For Monica and Bengt Borg, a retired Swedish couple, Flen doesn’t feel like Sweden anymore. As they sit on a bench on the town’s main street, an Iraqi man nearby watches a Kurdish television program on his phone. Arabic pop music pulses from a girl’s phone. A constant flow of Somalis, Ethiopians and Syrians pass by, the women in headscarves.
“We don’t recognize our country as it is today,” said Bengt Borg, 66. His wife, 64, says she no longer feels safe walking alone at night due to reports of rapes by immigrants. Both plan to join a growing number of Swedes voting for a nationalist and anti-immigrant party, the Sweden Democrats, in Sunday’s general election.
The vote will be the first since the nation of 10 million accepted 163,000 migrants in 2015 — the largest number relative to the total population of any European state during the massive migrant influx into Europe that year. In the town of Flen, with just 6,000 residents, asylum-seekers now make up about a fourth of the population.
On a broader scale, Sunday’s balloting is also set to be the latest test for populist far-right forces as much of Europe shifts to the right amid a backlash to immigration. Far-right parties have made gains in several countries that shouldered a large share of the migrant burden, including Germany, Italy and Austria.
The Sweden Democrats have their roots in a neo-Nazi movement. Despite working for years to soften their image, many are not convinced, fearing the party’s rise could erode the country’s longstanding democratic and liberal traditions and identity as a “humanitarian superpower.”
Others, however, worry that the egalitarian ethos of Sweden — the first country to make gender equality a foreign policy priority — is threatened by the large number of Muslim newcomers.
Support for the once-fringe party has swollen to around 20 percent — up from the 13 percent it won in 2014. Part of that success reflects disillusionment with the governing coalition between the Social Democrats and the Green Party, which has run the country for the past four years. The coalition’s earlier open-door policies toward migrants are now widely denounced.
While 20 percent would not be enough for the Sweden Democrats to lead a government, a strong show of support will give the party greater power to pressure the next government and could deprive the Social Democrats or the center-right Moderates, the country’s other major party, of a clear mandate.