Michael Ahlgren, like many residents of Landskrona, Sweden, was drawn to a nationalist party because of his resentment over immigrants.
LANDSKRONA, Sweden — The Ahlgren family in this struggling industrial city offers one lens to view both the festering anger that has fueled the rise of anti-immigrant parties in Europe, including Scandinavia, and the potential for a backlash.
Dean Cox for The New York Times
Bjorn Soder, the party secretary of the Sweden Democrats, an anti-immigrant nationalist party that found support in Landskrona.
Michael Ahlgren, who lost his job as a security guard for the Red Cross just before Christmas, wears a tattoo of the Swedish flag on his shoulder and voted for the Sweden Democrats, a nationalist party that shocked the country by winning nearly a quarter of the votes for the city council here in 2006. He and his wife are outspoken in their resentment: the government spends money on refugees, they say, but their daughters’ school lunches have barely any vegetables and, to accommodate Muslim religious practice, no longer offer pork sausages.
“They take a lot more consideration with the foreigners,” Mr. Ahlgren said.
Yet voters in this city that helped sound the alarm about the potency of anti-immigrant sentiment have begun to turn away from the party — in part because mainstream parties began co-opting some of the Sweden Democrats’ themes.
Long a battleground between Sweden and neighboring Denmark, Landskrona, which will celebrate its 600th birthday in two years, is now on the front lines in the fight over the future of the country. The city for years has been on the leading edge of trends — an aging population, a rising share of immigrants and their children and a disappearing industrial base — affecting communities on both sides of the Atlantic.
In the process, Sweden’s world-famous model of an open and generous welfare state is in jeopardy.
This fall, the Sweden Democrats won their first 20 seats in Sweden’s Parliament, drawing not just on anger about joblessness, but also on a breakdown in the sense of community, rising crime and a feeling among some Swedes that in trying to accommodate immigrants and refugees the country went too far. One-third of the city’s residents are immigrants or their children.
In June, the unemployment rate in Landskrona was 10.6 percent, while the national average was 6 percent. And the city has the second-highest share of people on public assistance in the region.
When Tapio Salonen, a professor of social work at Linnaeus University, was looking for a city in which to conduct a three-year comprehensive study involving 20 researchers, the results of which he recently published, he chose Landskrona. “The problems of going from the industrial to the postindustrial era and all the transition problems facing the whole of Western Europe are on full display,” he said. “It is the future.”
The city’s Oresund shipyard, which employed 3,500 people in the early 1970s, gave notice to its remaining employees in 1981. As residents slowly left to search for jobs, the enormous surplus of empty apartments was slowly filled with refugees from the war in Yugoslavia in the 1990s and then with those fleeing Iraq more recently.
Nationally, the Sweden Democrats effectively tapped into fears about Muslim immigrants in the last election. The party spent about $160,000 producing an extremely dark campaign advertisement depicting women in burqas with strollers stampeding past an elderly Swedish woman to claim dwindling public funds. It was so inflammatory that Sweden’s TV4 banned it until it was re-edited.
The mass killings in Norway last month jolted Europeans into facing the rising anti-immigrant influence across the continent, particularly in Scandinavia. A member of the Sweden Democrats caused an uproar by saying that the killings would not have happened “in a Norwegian Norway.” He was chastised by the party.
“We find those acts reprehensible,” said Bjorn Soder, party secretary of the Sweden Democrats, in a recent interview at the party headquarters in Kristianstad. Graffiti scrawled on the building in black spray paint after the killings declared, “We remember Norway” and “Smash nationalism.”
The party’s leader until 1995, Anders Klarstrom, had a neo-Nazi background, as did other key members. Mr. Soder was one of four students at Lund University, including the current leader Jimmie Akesson, who began to reform the party a decade ago. The Sweden Democrats have taken a more progressive stance on gay rights, dropped support for the death penalty and ended opposition to foreign adoption.
Sitting on an Ikea sofa, with a pin on his suit lapel of the small blue Blasippa flower, symbol of the Sweden Democrats, Mr. Soder defended the party’s opposition to mosques and its demand that immigrants assimilate into Swedish society. He rejected the common characterization of the Sweden Democrats’ support as a protest vote by a struggling middle class.
Dean Cox for The New York Times
A third of the people of Landskrona, a city nearly 600 years old, are immigrants or their children.
Times Topic: Sweden
“Surveys show we have very loyal voters, supporters who sympathize with our platform,” Mr. Soder said. “We dare to point out the problems that other parties don’t address.”
In Landskrona, the city council’s chairman, Torkild Strandberg, engaged the Sweden Democrats on issues like their proposal to create an ombudsman for the elderly, which the council approved, while distancing himself from them on matters like immigration. He co-opted the Sweden Democrats’ message on crime and strengthened his Liberal People’s Party’s grip on power at their expense in the next election.
“The way of handling them had always been almost mechanically to say no to all their suggestions,” Mr. Strandberg said. That approach played into the party’s outsider appeal.
“People say: ‘Everyone’s really scared of this party. They anger the establishment. Let’s vote for them,’ ” said Niklas Orrenius, a reporter for the daily newspaper Sydsvenskan who has covered the party for a decade and wrote a book about it. “Strandberg deflated their martyrdom.”
Mr. Strandberg moved most aggressively on public safety. Rising crime is emblematic for many Swedes of a broader breakdown in community and society. A former member of the justice committee in Parliament, Mr. Strandberg lobbied for more police officers on the beat and hired private security officers in the meantime. His moves earned strong approval from the public, though some like Mr. Salonen criticized him for moving too close to the nationalists’ us-versus-them rhetoric.
The Sweden Democrats lost three seats on the city council in Landskrona in the September 2010 election. The party’s share of the local vote fell to 15.8 percent from 22.2 percent in 2006. The Sweden Democrats doubled their vote totals in nationwide elections in the same period.
There is a sense among voters that even if much remains to be fixed, at least their voices are being heard. “People are listening more now,” said Bengt Persson, a building manager in Landskrona. “They don’t have their blinders on.”