Fears emerge as Sweden lurches to the right

Simon Johnson and Johan Sennero –
Those wondering why Swedish politics are set to lurch to the right in Sunday’s election need look no further than Ljusnarsberg, a tiny central county of dense pine forests and glistening lakes.
Many inhabitants of this once-booming region are uneasy about asylum seekers after a large number arrived here in 2015.
Polls indicating one in five voters in Sweden are likely to back a party with roots in the far-right fringe on September 9 show that even seemingly successful political systems are vulnerable.
Online surveys indicate the anti-immigration, anti-European Union Sweden Democrats could become the largest party, overtaking the Social Democrats, who have dominated politics for the last 100 years.
They are likely to do particularly well in Ljusnarsberg where they won a quarter of the vote in 2014, double their national score.
“I think people here want to see a change, they want society to be like it used to be,” said Mats Larsson, the Sweden Democrat’s top politician in Ljusnarsberg.
Most people in the county live in Kopparberg, where the 17th century church hints at the region’s rich past, built on copper and iron mines.
For years, the area was a heartland of the ruling Social Democrats. Its swing to the right highlights election themes of asylum and a split between poor rural or suburban areas home to immigrants and wealthy places like Stockholm.
Ljusnarsberg’s mines have gone — the last closed in the mid-1970s. Unemployment at the end of last year was nearly 13 per cent, almost double the national level. Many live on sickness benefits, masking the figures of those relying on welfare.
“The 1970s and 1980s were a fantastic time to grow up here in this county. Now everything is falling to pieces,” said Leif Danielsson, 53, a businessman in Kopparberg, the county’s only sizable town.
When Sweden took in 163,000 asylum seekers in 2015 as hundreds of thousands fled war in Syria and Afghanistan, Ljusnarsberg was assigned around 1,200, the highest concentration compared with its population.
Many of the new arrivals were unaccompanied minors, and the influx stretched services to the limit.
Anne-Marie Hagglund, assistant headteacher of Kyrkbacks school, said families just showed up with their migration papers. “They came back day after day until we could take in their children,” she said.
All but 260 of the refugees have now gone, yet the unease remains.
Sitting in a cafe in Kopparberg, personal assistant Ulrika, 44, said that since the arrival of so many asylum seekers, women are afraid to walk the streets at night.
“There are lots of robberies. I think a lot of it is to do with immigration,” she said.
“Of course, we should help people,” said Staffan Myrman, 53, who works at the Kopparberg brewery.
“But when 25-30 per cent of the population are refugees, we need to be able to cope with that and we can’t.”
Sweden took in more asylum seekers than any other European country per capita in 2015. But while worries over immigration explain some of the Sweden Democrat’s gains, unease about economic and social change also plays a role.
It is not just rural areas like Ljusnarsberg where the Sweden Democrats have thrived.
A spate of gang killings and car-burnings have sharpened concerns that authorities are losing control in poorer city suburbs where immigrants make up the majority of the population.
But welfare is also a big theme, despite that fact that Sweden is one of Europe’s richest countries, with strong growth and low unemployment.
“This election is a referendum on welfare or whether we have continued asylum immigration. I choose welfare,” Sweden Democrat leader Jimmie Akesson said in a televised election debate.
— Reuters