By VANESSA GERA
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 shootings and other gang violence that have 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 projected that the Sweden Democrats, which won 13% in 2018, would take about 20% this time to 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.
At rallies, her supporters worse T-shirts and pins with her image modeled after the stylized “Hope” poster of former President Barack Obama.
Hope is precisely what many critics say they no longer have in her party after its eight years in power. They blame the left 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.
If the left-wing bloc does poorly, Andersson might not be able to form a government with a majority in parliament. In that case, it would go to the party in the No. 2 spot to get its chance to form a government. Traditionally, that would be the center-right Moderates, but they now risk being outvoted by the populists.
On the eve of the vote, Andersson campaigned in an immigrant 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 to foreign reporters 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 have clearly tapped into the anxieties of many, and other parties have been moving closer to its positions. Many Swedes believe that they can no longer bear the costs of the country’s generous refugee policies of the past.
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.
During the campaign he tweeted a widely shared photo of a Stockholm metro train which the party paid to have covered in its logo, a daisy, with the words: “Welcome to the return train. You hold a one-way ticket. Next stop, Kabul!”
He said that other parties who have accused the Sweden Democrats as racist are now “pushing forward the same policies themselves.”
Most Swedes, still, oppose them, and some were voting tactically against all conservative parties just to prevent that side from getting a chance to form the government.
Voting in Stockholm, Bjarne Frykholm, a 65-year-old computer specialist wouldn’t say who he voted for other than to make clear he was put of by the Sweden Democrats.
“I don’t want them to get any power at all,” he said. “I think they frighten me a lot.”
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