By STEPHEN CASTLE
CloseLinkedinDiggMixxMySpaceYahoo! BuzzPermalink MALMO, Sweden â€” Jimmie Akesson, 31, looks more like an up-and-coming advertising executive than a seasoned politician. But Mr. Akesson, the leader of the Sweden Democrats, does not believe in a soft sell: He wants to cut immigration by 90 percent, and he thinks that the growth of Swedenâ€™s Muslim population is the countryâ€™s biggest foreign threat since World War II.
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Johan BÃ¤vman for the International Herald Tribune
Demonstrators in Malmo tried to disrupt a rally last week by the Sweden Democratic Party.
Sweden, which is seen by many people as a guardian of liberalism and tolerance, has never elected to Parliament a member of any party who campaigned openly against immigration. That could change in elections on Sunday.
Opinion polls suggest that the Sweden Democrats will exceed the 4 percent threshold needed to reach Parliament. An alliance of center-right parties appears to have a narrow overall lead, according to the surveys, but the Sweden Democrats could hold the balance of power, something that could create a political crisis.
That prospect has jolted a nation in which even some of Mr. Akessonâ€™s fiercest critics now acknowledge that too little has been done to integrate immigrants. Political analysts also say that the rise of the populist right shows that Sweden is being buffeted by broad political currents familiar in other European countries.
Mainstream politicians are taking this development seriously. â€œThese kinds of parties, they thrive on uncertainty and political crises,â€ said Finance Minister Anders Borg, a member of the governing Moderate Party. â€œThey need to create turmoil and crisis, so we will push hard to their voters: Is this really a responsible choice?â€
For most of the last century, Social Democrats dominated politics here, but in 2006 the center-right Moderates came to power under Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt. This time, the parties are standing as competing blocs: one from the center-right, led by the Moderates, and one from the center-left, led by the Social Democratic leader Mona Sahlin, who in running for prime minister could become the first woman to hold that job in Sweden if she is elected.
Though sidelined from much of the official campaign, the Sweden Democrats have nonetheless attracted attention. Their biggest coup involved a blunt 30-second advertisement that showed a white pensioner being overtaken by a group of Muslim women in burqas as they rushed toward a line for welfare payments.
One station refused at first to broadcast the ad, before agreeing to do so with parts obscured. The ad generated enormous publicity and made the Sweden Democrats appear to be victims of censorship.
In a televised debate on Sunday, Mr. Reinfeldt and Ms. Sahlin ruled out working with the Sweden Democrats if their coalitions did not win an absolute majority.
But Mr. Akesson, speaking before the debate, said he thought the Moderates could find themselves in need of his party to form a governing majority. â€œI think now, if you look at the polls, it is not impossible for the right alliance to get a full majority,â€ he said. â€œBut if they donâ€™t, they need us to stay in government.â€
Mr. Akesson contended that his party could win as much as 8 percent of the vote. â€œWe are quite confident,â€ he said. â€œWe are underestimated in those polls. We have grown a lot since the last elections.â€
Though the party was created in 1988, it has grown slowly, recently building strongholds in southern Sweden in cities like Malmo and Landskrona.
The populist right has been helped by structural changes in politics, analysts say. While mainstream parties, particularly the Social Democrats, could once rely on a strong core vote, loyalties are fading, said Jenny Madestam, a political scientist at Stockholm University.
The collectivist, egalitarian ideas that have been associated with Sweden for decades are fading. The debate over immigration in Sweden mirrors the debate elsewhere in Europe, where economic pressures have exacerbated tensions over the role of Islam on the continent.
â€œThere is a general change in Swedish society,â€ Ms. Madestam said. â€œSocial democratic ideas are losing their grip on Sweden, and we are getting more and more individualistic. These collectivist ideas are not so strong.â€
Ibrahim Baylan, the national secretary of the opposition Social Democrats, who came to Sweden from Turkey when he was 10, said the recession and unemployment were largely responsible for the rise of the populist right.
â€œYou find a lot of people who are young, without any job or education and without any hope of getting a job,â€ Mr. Baylan said.
But he also said that it was harder to integrate immigrants than it once was. Many immigrants are arriving from poor nations, and some are illiterate in their own language and therefore face extra difficulties learning Swedish, Mr. Baylan said.
â€œThe opportunities are still very big in this country, but we have a situation that is totally different,â€ Mr. Baylan said. â€œThe people coming here are less skilled than in the 1970s and 1980s.â€
At the main mosque and Islamic center in Malmo, Beyzat Becirov, who came to Sweden from Yugoslavia more than 40 years ago, said that most Swedes were welcoming, but that perhaps 2 to 4 percent of the population seemed to say â€œthat economic problems are due to the Muslims.â€
He said there had been dozens of attacks on the mosque, including a serious fire in 2003. In one office, he pointed to a window with a bullet hole. As for Mr. Akessonâ€™s Sweden Democrats, he said that their support was not substantial, before adding, â€œBut Hitlerâ€™s support started small.â€