STOCKHOLM (AP) — Voters in Sweden made their views on immigration known Sunday in a general election that could strengthen a party with roots in the white supremacist movement if enough ballots were cast to protest an influx of newcomers to the historically heterogeneous nation.
The potentially promising prospects of the far-right Sweden Democrats had many other Swedes worried about an erosion of the humanitarian values that have long been a foundation of the Scandinavian country's identity.
The election was Sweden's first since the government in 2015 allowed 163,000 migrants into the country with a population of 10 million. The number is far lower than the asylum-seekers Germany accepted that year, but highest per capita of any European nation.
"This election is a referendum about our welfare," Prime Minister Stefan Lofven said. "It's also about decency, about a decent democracy ... and not letting the Sweden Democrats, an extremist party, a racist party, get any influence in the government."
About 7.5 million voters were eligible to choose the next members of the 349-seat Riksdag, or parliament. About 6,300 candidates sought the four-year terms. It was unlikely any single party would secure a majority of 175 seats.
The latest opinion poll conducted by pollster Novus for public broadcaster SVT suggested Friday that Lofven's ruling Social Democrats would lose a substantial number of seats, but emerge with about one-fourth of the vote — the most support predicted for any party.
If realized, it would be a historical low for the traditional left-wing party, which has dominated Swedish politics in the post-World War II era.
The poll indicated the Sweden Democrats — led by Jimmie Akesson — would get 19.1 percent of the vote compared to the 13-percent support received in 2014.
The center-right Moderate Party is set to take to take third place with 17.7 percent.
Immigration was the hot topic of the campaign, helping the steady rise in popularity of the Sweden Democrats.
The party has worked to soften its neo-Nazi image while helping to break down longstanding taboos on what Swedes could say openly about immigration and integration without being shunned as racists.
During a heated debate among party leaders Friday, Akesson caused a stir by blaming migrants for the difficulties they often have in finding employment and not adjusting to Sweden.
The broadcaster that aired the televised debate, SVT, afterward called his remarks degrading and against the democratic mandate of public broadcasting.
Akesson responded that state television shouldn't take sides, and later announced that he wouldn't take part in any of SVT's election programs Sunday.
At the party's rally on Saturday, he strongly criticized Lofven's government for "prioritizing" the cause of immigrants over the needs of citizens.
"This government we have had now . they have prioritised, during these four years, asylum-seekers," Akesson said, giving an exhaustive list of things he says the government has failed to do for Swedish society because of migrants.
"Sweden needs breathing space, we need tight responsible immigration policies."
Akesson's strong rhetoric has shocked many Swedes since the country has a long tradition of helping those in need.
"Terrible! I just wanna cry when I think about it," said Veronica Lundqvist, referring to the Sweden Democrats after she left a voting booth in central Stockholm.
"They say awful things. I mean of course we have a lot of refugees here, but we need to take care of them. They come from a terrible place, terrible wars. We can't just throw them out."
But others say the Sweden Democrats are trying to fix a historical problem.
"It's an integration issue," Karl Ljung said at the same voting station. "It's not just about what happened two years ago when we had a lot of refugees. It's more that we have had an integration issue for maybe 20 years. So we really have to solve it now."
Mohamed Nuur, a 26-year-old Social Democratic candidate of Somali descent, said he sees Akesson taking Sweden back to the past.
"For me, the Sweden that he (Jimmie Akesson) wants to see ... that is not our future," Nuur said. "That is to go back in history. For me, when he is saying that immigrants are not welcome to Sweden ... he is trying to spread hate between the people. Actually, it's the immigrants who built up this country."
Security was another key election issue. Citizens expressed concerns about reports of an increase in crimes such as rape and gang violence.
Sabina Macri, voting in central Stockholm, said the current political situation has left her questioning her future in Sweden.
"We used to be very safe. We used to be a very calm nation," she said. "And today I feel a bit insecure about the future, especially for my children. We have two girls."
Jari Tanner reported from Helsinki. Jeff Schaeffer and Philipp Jenne in Stockholm contributed to this report.