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Why one in five voted for far-right Sweden Democrats

Jimmie Akesson is the leader of the Sweden Democrats. Credit: PA

What we are witnessing in Sweden has many parallels with other nationalist and populist movements, but perhaps the shift in Swedish politics is the starkest example of the impact the refugee crisis of 2015 has had on Europe.

That summer, three years ago, raised the temperature of a fringe debate and made it a burning issue among Swedes. For decades, the country had been proud to accept all asylum seekers.

In Malmo, the country's third largest city you can almost trace the world's conflicts by looking at the people walking by. Shia Iraqis who escaped Saddam, Bosnians who escaped genocide, Somalis who fled the implosion of their nation and Afghans who sought refuge from the Taliban.

Swedes would tell me that as a prosperous, neutral and liberal state it was their global, humanitarian duty to help those seeking sanctuary and peace.

Credit: AP

In 2015, the Oresund bridge between Copenhagen and Malmo became a lifeline for those fleeing Syria. It could take months to walk across Europe and get to Scandinavia but many, many made it. That year 163,000 asylum seekers arrived. More, per head, came to Sweden than to Germany.

A Danish diplomat I know was scornful of the Swedish open border policy. He shared the view that a lifeboat is useless if it becomes overcrowded and capsizes. At the same time, the Danes were only too keen to help refugees pass through their country and get on the trains crossing the bridge to Malmo.

At the height of the crisis thousands arrived every week. The state struggled to cope. The Immigration agency set up stalls in the main station in Malmo, so did the Red Cross. Tents were put in parks. The local government ran out of available accommodation.

By the autumn the borders were closed. A government minister cried as the new policy was announced. A new policy the far-right Sweden Democrats had been demanding. It was the moment the party once shunned as an outcast became mainstream.

Migrants were forced to sleep on the streets of Malmo in 2015. Credit: PA

This election has now seen immigration accepted as a valid issue by all parties. All politicians accept the strain the influx of so many asylum seekers has had.

The SD leader Jimmie Akesson has tried hard to cut his party’s neo-nazi roots. A new glossy logo, a blue and yellow flower, looks more like something from the side of a washing powder packet. He’s been trying to clean up the party’s image. His message has been aimed at voters who are not against immigrants nor racist but worry about the cost of providing for so many people in a society which relies on high taxes paying for generous welfare.

At a final rally in Malmo this weekend, Akesson said: "This government we've had now for four years, they have prioritised during these four years asylum seekers, instead of giving the poorest pensioners better standards of living.

"They have prioritised asylum seekers instead of giving disabled children the right to care, they have prioritised asylum seekers instead of shortening the queues at the hospitals, they have prioritised asylum seekers instead of fixing the schools."

Stefan Lofven. Credit: AP

As Prime Minister Stefan Lofven cast his vote on Sunday he warned voters that this election was a referendum on welfare but said: “It's also about decency, about a decent democracy, and Social Democrats and the Social Democratic led government is a guarantee for not letting the Sweden Democrats, extremist party, a racist party, get any influence in the government.”

But the Sweden Democrats' focus on immigration has clearly had an influence on many voters. Around 19% of the vote, according to an exit poll, means SD perhaps hasn't done as well as it hoped but that still means almost one in five voters chose a party that has white supremacist roots. The result also gives the party leadership a loud voice in the coalition building that follows.

The Swedish voters have spoken, now the politicians have to listen to a message many will find uncomfortable. The established parties, especially the main opposition Moderates, have to decide if they can hold their noses and share power with the far-right. Sweden, often called a 'Liberal Superpower' radically changed on Sunday night.