STOCKHOLM (BLOOMBERG) - The populists who have been battling to shut down immigration to Europe may be heading for a significant breakthrough in Sweden.
The far-right Sweden Democrats party may well have the votes to help the conservative opposition secure a majority after next year's elections, and the evidence is mounting that traditional right-wing politicians will be tempted to cut a deal to give the anti-immigrant group a say in government.
The populist party's emergence has tracked the Nordic country's influx of immigrants and difficulties integrating them.
The worsening of gang-related violence in recent years has also pushed more voters to the right, and parties across the political spectrum have taken a tougher stand on migrants in the wake of Europe's refugee crisis in 2015.
"The old arguments for not talking to us no longer exist," Sweden Democrats leader Jimmie Akesson said in an interview, adding that the conservatives agree with him "at least on the direction".
"It's difficult to call us ugly names and at the same time copy our politics."
While European populists have not managed the major breakthrough that some people feared was at hand in the aftermath of former US president Donald Trump's victory in 2016, French nationalist Marine Le Pen is stronger than ever as she prepares to take on President Emmanuel Macron next year and Italy's Matteo Salvini is still the narrow favourite to follow Prime Minister Mario Draghi.
Sweden could prove a bellwether for a broader shift in European politics.
Mr Ulf Kristersson, the leader of the opposition Moderate Party, had his first face-to-face meeting with Mr Akesson in 2019, shortly after the nationalist party had surged to the top of the opinion polls.
This January, he said the Sweden Democrats had become a "constructive force" in Parliament and that he would cooperate with them.
In late 2017, Mr Kristersson had repeatedly said he would not engage with the Sweden Democrats.
That year, Mr Trump triggered an angry backlash from Swedes when, at a rally in Florida, he appeared to link the rise in crime in the country to higher immigration. That link is now more widely accepted.
While Sweden has slashed immigration by half from its peak in 2016, the Sweden Democrats have signaled they would go much further to stem the flow, and aim to repatriate refugees to war-torn countries such as Syria.
They also want to stop paying some benefits to anyone who is not a Swedish citizen, or about 9 per cent of the population of 10.4 million.
Sweden, at the top of most global welfare rankings, has traditionally sought to be a safe haven by accepting waves of immigrants since World War II.
The country, which grew accustomed to relatively low levels of crime, has witnessed a surge in bombings and riots in immigrant neighborhoods in the past decade.
Sweden's police chief last August lamented an "extremely serious" escalation of violence related to gang crime, urging society to "put its foot down".
He spoke after two people were murdered in Stockholm in a week and several police officers were injured during a riot in the southern city of Malmo. A 12-year-old girl had also been killed "in a criminal showdown" earlier that month.
The country reported about 10 times more deadly shootings than Britain in the past year, adjusted for population size.
A poll by DN/Ipsos on Monday showed policies on migration and integration remain the biggest priority for Swedish voters. The proportion who also point to law and order as one of the most important issues is greater than ever at 22 per cent.
Mr Akesson's party, once shunned across the political spectrum, first made it into Parliament in 2010 and became the third-biggest in Sweden by 2018.
It has made itself more palatable for traditional right-wing politicians in past years by weeding out neo-Nazis and reversing its stand on leaving the European Union.
"When they entered Parliament, the entire leadership of (the Sweden Democrats) were part of a neo-Nazi party that later changed," said Professor of Political Science Jonas Hinnfors from the University of Gothenburg.
"Some of that leadership was part of that change of course."
While Mr Kristersson, the Moderate leader, has opened up to the party, he has said he would not invite them into a coalition with a smaller conservative peer, the Christian Democrats.
This suggests the Moderates may opt for a minority government, while relying on support from Mr Akesson's party on specific issues such as migration.
That would resemble the fragile constellation negotiated by Social Democrat Prime Minister Stefan Lofven, which took four months of fraught talks after the last elections.
The opposition conservative block, including the Moderates, Christian Democrats and Sweden Democrats, had 47.3 per cent support in the latest poll from Demoskop, ahead of the 44.5 per cent tally for the Social Democrats, Greens and their budget allies.
Either way, Mr Akesson has been preparing by beefing up the ranks of people experienced in governing, calling it his "boarding party".
"We have recruited expertise during this term, especially from the Moderates," Mr Akesson said. Still, talks on any formal deal between the potential partners have not started.
Even though Sweden is decades behind some of its European peers on right-wing politics, the normalisation of the radical right started several years ago in Sweden with the adoption of their ideas, according to Professor Cas Mudde from the University of Georgia, who is an expert on far-right politics.
"Collaboration, where radical right parties are also normalised, is often the next logical step."
Last weekend, Mr Lofven's budget ally, the Liberal Party, joined nationalists and the conservative opposition to challenge a migration policy deemed too lax. They want to restrict awarding residence permits on humanitarian grounds and tighten conditions for family reunification, among other things.
About 675,000 adult immigrants in Sweden are dependent on benefits, while the country has granted more than 400,000 asylum-related residence permits in the last decade, the Moderates said last month.
While Mr Kristersson denied a conservative bloc is in the making, experts said a shift is under way.
"We have a right-wing bloc again, with a nationalistic social-conservative party weighing heavily within that four-party constellation," Professor Hinnfors said. "Of course, there are a lot of tensions within that bloc."
A potential coalition involving the Sweden Democrats could still stumble as "there's a lot of scepticism among the other parties on the Sweden Democrats' views on Swedishness, ethnicity, but also perhaps gender issues," he said.
Mr Akesson suggests his party may still be attractive to xenophobic elements "as long as Stefan Lofven and others continue to call us racists".
"But the important thing is how we handle it when we discover it," Mr Akesson said. "And there's no doubt at all that we have a very low level of tolerance when it comes to extremism and racism."