Sweden went to the polls Sunday in a general election that is expected to be one of the most unpredictable and thrilling races in the Scandinavian country for decades amid heated debate on immigration.
The election will be Sweden’s first since the government in 2015 allowed 163,000 migrants into the country of 10 million. While far less than what Germany took in that year, it was the most per capita of any European nation.
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“This election is a referendum about our welfare,” Prime Minister Stefan Lofven said. “It’s also about decency, about a decent democracy … and not letting the Sweden Democrats, an extremist party, a racist party, get any influence in the government.”
About 7.5 million registered voters choose from almost 6,300 candidates for a four-year term in the 349-seat Riksdag, or parliament. It’s highly unlikely that any single party will get a majority, or 175 seats.
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The latest opinion poll conducted by pollster Novus for public broadcaster SVT suggested Friday that Lofven’s ruling Social Democrats would substantially lose seats, but still emerge as the party with the most votes with an estimated 24.9 percent of the ballots.
If realized, it would be a historical low for the traditional left-wing party, which has dominated Swedish politics in the post-World War II era.
The poll showed that the far-right, anti-immigration Sweden Democrats — led by Jimmie Akesson — would get 19.1 percent of the votes in what would be a major increase compared to the 13-percent support received in 2014.
The center-right Moderate Party is set to take to take third place with 17.7 percent.
With a steady rise in popularity of the Sweden Democrats, immigration has become the hot topic of the election.
The party, rooted in a neo-Nazi movement has worked to soften its image, has played a role in breaking down longstanding taboos on what Swedes could say openly about immigration and integration without being shunned as racists.
During a heated debate Friday evening of party leaders, Akesson caused a stir by blaming migrants for the difficulties they often have in finding employment and not adjusting to Sweden.
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The broadcaster that aired the televised debate, SVT, afterward called his remarks degrading and against the democratic mandate of public broadcasting.
Akesson responded that state television shouldn’t take sides, and later announced that he wouldn’t take part in any of SVT’s election programs Sunday.
At the party’s rally on Saturday, he strongly criticized Lofven’s government for “prioritizing” the cause of asylum-seekers.
“This government we have had now . they have prioritised, during these four years, asylum-seekers,” Akesson said, giving an exhaustive list of things he says the government has failed to do for Swedish society because of migrants.
“Sweden needs breathing space, we need tight responsible immigration policies.”
Akesson’s strong rhetoric has shocked many Swedes since the country has a long tradition of helping those in need.
“Terrible! I just wanna cry when I think about it,” said Veronica Lundqvist, referring to the Sweden Democrats after she left a voting booth in central Stockholm.
“They say awful things. I mean of course we have a lot of refugees here, but we need to take care of them. They come from a terrible place, terrible wars. We can’t just throw them out.”
But others say the Sweden Democrats are trying to fix a historical problem.
“It’s an integration issue,” Karl Ljung said at the same voting station. “It’s not just about what happened two years ago when we had a lot of refugees. It’s more that we have had an integration issue for maybe 20 years. So we really have to solve it now.”
Mohamed Nuur, a 26-year-old Social Democratic candidate of Somali descent, told The Associated Press that he sees Akesson taking Sweden back to the past.
“For me, the Sweden that he (Jimmie Akesson) wants to see … that is not our future,” Nuur said. “That is to go back in history. For me, when he is saying that immigrants are not welcome to Sweden …he is trying to spread hate between the people. Actually, it’s the immigrants who built up this country.
Sabina Macri, voting in central Stockholm, said the current political situation has left her questioning her future in Sweden.
“We used to be very safe. We used to be a very calm nation,” she said. “And today I feel a bit insecure about the future, especially for my children.”