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Sweden votes in election seen as test of immigration

The election was Sweden’s first since the government allowed 163,000 migrants into the country with a population of 10 million in 2015.

Voters in Sweden have made their views on immigration known in a general election that could strengthen a party with roots in the white supremacist movement.

The potentially promising prospects of the far-right Sweden Democrats had many other Swedes worried about an erosion of the humanitarian values that have long been a foundation of the Scandinavian country’s identity.

The election was Sweden’s first since the government allowed 163,000 migrants into the country with a population of 10 million in 2015.

The number is far lower than the asylum-seekers Germany accepted that year, but the highest per capita of any European nation.

“This election is a referendum about our welfare,” Prime Minister Stefan Lofven said.

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Stefan Lofven arrives with his wife Ulla to cast their votes in Stockholm (Soren Andersson/TT via AP)

“It’s also about decency, about a decent democracy… and not letting the Sweden Democrats, an extremist party, a racist party, get any influence in the government.”

About 7.5 million voters were eligible to choose the next members of the 349-seat Riksdag, or parliament.

About 6,300 candidates sought the four-year terms.

It was unlikely any single party would secure a majority of 175 seats.

The latest opinion poll conducted by pollster Novus for public broadcaster SVT suggested on Friday that Mr Lofven’s ruling Social Democrats would lose a substantial number of seats, but emerge with about a quarter of the vote — the most support predicted for any party.

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Jimmie Akesson prepares to vote in Stockholm (Stina Stjernkvist/TT via AP)

If realised, it would be a historical low for the traditional left-wing party, which has dominated Swedish politics in the post-Second World War era.

The poll indicated the Sweden Democrats — led by Jimmie Akesson — would get 19.1% of the vote compared to the 13% support received in 2014.

The centre-right Moderate Party is set to take to take third place with 17.7%.

Immigration was the hot topic of the campaign, helping the steady rise in popularity of the Sweden Democrats.

The party has worked to soften its neo-Nazi image while helping to break down longstanding taboos on what Swedes could say openly about immigration and integration without being shunned as racists.

During a heated debate among party leaders on Friday, Mr Akesson caused a stir by blaming migrants for the difficulties they often have in finding employment and not adjusting to Sweden.

The broadcaster that aired the televised debate, SVT, afterwards called his remarks degrading and against the democratic mandate of public broadcasting.

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Ebba Busch Thor, party leader of the Christian Democrats, left, campaigns outside a polling station in central Stockholm (Jessica Gow/TT via AP)

Mr Akesson responded that state television should not take sides, and later announced that he would not take part in any of SVT’s election programmes on Sunday.

At the party’s rally on Saturday, he strongly criticised Mr Lofven’s government for “prioritising” the cause of immigrants over the needs of citizens.

“This government we have had now, they have prioritised, during these four years, asylum-seekers,” Mr Akesson said, giving an exhaustive list of things he says the government has failed to do for Swedish society because of migrants.

“Sweden needs breathing space, we need tight responsible immigration policies.”

Mr Akesson’s strong rhetoric has shocked many Swedes since the country has a long tradition of helping those in need.

We used to be very safe. We used to be a very calm nation. And today I feel a bit insecure about the future, especially for my children Voter

“Terrible! I just wanna cry when I think about it,” said Veronica Lundqvist, referring to the Sweden Democrats after she left a voting booth in central Stockholm.

“They say awful things. I mean of course we have a lot of refugees here, but we need to take care of them.

“They come from a terrible place, terrible wars. We can’t just throw them out.”

But others say the Sweden Democrats are trying to fix a historical problem.

“It’s an integration issue,” Karl Ljung said at the same voting station.

“It’s not just about what happened two years ago when we had a lot of refugees. It’s more that we have had an integration issue for maybe 20 years. So we really have to solve it now.”

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Jan Bjorklund, leader of the Liberal Party, arrives at a polling station in Stockholm (Hanna Franzen/TT via AP)

Mohamed Nuur, a 26-year-old Social Democratic candidate of Somali descent, said he sees Mr Akesson taking Sweden back to the past.

“For me, the Sweden that he (Jimmie Akesson) wants to see… that is not our future,” Mr Nuur said.

“That is to go back in history. For me, when he is saying that immigrants are not welcome to Sweden… he is trying to spread hate between the people.

“Actually, it’s the immigrants who built up this country.”

Security was another key election issue. Citizens expressed concerns about reports of an increase in crimes such as rape and gang violence.

Sabina Macri, voting in central Stockholm, said the current political situation has left her questioning her future in Sweden.

“We used to be very safe. We used to be a very calm nation,” she said.

“And today I feel a bit insecure about the future, especially for my children. We have two girls.”

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