Solvesborg, Sweden (CNN)Nestled along the south coast, Solvesborg is the picture-perfect postcard version of small-town Sweden.
But while this seaside town, with a population of just 9,000, may seem idyllic, it is also a stronghold of the Sweden Democrats — the far-right, anti-immigrant party that has rocked the country’s politics and national identity — and the hometown of its 39-year-old leader Jimmie Akesson.
On Sunday, when Swedes vote in the national election, the Sweden Democrats may become the second-biggest party, a move that would see the party grow closer in popularity to the center-left Social Democrats — the architects of the welfare state and who have come in first in every national election since 1917.
In this respect, Sweden is not unusual. From Italy to Poland and Germany, many countries have seen political gains by the far right, while extremists in the US and UK have become more vocal.
But the significance of the far-right party potentially joining a coalition government in one of Europe’s most liberal and welcoming nations, and the potential for contagion in the rest of the European Union, has sparked alarm. French President Emmanuel Macron this week criticized Akesson’s views as “incompatible” with Swedish values.
Fears about migration
Like many other nations that have seen a rise of the far right, Sweden’s political earthquake has been sparked by the issue of immigration.
Traditionally one of the most welcoming countries to refugees, Sweden took in 162,450 asylum seekers in 2015 — the second-largest number of migrants per capita of any EU country.
Many Swedes were initially welcoming. But others feared the welfare system, and Swedish values, would collapse under the weight of so many immigrants.
“In 2015, it was chaos here. And it’s still chaos,” said Rolf Hans Berg, an 83-year-old Sweden Democrat supporter who lives in Solvesborg. “Today we give homes to those [refugees] coming here. Of course, that frustrates Swedes. It’s a big problem. It’s them against us, more or less.”
Since the refugee crisis, the number of asylum claims has fallen precipitously. Still, many of those opposed to migration have turned to the Sweden Democrats, lured by its anti-immigrant, nativist stances.
Organized crime in Swedish cities, the 2017 terror attack in Stockholm and recent car burnings have added to the climate of fear.
“We had this terror attack in Stockholm last year and then a lot of people started talking because [the suspect’s] asylum claim had been rejected,” said Matilda Karnerup, a 23-year-old student from Solvesborg, adding that while she is undecided about whom to vote for, she sympathizes with the Sweden Democrats.
Despite overall crime staying relatively stable since 2008 (measured by the total amount of reported offenses per capita) social media has amplified — and at times distorted — this narrative of a crime-ridden Sweden. Research carried out by Oxford University’s Internet Institute found one in three news articles shared on Twitter ahead of this weekend’s election was “junk news,” which it defined as “misleading, deceptive or incorrect information.”
With low levels of inequality, unemployment and crime, as well as a booming economy, Sweden is, by many measures, doing well compared to many other European countries.
Integration has long been a talking point among all parties, but the debate has become noisier in recent years with the influx of refugees.
Many voters see the extreme racial stratification of city areas — such as the outlying areas of Gothenburg and Stockholm — as problematic. But Anders Hellstrom, a senior lecturer in political science and expert on the Sweden Democrats at Malmo University, says this is more about segregation than integration, issues that stand in opposition to each other.
Refugees in Sweden are worse off in the short term compared to other OECD countries, said Pieter Bevelander, a professor of international migration and ethnic relations at the Malmo University. Overall though, Sweden’s integration policies have been successful, according to the Migrant Integration Policy Index. About 70% of non-EU refugees have employment after 10 years, Bevelander added, and thanks to a booming economy he expects this to continue unchanged.
In Solvesborg, this discrepancy between truth and perception is apparent too, and reflected in the hotly contested versions of Akesson’s early years in the town.
Among his supporters, Akesson is well regarded for seeming like a normal guy and standing by his hardline stance on immigration through the years, however controversial his ideas may once have been. That more of Sweden’s political parties are adopting harder stances on migration only reinforces his support. Those who have debated him also recognize his rhetorical shrewdness.
Yet, Akesson’s murky past, the strong presence of neo-Nazism in the earlier iteration of the Sweden Democrats, and his contact with neo-Nazis and skinheads when he first joined the party continue to dog the candidate.
On various occasions, Akesson has been confronted in the media, including the Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet, by Solvesborg citizens who grew up with him and recall his association with neo-Nazi elements.
In different interviews Akesson has claimed that when he was growing up in the 80s in Solvesborg he was harassed by gangs of migrant kids, who threatened him with various weapons and spat at him calling him a, “F***ing Swede.”
Yet, various individuals CNN spoke to, who are from Solvesborg and knew Akesson, doubt the truth of those claims.
Per Nilsson, an august prize-winning author and a former teacher at one of the schools Akesson attended in Solvesborg during those years, is one such person.
“When he started school, there were no immigrants in this town. Everyone knew what he said wasn’t true,” Nilsson told CNN.
Akesson declined a request to be interviewed by CNN before the election. However, in past interviews he has consistently defended his version of the truth, claiming that he “subjectively experienced it like that.”
These experiences, he says, minted his political views as an adult, views that he would carry with him as he shaped the current version of the Sweden Democrats.
All issues point to immigration
Immigration is only one of the big issues in the election for many voters. Healthcare and the environment — sparked by a recent spate of fires that swept across the country — also weigh heavily.
Many Sweden Democrat supporters, especially from rural areas, feel they have been ignored by Stockholm’s political elite, which has contributed to the debate on inequality, according to Hellstrom.
And while the Sweden Democrats are not a single-issue party, he said, “they embark from a nativist anti-immigrant platform,” relating all these issues back to immigration.
By tying all these issues into a coherent narrative that relates directly to immigration, Akesson and the Sweden Democrats have changed the debate, forcing a shift among all parties to the right.
“What is acceptable to say in a news column or what a politician can say has become more extreme. The normal state of affairs has become more extreme,” said Hellstrom.
The Sweden Democrats have proposed various measures around migration and integration. To better assimilate migrants to Swedish culture, the Sweden Democrats propose to curtail the ability of certain ethnicities to practice their culture.
The Sweden Democrats also intend to give migrants coupons instead of money to purchase basic goods, and they aim to put a stop to the provision of free healthcare for undocumented immigrants.
Is Sweden a success story or modern dystopia?
Regardless of Sweden’s affluence, the Sweden Democrats see Sweden heading down the road to “dystopia,” according to Hellstrom, which has many people begging the question: Why?
“People have been affected by immigration policies. And the immigration policies affect so many more fields,” said Louise Erixon, leader of the Sweden Democrats in Solvesborg and Akesson’s fiance.
“We have the feeling of insecurity across the country creeping into even the small places like Solvesborg, for example, which has always been a peaceful place where people have been able to feel safe.”
Ali Kader is the owner of Solvesborg’s pizzeria. As an Iraqi-Kurd, Kader came to Sweden when he was eight as a refugee, fleeing the Iran-Iraq war. Kader grew up in Gnosjo — a factory town in Smaland, Sweden — along with refugees from the Balkan wars. He says the political climate around refugees during his time in Gnosjo is similar to today’s debate.
“When immigrants come, some people will always shout that ‘we don’t need this, it is bad for Sweden.’ It was the same thing when the war in Yugoslavia was going on,” Kader said.
“We had a lot of Bosnian and Albanians coming and it was the same discussion. But people seem to forget. The people that came from Balkans all have jobs, they are integrated.”
Others are less sure why the far-right is surging in the polls. “I wonder that myself,” said Helene Bjorklund, the mayor of Solvesborg and a Social Democrat, speculating that because Sweden has so few problems, migration has received most attention.
A new version of Sweden
In Solvesborg, the disdain towards and distrust of Stockholm’s political elite has only fueled the popularity of the Sweden Democrats, which on Sunday may win control of the regional government — if not a national majority — giving the party enough power to steer the political agenda there.
Kader, like many others in Sweden, fears the prospect of the far-right party winning both locally and nationally, and potentially winning influence in a coalition government,
“For me Sweden has been an open country. Sweden doesn’t make a difference between people, their religion, ethnicity, where they come from and so on,” said Kader.
“I am really worried. I think the Sweden Democrats are very bad for democracy in Sweden. We will soon be like Hungary and Poland.”
With Macron on one side and on the other, Italy’s far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, who weighed in to wish Akesson “best wishes,” the stakes in Sweden could not be higher for the rest of the continent.
“If this can happen in one of the most advanced, stable democracies in the world, where economic growth has been strong and unemployment has been low,” said Matthew Goodwin, professor of politics and international relations at Kent University in the UK and author of the forthcoming book, National Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy, “then it can basically happen in any other Western democracy.”