SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Sweden holds national elections tomorrow for the first time since the country opened its doors to hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers fleeing violence in and around Syria. There's been a backlash to that wave of immigration, and now close to 1 in 5 Swedes say they'll vote for the nationalistic Sweden Democrats, a party with roots in the neo-Nazi movement. Sidsel Overgaard reports.
SIDSEL OVERGAARD, BYLINE: It's noon on a weekday in the Swedish city of Malmo.
JIMMIE AKESSON: (Speaking Swedish).
OVERGAARD: The leader of the Sweden Democrats is addressing a crowd surrounded by flags sprouting blue-petaled daisies, the party's logo. Standing quietly to the side, first-time voter Leif Akeberg says he's not impressed by what he's hearing.
LEIF AKEBERG: This is the Swedish Trump.
OVERGAARD: He does not mean that kindly.
AKEBERG: If you're clever enough, you'd understand that it's just [expletive] he's talking about. But not everyone is.
OVERGAARD: Akeberg says the Sweden Democrats' policies are rooted in racism, plain and simple. And it's true that despite the party's long-running efforts to clean up its image, members are still regularly ousted for various racist offenses. But Giedra Andersson says that's not what it's about.
GIEDRA ANDERSSON: It's not the time to scream that, oh, you are racist, and you will exclude everyone, and we'll be just blue-eyed, blond people in Sweden. It's not about that. It's about being reasonable, being smart and using resources.
OVERGAARD: Like many of the other Sweden Democrat voters here, Andersson believes that Sweden's new arrivals are putting a strain on the country's generous welfare state, and people like her are paying the price.
ANDERSSON: If you are sick and you are going to the emergency room, you have to wait for six, eight hours just to meet the doctor. And that's the reality.
OVERGAARD: The Swedish government says the usual wait is more like an hour, though that's still longer than most Europeans are used to. But the issue that comes up more often than any other in this crowd is crime. Few people here seem to have been personally affected by violence, but many describe feeling unsafe.
ANDERSSON: If something happens, you call to the police, you don't have a chance to - that police coming. And if you are robbed or you're attacked or you are raped, it's not safe in big cities. So I am happy that I live on the countryside.
OVERGAARD: Crime statistics are tricky. Sweden, by almost any measure, is an extremely safe country. But the overall rate of crime has been slowly rising for more than 20 years. Gang violence is a real problem in some neighborhoods. And there's been a recent increase in cases of sexual assault, though that may be partly due to changes in reporting.
But Sweden does not track the ethnicity of perpetrators, so making a connection between immigration and crime is a largely speculative exercise. But as political scientist Mikael Sundstrom from Lund University says, it doesn't matter.
MIKAEL SUNDSTROM: You don't need solid data to sell the idea, from the Sweden Democrats' point of view, that immigrants are linked to crime. But you just need to make sure that it stays in the public mind that this or that crime was committed by an immigrant.
OVERGAARD: And in that, he says they have succeeded. They've also succeeded in forcing Sweden's other leading parties to take a harder stance on immigration, a scenario that's been playing out in neighboring countries for years. Patrik Jonsson, who leads the Sweden Democrats in the Skane region, points to his counterparts in the Danish People's Party as a model for the future.
PATRIK JONSSON: The whole social democracy must change direction. And if you see in Denmark, Dansk Folkeparti often support from the Social Democrats. And I think that's a direction the Swedes will see.
OVERGAARD: Denmark is considered to have among the most restrictive immigration policies in Europe. Should Jonsson's dream come true, it would be a major blow to the Swedish national identity, which is firmly grounded in ideas of tolerance and inclusion. So far, mainstream parties on the right and left still say they will not negotiate with the Sweden Democrats. But if they do as well as polls are forecasting, how will either side form a functioning government without them?
SUNDSTROM: (Laughter) The $10,000 question.
OVERGAARD: Mikael Sundstrom says it's anybody's guess until after the vote on Sunday. For NPR News, I'm Sidsel Overgaard in Malmo, Sweden. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.