Sweden goes to the polls on Sunday in a knife-edge general election that could bring the far right into the corridors of power after a relentless campaign against immigration and gangland violence.
While the Social Democrats led by Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson are on course to remain the largest party, her leftist coalition is running neck and neck with a right-wing bloc including the nationalist Sweden Democrats.
Party leaders were confronted during a televised debate on Wednesday by a woman called Susanne whose 12-year-old son was killed in a gang shooting, highlighting an organised crime epidemic that has blighted Sweden’s streets.
Ms Andersson replied by calling for more police and tougher sentences to tackle what she called a horrible wave of violence, while opposition leader Ulf Kristersson raged: “No other country has what we have.”
The Sweden Democrats and their leader Jimmie Akesson have sought to exploit concerns about crime and immigration with a vow that “Sweden will be good again”, prompting comparisons to former US president Donald Trump’s populist rhetoric.
“Basically, the argument of the Sweden Democrats is that the most necessary measure is to restrict further immigration,” Anders Sannerstedt, an expert on the far right and immigration at Lund University, told The National.
Once considered a pariah in Swedish politics, the SD is now set to emerge as the strongest party on the right and would enjoy significant influence over a conservative government even if it did not formally join a coalition.
A polling average published by broadcaster SVT in the final days of the campaign showed the left on 49.7 per cent and the right on 49.4 per cent, suggesting the rival blocs could be separated by just one seat in parliament.
Such a result could prolong political uncertainty in Sweden after Ms Andersson came to power in 2021 at the head of a fragile coalition, which only survived a confidence vote after an outspoken Iranian-born MP agreed to abstain.
Ms Andersson has sought to exploit nervousness about the Sweden Democrats by highlighting their links to the neo-Nazi fringe, such as a recent case in which a staff member appeared to celebrate Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland.
Mr Kristersson has been under scrutiny over a 2018 meeting with a Holocaust survivor in which he was quoted as ruling out any co-operation with the Sweden Democrats, something he later denied saying.
The saga took another twist this week when Mr Kristersson’s party apologised for buying a Google advert that drew voters’ attention away from the incident when they searched for the name of the survivor, Hedi Fried.
The Sweden Democrats “would have a big influence on every decision taken by the government, and it is a party with roots among the racist organisations in Sweden,” Ms Andersson said on the campaign trail.
The prime minister was cheered by Sweden’s allies after the country applied to join Nato after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, turning a page along with Finland on a traditional stance of neutrality.
But with that question now settled between the major parties, foreign policy has played little role in the election campaign as parties put more focus on immigration, crime and the economy, Mr Sannerstedt said.
“The issue of integration and refugees has been one of the major issues in the electoral campaign so far,” he said, although the energy crisis unfolding across Europe has also gained the attention of voters.
“There are several issues at the moment, one being how to handle housing segregation, the second issue is concerning the quality of schools, the third one is concerning how to handle the high level of unemployment among people of non-European origin.”
Swedish police have said the country stands out in Europe for having a rising rate of gun deaths, especially among young people who fall into the criminal underworld in disadvantaged areas.
Another right-wing party, the Christian Democrats, had complained that while “Sweden is still a good place to live… many feel like they can no longer recognise their home”.
The Social Democrats, Sweden’s dominant party since the 1930s, are promising to improve schools, tackle unemployment and increase employment opportunities to weaken gang recruitment, while also toughening penalties.
But Mr Akesson accused the prime minister of running scared by refusing to debate him on Swedish television, as parties make their final push for votes in a nail-biting election.
“It will be a very close race indeed,” Mr Sannerstedt said.