On Sunday, Swedes will vote in national elections for the first time since a wave of immigration changed the country’s tone of debate. Sweden began opening its doors to hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers after the last election, in 2014. Since then, well over 300,000 people have applied for asylum, mostly from Syria, as well as from countries including Iraq and Iran.
Nationalists point to a rising crime rate and incidents of gang violence as evidence of the need for closed borders. Those on the left point to Sweden’s strong economic growth, low unemployment rate and overall relative well-being as a sign that more countries could be following the lead of this self-described humanitarian superpower.
What’s certain is that Swedes’ attitudes vary widely about the country they live in — and this will be reflected in the way they vote. A single day in Malmö, Sweden’s third-largest city, seen from three different vantage points, reveals a country — and a people — at a crossroads.
An upbeat tour
On a cool, cloudy morning, Eva Winberg and her friend Birgitta Lybergård have decided to pay 25 krona ($2.74) for a bus tour of the city. Winberg’s youngest son is getting married to an Iranian woman he met at university, but not till the next day, so she figures she can squeeze in a tour of the city with her friend.
The two women climb aboard with about 50 retirement-age Swedes. But none of these people are tourists. They live here. As the bus gets rolling, it’s easy to see why they might need an update.
Malmö, a city of about 330,000, has been growing at a rate of 5,000 people per year. Roughly a third of the city’s residents were born outside of Sweden.
Cranes puncture the skyline, and the bus cruises past one new building after another: a sparkly new school, a rainbow-hued shopping center, the site of a future police station — all part of a concerted effort on the part of local leaders to transform Malmö from an industrial hub to a financially diversified and sustainable city of the future.
The bus also stops in some of Malmö’s more notorious neighborhoods, where national police have been called in to work alongside local officers in the face of increasing gang violence.
“I’ve never been to this place before,” Winberg says, lowering her voice. “This is one of the places you avoid to go.”
The tour guide, though, paints a different, positive story — he points to physical improvements aimed at helping integration and reducing crime. Winberg seems particularly impressed by a housing development where a resident-owned café attached to a brightly lit laundromat encourages social interaction.
“It’s a social thinking,” she says. “They have done lots of things like that here!”
This is a good-news tour for a reason: The guide is Malmö’s deputy mayor Andreas Schönström, and this is one of about 20 bus tours his party — the incumbent Swedish Social Democratic Party — is hosting in the run-up to the election.
The Social Democrats are the historical powerhouse behind the country’s generous, and popular, welfare state. But they have been losing strength for decades. Most recently, the party has been accused of naivety in its handling of the refugee crisis, and for failing to alleviate the gang violence that has made shootings and even grenade explosions a regular part of the local news.
But Schönström says the vast majority of residents aren’t touched by the violence.
“When we look the numbers today, Malmö is growing rapidly. We have huge economic growth, the unemployment is going down,” he tells NPR.
And Schönström says his party does talk honestly about the problems afflicting the city — “but we will not recognize that the problems are about Muslims.”
“It’s not about what kind of religion you have, and whether you eat pork or not,” he says. “It’s about social problems: unemployment, schools, education, segregation in our living areas… It’s about empowering people.”
A nationalist rally
That narrative is proving a hard sell against the anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats’ message. Supporter Tommy Johansson conveys it succinctly: “We have too many foreigners in this town. From the Arabian countries.”
Johansson is part of a large crowd that has gathered in the center of the city to hear a speech in the afternoon by Sweden Democrat leader Jimmie Åkesson — “the king,” according to Johansson.
Like most Sweden Democrats, Johansson draws a direct line between immigration and crime.
“We cannot go outside when it’s dark anymore,” he says. “We have to take taxis. It’s not safe.”
While the rate of certain violent crimes is up in Malmö, the overall reported crime rate has gone down. Because Sweden does not keep records on the ethnicity of perpetrators, substantiating a link between immigrants and crime is a largely speculative exercise.
But political scientist Mikael Sundström from Lund University says that hardly matters.
“You don’t need solid data to sell the idea, from the Sweden Democrats’ point of view, that immigrants are linked to crime,” he says. “You just need to make sure that it stays in the public mind that this or that crime was committed by an immigrant.”
And in that, he says, they have succeeded. Polls suggest the Sweden Democrats, a party with roots in the neo-Nazi movement, could garner 20 percent of the vote this weekend, potentially becoming Sweden’s second biggest party.
An immigrant’s experience
In a plaza in Malmö’s Holma neighborhood, Ibrahim Taha and his colleagues from a voting advocacy group have set up a small table with snacks. This quickly attracts the attention of several 12-year-old boys on scooters and bikes, chattering with each other in a mix of Swedish and Arabic.
As the boys grab handfuls of chips, Taha starts quizzing them in Swedish.
“How many years between elections?” he asks.
“Four!” they yell.
“Who is the Prime Minister?”
The competition is heating up.
“Harder?” he asks.
Harder questions it is.
“What year did women in Sweden get the vote?”
With hardly a pause, one of the boys throws down the answer — “1921!” — before zooming off on a victory lap.
Half of these boys were born here, half of them somewhere else. This neighborhood, though not one of the most dangerous, is considered a risk area. In two hours on the plaza, not a single ethnic Swede passes by.
Taha moved to Sweden from Iraq in 2002, at age 9. He didn’t have an ethnically Swedish friend until he was 16. Nine years later, integration is still a real problem, he says. A “two-way racism” permeates Swedish society, he says, “and it’s creating really big problems.”
And yet, he says, at least to some extent, the boys in this neighborhood are all growing up with two identities: Swedish and Palestinian, Iraqi, Syrian or others.
And that dual identity, says Taha, is the Sweden of the future. It’s also why, he believes, the Sweden Democrats will ultimately lose momentum.
“They tell you, you need to feel loyalty to only Sweden. And that’s a major problem for people like me. And there are a lot of people like me,” he says. “The Sweden Democrats have a view that you can only be black or white. And reality is not like that. You can be a lot of people at the same time. The Sweden Democrats don’t understand that this is a contribution to society.”