negotiations and afterwards, as the new government tries to move legislation.
Already, the far-right has won the contest to determine the national agenda. Rivals have sought to prove that they, too, can be tough on lawbreaking and immigration. They’ve scrambled to match proposals for mass deportations, strict border controls and an end to taking in refugees from the Middle East.
After the arson in Gothenburg, Prime Minister Stefan Lofven considered sending the military into the heavily immigrant, low-income areas that were hit. Such a move would have been a major departure for the centre-left party that helped build Sweden’s social welfare system, in which many lawbreakers serve lighter prison sentences than in other countries on the theory that there are more effective ways to address criminality.
In a sense, Sweden has embraced the same anti-immigrant attitude that has washed across Europe and the US. President Donald Trump has also blamed immigrants for crime and once held up Sweden as an example of what to avoid, though the attack he cited never happened. Yet the shift in sentiment is especially notable in Sweden, because it has been one of the world’s most giving countries to those in need going back to World War II.
At the beginning of Europe’s migration crisis in 2015, Sweden’s arms were wide open. By the end of that year, Sweden had taken in 163000 asylum seekers, more than any other European country in comparison to its size. Swedes began to worry that they and Germany were poised to bear Europe’s refugee burden largely alone. Leaders imposed temporary border controls, which they’ve continued to renew.
The official keepers of Sweden’s crime statistics dispute a clear causal link between the 2015 migration wave and crime. Stina Holmberg, a researcher at the Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention, said although the number of Swedes who say they faced sexual offences in the previous year has gone up, that could be related to the #MeToo discussion and broadening definitions of what may be considered an offence.
But mainstream Swedish parties have found it hard to compete with perceptions.
“If you are afraid to go home from the subway, you don’t want a politician saying, ‘Hey, but this is much safer than it was 150 years ago,’” said Anders Ygeman, the parliamentary leader of the ruling Social Democrats.
Residents of heavily immigrant areas push back and say the discussion about crime and migration are a thinly veiled way to bring racist ideas into the mainstream.