HELSINGBORG, Sweden — Cheers and applause greeted far-right Sweden Democrats (SD) leader Jimmie Åkesson as he addressed a boisterous pre-election rally in the southern port city of Helsingborg.
A car slowed on the nearby thoroughfare and a man shouted “Go Jimmie” through the open driver’s side window so loudly that Åkesson briefly stopped speaking and laughed.
“It is time for the Swedish people to give us a chance,” Åkesson told the crowd of several hundred on a recent weekday evening. “It’s time to give us a chance to make Sweden great again.”
Sweden’s election on September 11 is shaping up to be a unique vote in the Nordic state’s history. For the first time, a far-right populist party has a realistic shot at securing serious clout over key policy areas including immigration and policing.
While similar parties have recently held sway in nearby Finland, Denmark and Estonia, in Sweden SD has been ostracized by mainstream rivals for decades because of its roots among neo-Nazi groups active in the country in the 1990s.
One recent opinion poll showed support for SD is surging, with around 22 percent saying they would vote for the party, giving it the second largest backing after the ruling Social Democrats on 28 percent. POLITICO’s Poll of Polls, which aggregates polling, has the SD on 20 percent and the Social Democrats on 29 percent.
Crucially, SD now also has mainstream allies with the potential to dislodge the Social Democrats from power.
Current polling suggests support for incumbent premier Magdalena Andersson and her allies is at around the same level as support for a four-party right opposition bloc — including SD — as the final days of campaigning loom.
If the opposition bloc wins, Åkesson will seek to secure maximum influence, either as the head of a supporting party in a minority government, or as a minister in a new broader coalition.
Åkesson is unlikely to become prime minister if his side wins because the opposition bloc’s other parties — the center-right Moderates, Christian Democrats and Liberals — have said they back Moderate leader Ulf Kristersson for the role, even if his party polls less well than SD.
But the emergence of SD as a key player in Swedish policymaking would still be a radical shock to the Nordic state’s political system, which for the past century has been based largely on consensus building.
While Sweden’s immigration policies have long been liberal, SD’s platform would aim for zero asylum seekers. Sweden’s criminal justice system has traditionally focused on rehabilitation rather than punishment but SD is calling for longer prison sentences and wider use of deportation.
“Deport foreign criminals … and no discussion,” says one of SD’s new election posters.
A brash new force
In Helsingborg, it was clear that SD are intent on turning up the volume in Swedish politics.
Åkesson was three gigs into a 13-stop series of “parties” in town squares across Sweden flanked by SD MEP Jessica Stegrud and a small-time light entertainer called the Dance Band King who functioned as a warm-up act.
A polished performer, Åkesson held the crowd with ease, pressing his party’s main ideas on immigration and sentencing while also throwing in promises to cut gasoline prices for good measure.
He painted a picture of a Sweden ravaged by crime, where gangs roam the countryside breaking into homes, stealing from gardens and “taking people’s boat motors.” He claimed the Social Democrat government had let the welfare state fall apart and said his party was growing because it dared to call out such failings and “call a spade a spade.”
“Sweden has been a great country, a safe country, a successful country and it can be all these things again,” he said.
Åkesson’s message struck a chord with the core SD voters gathered in Helsingborg, a city in the southern region of Skåne where the party has traditionally done well. A solitary heckler, an older woman with a whistle, was jostled out of the square.
But Åkesson isn’t as popular everywhere.
During another stop on his party tour, this time in the hipster-heavy central Stockholm area of Södermalm, Åkesson’s speech hit some serious resistance.
As he spoke, scores of protestors from the youth wing of the Left Party poured into the square and at times drowned Åkesson out with noisy accusations that he led a party of fascists and racists.
A man in dark glasses arrived early and stood motionless throughout the event holding an A4 page in a clenched fist with the words “Go to hell racist pig” in red text on a black background.
After his speech in Helsingborg, Åkesson said the outcome of the election would ultimately come down to which side was better at mobilizing its supporters to get out and vote.
The next day, his entourage would head north to the town of Gävle, 700km away, and then another 250km on to the town of Sundsvall in an effort to do just that.
“This election is shaping up to be extremely tight,” he said. “It could come down to a few thousand votes.”