On 18 February 2017 US President Donald Trump gave a speech in Melbourne, Florida. While speaking about the importance of keeping America safe his speech digressed into talking about Sweden. 'You look at what's happening last night in Sweden. Sweden, who would believe this. Sweden. They took in large numbers. They're having problems like they never thought possible.' In reality, nothing special happened the night before in Sweden but his comments somehow set off a raft of negative reports about the political and social state of affairs in Sweden. And while the World Cup, crop failures and wildfires dominated Swedish news over the summer it's the imminent election on 9 September that has caught the international media's attention, focusing on a sense of growing frustration among the legendarily relaxed Swedes. The country is know for its tolerant society and its generous welfare state built on decades of social democratic rule and consensus politics. Recent statistics, however, tell a different story. A noticeable rise in support for right wing and far right parties has been accompanied by a shift in tone in the public debate. Sweden has taken in more refugees and immigrants per capita than any other European country over the past years, a fact that has brought immigration to the top of the political agenda and is being exploited by parties on the right. Judging by the media's reporting of the run-up to the election, It's easy to gain the impression that immigration is the only thing Swedes care about these days. Travelling from her home in Gothenburg in the south all the way to Kiruna in the far north and back down along the eastern coast, Nora Lorek found a very different reality. To her astonishment she found a rather happy country and a sense of 'we're doing just fine'.
In Kiruna the sun doesn't set during the summer months. Below the Kiirunavaara mountain next to the town lies one of the world's largest contiguous deposits of iron
ore and the local mine provides thousands of jobs for the town's 17,000 residents. Extensive mining since the end of the 19th century has caused structural weaknesses underneath the town which brought about the decision in 2004 to gradually move it three kilometres to the East. While much of southern Sweden isn't particularly interested in what goes on in the North, some locals feel peeved by the lack of appreciation for the North's contribution to the economy. 'The people in the South don't know anything about us up here in Norrbotten [the county where Kiruna is located], yet we supply them with ore, water and wood. I get annoyed with ignorance. There is a lot of money coming from industry here but the taxes end up in Stockholm or Lulea' says artist and painter Gunvor Olofsson.
The disconnect between the countryside and the politicians in Stockholm is a recurring theme as Nora travelled across rural Sweden. Swedish taxes are high and the welfare system is famously generous yet people in the countryside feel forgotten by the the capital and the cities when it comes to jobs, public transport and other public services.
Yet despite these gripes, Swedes are mostly a happy bunch, grateful for what they have and loath to ask for too much. Much has been made of the rise of the Sweden Democrats who under their young leader Jimmie Akesson have been campaigning on an anti-immigrant, "Sweden First" platform which has made them the third largest party. Yet most Swedes are happy to bide their time and await the outcome of the election. The mainstream parties have made it clear that they are unlikely to go into coalition with the far-right insurgents.
The lasting impression from her trip left Nora with a feeling that there are many things which people would like to change but overall, most people seemed happy with their lives. She had expected more dissatisfaction and frustration as has been reported on social media yet most of the issues in the news were only referred to in passing amongst people she met. The lasting impression was the strong sense of pride Swedes feel for their hometowns and their country and the general sense of optimism for the future.