STOCKHOLM (AP) — The Sweden Democrats party was founded by neo-Nazis and skinheads in the 1980s. Today, the rebranded and reformed nationalist party stands on the edge of unprecedented influence.
Following a weekend election held amid fears of rising crime, the anti-immigration party is the now second-most popular party in the Scandinavian country.
The development is the latest global example of a political force once widely deemed socially unacceptable moving into the political mainstream.
Vowing to put “Sweden first” and to “make Sweden good again,” the slogans of party leader Jimmie Akesson echo those that have resonated with ex-President Donald Trump's supporters in the United States.
Its surge has energized right-wing forces in Europe as they eye further gains against the left.
“Let this be an omen and model for the rest of Europe," said a tweet from the European Conservatives and Reformists party, whose president is Giorgia Meloni, leader of the far-right Brothers of Italy party.
In 10 days, Italians will elect a new Parliament in balloting that, if opinion polls prove right, could see Meloni triumph as part of a center-right electoral alliance and even possibly become Italy's premier.
Steve Bannon, Trump's longtime ally, also hailed the Sweden Democrats' surge on his “War Room” podcast, calling the shift to the right in traditionally progressive Sweden a “political earthquake." He praised the Sweden Democrats because “they want their borders, they want their sovereignty.”
Bannon described Sweden as a destroyed society — a right-wing trope that exaggerates the scale of Sweden's challenges.
Sweden is for the most part a prosperous and thriving European Union member, though many have been shaken by shootings and gang-related violence. Some, though not all, of the rising violence, has taken place in largely immigrant neighborhoods.
The populist party's strong showing was confirmed Wednesday evening, three days after a vote so close that the final result had to wait for postal and other outstanding votes to be counted.
With the tally clarified, the right-wing bloc of parties has 176 seats while Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson's center-left bloc has 173. On Thursday, Andersson submitted her resignation to the speaker of Parliament.
Despite the Sweden Democrats' surge — it won 20.5% of the vote, making it the largest right-of-center party — the stigma which it cannot entirely shake means that it will not be the first party to be tapped to form the government. Ulf Kristersson, leader of the Moderates party, another member of the right-of-center bloc, is expected to be the first to get a chance to try to form a governing coalition.
Many Swedes worry that the Sweden Democrats' history and hard-line stance on immigration threaten the democratic identity of a nation that is home to the Nobel Prizes and where generations of refugees have been welcomed, and thrived.
Emily Jeremias, a 45-year-old musician, said that she was worried but not surprised about "a right-wing kind of extremist party ... gaining so much power.”
“We see kind of a right-wing movement in the whole of Europe, so it’s not surprising that’s happening here as well,” she said.
During her campaign, the outgoing prime minister depicted the Sweden Democrats as a possible threat to the country's pluralism and tolerance.
And as Andersson acknowledged defeat, she said she personally had been subject to a “hate campaign," and alleged that the party used “organized trolls” to target young activists.
She and others on the left have also accused the Moderates of being complicit in normalizing the Sweden Democrats by being willing to work with them.
The populist party's more acceptable image is the result of years of efforts by Akesson, its 43-year-old leader. He says the party's transformation from its early days is sincere and that it rejects fascism and Nazism.
Under his leadership, the party long ago traded its torch symbol for a flower, aiming to underscore its reformation.
Akesson's interest in politics started as a teenager when Sweden became a member of the EU in 1995. He opposed it at the time, but in another shift, the party today supports membership in the 27-member bloc. It also supports NATO membership, which Sweden applied for this year after Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
Akesson's personal image is of someone smooth and well-groomed. He plays keyboard in a soft rock band, and in his speeches avoids inflammatory language, using humor and irony instead with his opponents.
As part of its reckoning with the past, the party recently published a study into the roots of the Sweden Democrats. Swedish newspaper Expressen revealed the author was a party member. Nonetheless, the investigation confirmed that several of the party’s founders in the 1980s had links to fascist and neo-Nazi movements.
The party says immigration to Sweden in the past was mostly acceptable, but that it has become too much in recent years. In 2015 alone the country of 10 million took in a record 163,000 refugees — the highest per capita of any European country.
Party members say they welcome Ukrainian refugees, but that Sweden should not have to accept more from the Middle East or Africa.
The party is vowing to limit asylum approval to a bare minimum and to deport any migrants or refugees who commit crimes. In its election program it alleged that there are cases of asylum-seekers who claim dishonestly to be persecuted because they are gay or rejected Islam, suggesting it would limit such claims.
The Sweden Democrats say that Sweden has become “a magnet for the world’s migrants” and their aim is “to restore Sweden to what it once was.”
While it is unclear whether the Sweden Democrats will join the eventual government — not all the center-right parties in the bloc are ready to agree to that — it is clear that any right-wing government would need their support in order to muster a majority in Parliament to pass legislation. The star is on the rise for Akesson and his party.
Olsen reported from Copenhagen, Denmark.