Sweden’s far-right party has gained support in the polls as it pushes an agenda focused on refugees and migrants.
The Sweden Democrats polled at a record high 20 percent in May, according to an Ispos poll in daily Dagens Nyheter, placing their chances at becoming kingmakers in the September 9 elections within the realm of possibility.
While they have long been shunned by other political parties, analysts and observers worry that they are increasingly setting the parameters of public discourse in the country.
In addition to calling for a referendum on European Union membership, the Sweden Democrats have demanded a freeze on migration and a crackdown on crime.
In its official platform, the party says its anti-migrant policies are driven by “love and confidence in our country”.
“If we are the second biggest or biggest party in parliament and the other parties still believe we can be ignored, and pretend we don’t exist, then we must flex our muscles,” party leader Jimmie Akesson told Reuters in an interview.
It's particularly sensitive in Sweden, where there is a very strong anti-racist norm in almost all walks of life.
The Sweden Democrats’ swift rise in polls comes on the heels of far-right and anti-migrant parties’ gains elsewhere in Europe.
“It’s particularly sensitive in Sweden, where there is a very strong anti-racist norm in almost all walks of life,” Nicholas Aylott, an associate professor of political science at Sodertorn University, told Al Jazeera.
“Open expressions of conventional racism are really very rare in Sweden, and the rise of the Sweden Democrats, with its history, is terribly sensitive in Sweden and raises emotions.”
Anti-migrant gains across Europe
In Hungary, far-right Prime Minister Viktor Orban was re-elected in April after a campaign that placed a hyper-focus on refugees, migrants and the supposed “Islamisation” of Europe.
In Italy, the new coalition formed by the anti-establishment Five Star Movement and Matteo Salvini’s ultra-nationalist League (formerly Northern League) has moved quickly to stop the flow of refugees and migrants.
Austria’s far-right Freedom Party (FPO) became a junior coalition partner in December after striking a deal with the ruling right-wing Austrian People’s Party, and the pair have since prioritised tightening borders and cracking down on asylum seekers.
And last Autumn, the far-right, nativist Alternative for Germany (AfD) entered the German Bundestag after a campaign that vilified refugees.
At the time of publication, Paula Bieler, the migration spokesperson for Sweden Democrats, had not replied to Al Jazeera’s multiple requests for a comment.
Since 2012, an estimated 400,000 people have requested asylum in Sweden, more than 160,000 of whom did so in 2015, the year of the mass influx of refugees and migrants into Europe.
Explaining that Sweden’s elections are usually dominated by right-wing and left-wing blocs, Aylott argued that the Sweden Democrats have “supplanted” traditional electoral debates.
“The rise of the Sweden Democrats completely disrupts that because it deprives each of the two blocs of a realistic chance of winning their own majority,” he said.
The current coalition is a fragile alliance between the centre-left Social Democrats and the Green Party, which came to power after elections in 2014.
Founded in 1988, the Sweden Democrats clinched just under 13 percent in the 2014 elections, a dramatic improvement compared its previous electoral performance.
It currently holds 42 seats in the Riksdag, the country’s legislature.
‘Could be kingmakers’
Jonas Hinnfors, a political science professor at the University of Gothenburg, told Al Jazeera that the party’s focus on migration allowed them to capitalise on frustrations among parts of the electorate.
Meanwhile, their Eurosceptic positions are less popular with Swedes.
Polls have consistently found that “most Swedes do not want to leave the EU”, said Hinnfors.
Even so, party leader Akesson announced last month that he hopes a referendum on EU membership will be held after the September elections.
Migration, however, appears to be the driving force for the Sweden Democrats’ surge in popularity.
“They very well could be kingmakers,” Hinnfors said, explaining that the far-right group had set the tone for electoral debate by dragging other parties into debates about migration.
If they did so, the Sweden Democrats would exert a far greater influence on policies and would likely continue its tunnel-vision focus on migration.
In turn, other parties, including the Social Democrats, have adopted a more hardline stance on migration and borders.
In May, the ruling party announced plans to cut nearly in half the number of refugees and migrants entering the country.
At the time, Immigration Minister Helene Fritzon said Sweden should accept 14,000-15,000 refugees per year, as opposed to the 27,000 it took in last year.
“Even if the number of asylum seekers has dropped significantly in Sweden, it is significantly higher than [what it should be given] our population share in Europe,” she told reporters.
Other proposed measures include tighter identification checks on refugees and migrants and restricting asylum recipients’ ability to choose where they reside, the English-language Local reported at the time.
“There was a sense of crisis in 2015 … It was a huge commitment for the country’s institutions and was incredibly costly,” Aylott said.
“The consequences of that … have to be the subject of a political discussion.
“It’s not really surprising that issues of left and right have been supplanted by these new issues because they reflect a pretty profound change.”