FLEN, SWEDEN - For Monica and Bengt Borg, a retired Swedish couple, Flen doesn't feel like Sweden anymore. As they sit on a bench on the town's main street, an Iraqi man nearby watches a Kurdish television program on his phone. Arabic pop music pulses from a girl's phone. A constant flow of Somalis, Ethiopians and Syrians pass by, the women in headscarves.
“We don't recognize our country as it is today,” said Bengt Borg, 66. His wife, 64, says she no longer feels safe walking alone at night due to reports of rapes by immigrants. Both plan to join a growing number of Swedes voting for a nationalist and anti-immigrant party, the Sweden Democrats, in Sunday's general election.
The vote will be the first since the nation of 10 million accepted 163,000 migrants in 2015 — the largest number relative to the total population of any European state during the massive migrant influx into Europe that year. In the town of Flen, with just 6,000 residents, asylum-seekers now make up about a fourth of the population.
On a broader scale, Sunday's balloting is also set to be the latest test for populist far-right forces as much of Europe shifts to the right amid a backlash to immigration. Far-right parties have made gains in several countries that shouldered a large share of the migrant burden, including Germany, Italy and Austria.
The Sweden Democrats have their roots in a neo-Nazi movement. Despite working for years to soften their image, many are not convinced, fearing the party's rise could erode the country's longstanding democratic and liberal traditions and identity as a “humanitarian superpower.”
Others, however, worry that the egalitarian ethos of Sweden — the first country to make gender equality a foreign policy priority — is threatened by the large number of Muslim newcomers.
Support for the once-fringe party has swollen to around 20 percent — up from the 13 percent it won in 2014. Part of that success reflects disillusionment with the governing coalition between the Social Democrats and the Green Party, which has run the country for the past four years. The coalition's earlier open-door policies toward migrants are now widely denounced.
While 20 percent would not be enough for the Sweden Democrats to lead a government, a strong show of support will give the party greater power to pressure the next government and could deprive the Social Democrats or the center-right Moderates, the country's other major party, of a clear mandate.
The narrative of Sweden as a failing experiment of multiculturalism is backed by U.S. President Donald Trump, who caused a stir in early 2017 when he suggested an extremist attack had happened overnight in Sweden. The night, in fact, had been quiet; Trump had seen a Fox News report about crime by immigrants in Sweden. But he insisted his overall picture of the country was still correct: as one where large migration has brought crime and insecurity.
David Crouch, a British journalist and author of “Bumblebee Nation: The Hidden Story of the Swedish Model,” said Sweden's unique high-wage, high-welfare social model and emphasis on progressive policies had long given the country a wonderful reputation as “a country which does things differently and gets things right.” That has changed dramatically in the past two years.
“Particularly with Donald Trump in power, a different, much darker, narrative has emerged of Sweden on the brink of some sort of social catastrophe, with talk about violence, shooting, rape, and so on,” he said.
Crouch believes that view is “not representative of the country as a whole.” Sweden's economy is booming and creating jobs, meaning there is potential to bring newcomers into the labor market, he argued. He added that much of the message about a Sweden on the verge of apocalypse is a product of media with a racist agenda.
“If you are a racist and you hate immigrants, you don't want immigrants coming to your country. So you take a country which has got a lot of immigrants and you say: that country is going down the toilet, this country is failing,” he said. Some with that agenda have reported “downright lies, things that didn't happen.”
Voices supporting the Sweden Democrats have been amplified on social media. The Swedish defense research agency said last week that automated Twitter accounts, or bots, were 40 percent more likely to support the Sweden Democrats than genuine accounts. Swedish officials had earlier warned of Russian interference in the elections, saying Russia is seeking to create divisions by stressing the problems of immigration and crime.
A police officer in a southern Stockholm suburb who supports the Sweden Democrats acknowledged that it is an exaggeration to portray Sweden as so overrun by crime that there are “no-go zones” where police dare not enter, a common refrain by the European far-right.
Still, he sees real problems in migrant neighborhoods and blames mainstream political parties for a climate of political correctness that long prevented Swedes from openly debating them.
“If five years ago you had said that we should consider how many migrants we take in, you would have been considered a racist,” the officer told The Associated Press. He refused to be identified because people “can lose friends and jobs” for supporting the party.
The Sweden Democrats have benefited by distancing themselves from their origins as a white supremacist movement. Years ago they changed their symbol, a flaming torch in the blue and yellow national colors, to a pretty blue-yellow flower.
Party leader Jimmie Akesson has also cracked down on open expressions of xenophobia, though some question how deep the changes are. Last week the Expressen newspaper reported that nine people left the party for voicing pro-Nazi sentiments. One had reportedly posted a manipulated image of Anne Frank in a sweatshirt saying “Coolest Jew in the Shower Room.”
Many Swedes don't agree with the backlash against migrants. Some volunteer to teach Swedish to the newcomers, and some politicians even argue that as the national population ages and shrinks, the country needs even more to maintain what is one of the most generous welfare states in the world.
That's the position of Hakan Bergsten, head of the local government in Flen, where an ice cream producer and a Volvo maintenance plant provide some of the only industrial jobs in a rural area 90 kilometers (55 miles) southwest of Stockholm.
For Bergsten, the election can be summed up by a choice between parties “only focusing on the problems today, while others are trying to explain why we need to take this step” of welcoming migrants for the future.
Crouch, the author, said the nature of debate surrounding immigration in Sweden has changed so radically in the past years that “it's hard to imagine how the issue of immigration was almost taboo.”