An anti-immigration party with roots in the neo-Nazi movement

MOTALA: The audience listens to the leader of the right wing party Sverigedemokraterna (Sweden Democrats). — AFP

LINDESBERG: Nestled deep in Sweden's mining country, Lindesberg has an old-time small-town charm: its imposing Lutheran church overlooks cobblestone streets with locals calmly strolling about on their daily errands.

There are no telling signs that this is one of strongest bastions of the far-right Sweden Democrats (SD), an anti-immigration party with roots in the neo-Nazi movement.

The few people out on a rainy day in late August, of various ages and origins, stop to exchange pleasantries, with just days to go before the country's September 9 local and legislative elections. SD, founded in 1988, is tipped to win about 20 percent of votes nationwide, according to an average of seven polling institutes published in the past 10 days. That would make it Sweden's second or third biggest party.

'Good' immigration

Two hours northwest of Stockholm by car, Lindesberg seems a world away from the disadvantaged suburbs of Sweden's big cities -- and the associated debate on immigration. Figures provided by municipal authorities show that 186 foreigners were granted residency permits in Lindesberg in 2017, or just 0.8 percent of the 23,000-strong population.

Even Mats Seijboldt, an SD town councilor, claims to say "Yes" to immigration when it is managed "in a good and positive way". Yet the SD is thriving in Lindesberg on voter discontent. In the 2014 election, it clinched 21 percent of votes and eight seats on the Lindesberg town council, second only to the Social Democrats who govern nationally. In one Lindesberg district, SD won 37 percent, its strongest score in the nation. Channeling locals' dissatisfaction, Seijboldt has appropriated US President Donald Trump's slogan, making it his own: "Make Sweden Great Again".

'Economic and cultural threat'

Like other areas swept by waves of populism, growing numbers in the town feel like they're being left behind, observers say. The population is ageing faster in Lindesberg than elsewhere and the proportion of people living off benefits is higher than the national average, according to Statistics Sweden. Many of them blame immigrants. To the typical SD voter, "immigration presents an economic and cultural threat," says Stockholm University sociology professor Jens Rydgren.

SD voters "tend to be male, relatively low educated, over-represented among the working class", he said. The Social Democratic mayor of Lindesberg, Bengt Storbacka, says SD voters have a "wrong perception" of the situation. Still, he expects what he calls the "racist party" to improve even further on Sunday on its local election score from four years ago.

Pensioners' support

Five hundred kilometers to the south lies another SD bastion: Horby, a town of 15,000 in the Skane countryside. It is just 30 minutes from Malmo, Sweden's third-biggest city, which has a large immigrant community and is stricken by gangland shootings. In the 2014 election, SD won nine seats on the Horby town council, second only to the Social Democrats.

The far-right was relegated to the opposition by a broad coalition that teamed up against it. "Five parties needed to come together to keep us out in 2014," says Stefan Borg, who heads the far-right on Horby's town council. Now the SD plans to collaborate with a small pensioners' party -- an influential group in this ageing town.

In Horby, 13 percent of residents were born outside the country, according to Statistics Sweden. Asked to estimate the number of immigrants in the town, Borg puts their number at between 20 and 25 percent. Sociologist Rydgren judged that to be "a typical over-estimation" of a kind he said is common among far-right voters.

As in Lindesberg, some Horby residents expressed fear for their safety. "When it gets dark, a lot of people don't dare to go out, myself included," says Cecilia Bladh in Zito, an SD candidate. Statistics do not support a link between crime and immigration however. Figures from the Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention show reported acts of violence have only risen marginally in the town since a wave of refugees arrived between 2015 and 2017. – AFP