As Sweden Votes, the Far Right Gains Even in an Immigrant Bastion

As Sweden Votes, the Far Right Gains Even in an Immigrant Bastion


FLEN, Sweden — The entrance to the small mosque is blocked by a gate. A window is badly cracked around a hole from a rock or a BB gun. A sliding metal security door has been painted with a swastika, only partly removed.

But Yusuf Abdi, a member of the mosque, whose building was once an evangelical church, says in a room upstairs that he is not overly concerned. “Sweden is a democratic country, and there are rules and laws,” he said. Hussein Omar, of Somali origin, agreed. “We are part of the society, with the same rights and duties.”

That may be so, but the Sweden of old is changing, and immigration and crime have become the hottest issues in Sweden’s national elections on Sunday, when those rules and rights will be put to the test.

The wave of asylum seekers that landed in Europe in 2015 hit Germany and Sweden the hardest. Sweden took in about 163,000 of them — roughly 1.6 percent of the population — approximately the equivalent of 5.2 million people in the United States.

Since then attitudes have shifted, and Sweden is less welcoming than it once was. That has become true even in a place like Flen, a small town of roughly 7,000 people, two hours southwest of Stockholm, where the voices of residents reflect the anxiety of that change.

Sweden set up one of its first encampments for refugees in Flen in the 1970s, for people fleeing Vietnam. Today the town, once an important railway hub and the heart of a larger municipal region of about 17,000 people, retains a high proportion of immigrants, though many are now from Somalia and Syria.

But the far-right Sweden Democrats — outspokenly anti-immigrant and anti-European — have gone from one seat on the municipal council in 2006 to nine in 2014, the second-largest party, out of 45 total seats. There is an expectation the party will do even better on Sunday.

Even tiny Flen, with its long history of welcoming immigrants, is following the trend in much of the country, where the far right is expected to gain a fifth of the vote.

Kicki Johansson, 68, is a lot less sanguine about the consequences of the vote than her immigrant neighbors are.

“There are too many brownshirts now,” she said at a cafe in Flen’s dreary central square, surrounded by shops selling cheap goods. “What scares me? The Nazis.”

Many Swedes “are not happy with the way things are,” she said. “They’re not all racist but they want a change. A lot of immigrants vote for the Sweden Democrats, too — they also want to shut the door,” she said with some disgust. “It’s ignorance.”

Gote Nilsson is the leader of the Sweden Democrats in Flen. “It feels we have positive winds blowing for us,” he said. “We are being received in a different way, people are more positive toward the S.D., and that’s quite nice. Despite smear campaigns, half-truths and lies in the media, many people see through them.”

Now 73, Mr. Nilsson used to vote for the center-right Moderates, but he joined the Sweden Democrats five years ago, fed up with crime and reduced aid to retirees. “I think there are a lot of people in Flen who don’t recognize themselves, who perceive that there are too many people from non-European countries that come here,” he said. “It’s too much, quite simply. You push away ordinary people, it’s hard to get housing and people are living in tight quarters.”

The other main issue here is “order and security,” Mr. Nilsson said. “Many don’t feel as safe as before. We need more police on the streets. Law and order, quite simply law and order.”

People have “a lot of worry about the future, and luckily I’m old, so I don’t have to see it.”

Gunnar Sunnarberg says he’s “a leftie in my heart,” but at 80, he is troubled by what he sees. “Many people don’t want to integrate, they want to build their own caliphates,” he said. “To talk about immigrants is not allowed,” he added. “We’re not allowed to describe the situation as it is, with a lot of break-ins, drugs and shootings.”

As elsewhere in Europe, the populist far-right party has moved Sweden’s entire political spectrum to the right along with it, even as it has tried to soften its image and promote a defense of Sweden’s welfare state.

The center-left Social Democrats are still the country’s largest party. But since the 1990s, their share of the vote has been cut roughly in half and may end up at about 25 percent on Sunday. The Moderate party is also losing ground.

The far-right Sweden Democrats could end up being the country’s second-largest party, complicating the formation of a new government.

All of that is unsettling for many in Flen, which along with its heavily immigrant population, also has the county’s highest unemployment rate. Among those born abroad, unemployment is over 40 percent; among those born in Sweden, 6 percent. Nationally, the figures are 15.1 percent and 4.4 percent.

Two weeks ago, representatives of the major political parties accepted an invitation to come to the mosque and answer questions. All came except the Sweden Democrats and the small Feminist Initiative party, Mr. Abdi said.

“I asked them all — every time you come and want our votes and say nice things, but when the elections are over, nothing happens,” he said, sighing. “Of course they said that this time they will follow through.”

Immigrants feel targeted by the Sweden Democrat surge, said Mr. Omar, 45, a father of three and an X-ray technician at a hospital.

“But if the Sweden Democrats become the largest party,” he said carefully, “it affects all of Swedish society, not just us.”

Mr. Omar said that if the head of the Sweden Democrats, the smooth-talking Jimmie Akesson, “does something stupid, it will not just be the Somalis who suffer, but the whole country.”

Anders Jansson, 64, who works at a Volvo maintenance plant in Flen, said he would vote for the Left party, which is on track to get 10 percent or more of the vote. He likes its focus on equality and its commitment to workers.

He denounced what he called “the normalization” of the Sweden Democrats.

“That gives a playground for the real Nazi parties to play and get more ground,” he said. “It’s like people have forgotten history. How did Hitler come to power? He started out as a nice guy looking out for the working class.”

Of course Flen and Sweden have had difficulty absorbing so many refugees, he said, especially with tough requirements about language ability and job skills in order to enter the labor market.

“There are some problems when you take a lot of refugees to the same area,” Mr. Jansson said. “We don’t have a lot of violence here. But if you have a low salary and you see other people who appear not to be working, that makes you jealous. You want to blame someone else.”

There are a lot of Sweden Democrat voters in the plant where he works who complain about the laziness of refugees, he said. But many of the asylum seekers are waiting for a Swedish class or a job, he added.

The atmosphere is bad, with a new selfishness, he said. “We are going from a society where we took care of each other to a society where all we care about is a new kitchen, a new car and vacations in Thailand.”

His view was echoed by Erik Zsiga, a communications consultant close to the Moderate party. “The mood has become quite un-Swedish,” he said. “What we credited ourselves for and also made fun of ourselves for was our obsession with consensus, trying to avoid conflict.”

To that end, certain delicate topics were taboo, but no longer, he said. “Now the political debate is quite heated, people are rude to one another, not seeking consensus or trying to understand their opponent.”

By opening the borders so completely, he said, “we misunderstood the practical implications, that it wasn’t sustainable in the long term or even moral, because we ended up essentially closing our borders, which is worse.”

Near the Flen library, Alma al-Aallaf was walking with her younger cousin, both wearing headscarves. Three years ago, she came here as a refugee from Damascus, Syria, to join her aunts and pave the way for her parents and three siblings.

Now 18, she will vote for the first time and is taking her responsibility seriously, especially with the Sweden Democrats on the rise.

She feels visible but not unsafe, she said. “Sometimes I feel that some people don’t like me here,” she said. “But I don’t think they will do anything.”

“I’m worried, of course, because the Sweden Democrats are getting bigger and bigger,” she said in the English she learned from her mother, who was a teacher in Damascus.

“Sweden is a good country, but they could ruin it,” she continued. “They are damaging the things that are good in Sweden.”

Christina Anderson contributed reporting.

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page A7 of the New York edition with the headline: As Sweden Votes, the Far Right Gains Even in an Immigrant Bastion. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe



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