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Sweden Prepares For Election With Anti-Immigrant Party Poised For Gains


Sweden took in record numbers of asylum-seekers at the height of Europe's refugee crisis. And now it's preparing for its tightest election in years. Polls suggest the anti-immigration Sweden Democrats could become the country's second-largest party when the nation votes a week from now, scrambling politics as usual there. Maddy Savage reports from central Sweden.

MADDY SAVAGE, BYLINE: It's a gray, rainy day in Orebro, a rural, politically split city about 120 miles west of the capital, Stockholm. But the weather hasn't stopped campaigners. Their stalls are packed together in the square outside the 19th century city wall.

PER SODERLUND: (Speaking in Swedish).

SAVAGE: Sweden has eight parties in its Parliament and usually ends up with a center-left or center-right coalition government. But the political landscape is set for a major upset thanks to the rise of the nationalist Sweden Democrats. Per Soderlund is the party's chairman here.

SODERLUND: Sweden has accepted a lot of asylum-seekers into our country the last three, four years and even before that, actually, compared to other countries in Europe. And this has costed a lot of money.

SAVAGE: But you think now there should be a complete stop.

SODERLUND: Yeah, for now. We say, like, in Sweden, Swedish culture should be the main culture.

SAVAGE: The Sweden Democrats only entered Parliament for the first time in 2010 after working to distance themselves from earlier links to neo-Nazi groups. These days, they're attracting an increasingly diverse support base. Here in Oreboro, Ingelin Andersson is among those considering voting for them.

INGELIN ANDERSSON: I think they have many good policies. We have had too many people who has come to Sweden. They don't respect the Swedish culture - not all, but some.

SAVAGE: What do they do that you feel isn't very Swedish?

ANDERSSON: Well, if you stay in a queue, they are walking to be first. They can say bad things to Swedish girls. They think that the Swedish girls are whores.

SAVAGE: Until recently, Ingelin's comments would have been very taboo in Sweden, a country with a reputation for tolerance. But things shifted after the center-left government took in record numbers of asylum-seekers in 2015 and then admitted that public services couldn't cope. It toughened its approach to migration. And Sweden's biggest center-right opposition party did, too. But they both ended up losing support.


ANN-CATRIN KRISTIANSSEN: (Speaking in Swedish).

SAVAGE: Dr. Ann-Catrin Kristianssen is a political scientist and commentator for Swedish radio.

KRISTIANSSEN: (Through interpreter) There's a bright picture of Sweden, and there's a dark picture of Sweden. The darker picture sort of has been the winning image of Sweden for quite a while, so this is a failure for the established parties because Sweden is a rich country and has a lot to offer for its citizens.

SAVAGE: She says it is unlikely the Sweden Democrats will end up in a government coalition because the mainstream political parties still consider them too far removed from their ideologies. But a new kind of coalition across party lines might end up being formed to keep the nationalists out of power. The last few weeks of campaigning have thrown up a few curve balls. Climate change has shot up the agenda after Sweden had its warmest summer on record. Security's been in focus, with government agencies clubbing together to try and combat fake news and foreign interference. Meanwhile, many voters, like this 27-year-old nurse, Kajsa Nasstrom, say they're still mulling their options.

KAJSA NASSTROM: The Sweden Democrats - they scare me a bit. So I'm looking around - see what the other parties are doing. It's the future I think about and my child - how it's going to be around him when he grows up.

SAVAGE: As the election gets closer, it's this kind of undecided voter that all parties will aim to reel in. Sweden's usually a calm and pretty chilly place, but it's shaping up to have its hottest political contest in decades. For NPR News, I'm Maddy Savage in Orebro. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Maddy Savage