As Sweden flirts with the far right, Europe holds its breath

Sweden Democrats leader Jimmie Akesson campaigns in Nykoping on Friday ahead of Sunday's vote.

Solvesborg, Sweden (CNN)Nestled along the south coast, Solvesborg is the picture-perfect postcard version of small-town Sweden.

The quaint houses that line spotless streets and the humble boats moored in the marina are the embodiment of "lagom," the Swedish concept of not too much, not too little, but just right.
But while this seaside town, with a population of just 9,000, may seem idyllic, it is also a stronghold of the Sweden Democrats -- the far-right, anti-immigrant party that has rocked the country's politics and national identity -- and the hometown of its 39-year-old leader Jimmie Akesson.
    On Sunday, when Swedes vote in the national election, the Sweden Democrats may become the second-biggest party, a move that would see the party grow closer in popularity to the center-left Social Democrats -- the architects of the welfare state and who have come in first in every national election since 1917.
    In this respect, Sweden is not unusual. From Italy to Poland and Germany, many countries have seen political gains by the far right, while extremists in the US and UK have become more vocal.
    But the significance of the far-right party potentially joining a coalition government in one of Europe's most liberal and welcoming nations, and the potential for contagion in the rest of the European Union, has sparked alarm. French President Emmanuel Macron this week criticized Akesson's views as "incompatible" with Swedish values.
    The predicted far-right surge in Sweden has sparked protests across the country.

    Fears about migration

    Like many other nations that have seen a rise of the far right, Sweden's political earthquake has been sparked by the issue of immigration.
    Traditionally one of the most welcoming countries to refugees, Sweden took in 162,450 asylum seekers in 2015 -- the second-largest number of migrants per capita of any EU country.
    Many Swedes were initially welcoming. But others feared the welfare system, and Swedish values, would collapse under the weight of so many immigrants.
    "In 2015, it was chaos here. And it's still chaos," said Rolf Hans Berg, an 83-year-old Sweden Democrat supporter who lives in Solvesborg. "Today we give homes to those [refugees] coming here. Of course, that frustrates Swedes. It's a big problem. It's them against us, more or less."
    Since the refugee crisis, the number of asylum claims has fallen precipitously. Still, many of those opposed to migration have turned to the Sweden Democrats, lured by its anti-immigrant, nativist stances.
    Organized crime in Swedish cities, the 2017 terror attack in Stockholm and recent car burnings have added to the climate of fear.
    "We had this terror attack in Stockholm last year and then a lot of people started talking because [the suspect's] asylum claim had been rejected," said Matilda Karnerup, a 23-year-old student from Solvesborg, adding that while she is undecided about whom to vote for, she sympathizes with the Sweden Democrats.
    Police separate demonstrators in  Stockholm in November 2016 after a protest against migrants.

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    Despite overall crime staying relatively stable since 2008 (measured by the total amount of reported offenses per capita) social media has amplified -- and at times distorted -- this narrative of a crime-ridden Sweden. Research carried out by Oxford University's Internet Institute found one in three news articles shared on Twitter ahead of this weekend's election was "junk news,