Sweden has said it is on “high alert” for outside intervention in its upcoming election amid heightened tensions with Russia.
The Scandinavian country’s recently restored psychological defense agency said it had seen increased activity from foreign sources following its NATO bid and was prepared for the possibility of ‘something exceptional. as Election Day approaches on September 11.
After a turbulent period for Swedish politics, including the resignation of Stefan Löfven as prime minister, the rise of Magdalena Andersson, the country’s first female leader, and threats from Vladimir Putin, the latest polls are exceptionally tight in a very busy campaign with a strong focus on immigration.
In what would be a seismic shift to the right, polls suggest Sweden’s Democrats, right-wing populists with neo-Nazi roots, could be on course to replace the Moderates as Sweden’s second largest party.
Generally, the elections have been a race between left-wing parties led by Andersson’s Social Democrats and a center-right coalition led by Moderates, but even the latter party has gone in just a few years from urging the Swedes to “open their hearts” to refugees. to embrace the Swedish Democrats – a party whose leader, Jimmie Åkesson, has called for asylum is reduced to “close to zero”.
Sweden’s perceived vulnerabilities to foreign misinformation include immigration, violent crime, schools, jobs, pensions and rising energy costs.
Mats Engström, a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations and a former adviser to a Social Democratic foreign minister, said while it was no surprise that violent crime was in the spotlight as shootings deadly increases, discussions linking it to migration have “for years been bolstered by Russian factories and other troll factories”.
He said Sweden’s electoral system was “robust” but that misinformation aimed at the end of the election campaign would be much harder to counter.
Mikael Östlund, spokesman for the psychological defense agency, said: “‘We have high alert all the time, but we are aware that this could be an opportunity for someone to want to harm Sweden. , to have an impact on the Swedish democratic process, to do something exceptional towards the end of the election campaign.
The Cold War-era government body meant to protect democracy, freedom of speech and independence was reintroduced in January amid growing fears over Russian aggression.
Östlund said he saw “increased activity” from outside the country, some of which was “quite intense”, following Sweden’s decision to apply for NATO membership. Ongoing disinformation campaigns, believed to come from Russia, include claims that Sweden is a weak country and not safe for refugees.
“It’s something we’ve seen before from Russian actors and also from individuals,” Östlund said. “We know that foreign powers and countries with the capacity might be interested in hurting Sweden and hurting the elections, or trying to widen the divisions between ethnic groups.
“So we are ready for the event that over the last few weeks, the closer we get to election day, something may happen that we have quite a short time to counter.”
In the event of foreign intervention, the options to counter it are to publicize the breach and name the source. A recently launched public awareness campaign warned “bli inté lurad” (make no mistake) and encouraged people to think about the source and publisher of information before sharing it online. A free online course from the agency shows how to protect against misinformation.
The election also faces the threat of intervention from individuals and extremists. A prosecutor confirmed last week that Annie Lööf, the leader of the Center party, was the intended target of a suspected terrorist attack, which killed another woman, at a political festival in Gotland in July.
Frederik Bratt, the commander of Sweden’s security services for the election, said that while there was no indication of an increased threat targeting the election, the continued threat from lone actors was “complex and challenging. “.
Engström said whether the Social Democrats retained power after the election would largely depend on Andersson’s personal popularity, but if they lost the party’s focus on crime during the campaign it would be reversed. question. He said the moderates also faced a backlash among the party’s former voters over its move to the Swedish Democrats, which could prove “catastrophic”.
“If moderate leader Ulf Kristersson can still form a new government, he will be very dependent on the Swedish Democrats,” Engström said. “It will also affect Sweden’s policy internationally, for example lower ambitions in climate policy.”
In Rinkeby, a district of Stockholm with a large immigrant population, Abebe Hailu, 69, campaigned for the Social Democrats on Wednesday in front of a shipping container decorated with a poster that read “Our Stockholm region can do better” . He said the issues people are most concerned about are welfare, schools, health care and jobs.
“Our party thinks firsthand that you should invest in children, before this becomes final,” he said.
Welfare is the solution to the problems of Swedish society, he added. “We need to reduce the class gap between rich and poor and that means good schools for children.”