Immigration, crime hot topics as Sweden votes

Mr Jimmie Akesson, leader of the Sweden Democrats, campaigning in Gothenburg last month. The anti-immigrant and anti-European party has gone from one seat on the municipal council in 2006 to nine in 2014, out of 45 total seats.
Mr Jimmie Akesson, leader of the Sweden Democrats, campaigning in Gothenburg last month. The anti-immigrant and anti-European party has gone from one seat on the municipal council in 2006 to nine in 2014, out of 45 total seats.PHOTO: EPA-EFE
Ms Kicki Johansson of Flen says many Swedes "are not happy with the way things are".
Ms Kicki Johansson of Flen says many Swedes "are not happy with the way things are".PHOTO: NYTIMES

Far-right party set to gain in elections today, amid shifting attitudes towards refugees

FLEN (Sweden) • The entrance to the small mosque is blocked by a gate. A window is badly cracked around a hole made by the impact of a rock or an air gun. A metal security door has been painted with a swastika, only partly removed.

But Mr Yusuf Abdi, a member of the mosque, whose building was once an evangelical church, is not overly concerned. "Sweden is a democratic country, and there are rules and laws," he said.

Mr Hussein Omar, who is of Somali origin, added: "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 the country's national elections today, 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 per cent of the population. 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 south-west 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.

The centre-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 per cent today. The Moderate Party is also losing ground.

  • Key issues at stake

  • IMMIGRATION

    Some voters believe that the 400,000 asylum seekers who have arrived in Sweden since 2012 are straining the country's famed welfare model.

    The Sweden Democrats want to put an end to the generous Swedish asylum system, vowing instead to "help refugees return to their home countries".

    HEALTHCARE

    Sweden scores highly in the quality of its healthcare.

    But a growing and ageing population means waiting lists for operations have grown, and half of the health centres have to cover doctor shortages with temporary staff, said a report by the Swedish Agency for Health and Care Services Analysis.

    The ruling Social Democrats vow to spend 3 billion kronor (S$457 million) to hire more healthcare staff if re-elected.

    The Moderates want to reintroduce a law that rewards counties for shortening queues.

    EDUCATION

    Sweden is one of Europe's top performers in education, with more than 47 per cent of Swedes between 25 and 34 having some form of tertiary education in 2016, the CNN reported.

    But falling scores in its Programme for International Student Assessment, which compares education systems across countries, over the past decade have worried voters.

    ECONOMY

    Sweden's economic expansion has reached 20 consecutive quarters and is showing signs of cooling, as production bumps up against capacity.

    Ms Bettina Kashefi, chief economist at Sweden's Confederation of Enterprise, said the country needs broader thinking on how to secure competitiveness and ensure that companies find skilled workers.

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

The party - outspokenly anti-immigrant and anti-European - has gone from one seat on the municipal council in 2006 to nine in 2014, out of 45 total seats.

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.

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

"What scares me? The Nazis," she said at a cafe in Flen's dreary central square, surrounded by shops selling cheap goods.

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."

Mr Gote Nilsson, 73, is the leader of the SD in Flen.

He used to vote for the centre-right Moderates but joined the SD 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 recognise 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."

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 09, 2018, with the headline 'Immigration, crime hot topics as Sweden votes'. Print Edition | Subscribe