Swedes voted in legislative elections Sunday with a far-right surge expected if voters punish traditional parties over their failure to address immigration concerns.
Stockholm: Swedes voted in legislative elections Sunday with a far-right surge expected if voters punish traditional parties over their failure to address immigration concerns.
Social Democratic Prime Minister Stefan Lofven has called the election a "referendum on the future of the welfare state" but the far-right Sweden Democrats (SD) have presented it as vote on immigrants and their integration, after Sweden took in almost 400,000 asylum seekers since 2012.
Opinion polls suggest SD could garner between 16 and 25 percent of the vote, making it one of the biggest parties and rendering it almost impossible to predict the make-up of the next government.
The party, with roots in the neo-Nazi movement, has said the arrival of asylum seekers is a threat to Swedish culture and claimed they put a strain on the country´s generous welfare state.
As he cast his ballot in Stockholm on Sunday, Lofven urged Swedes not to vote for the "racist party".
"It´s ... about decency, about a decent democracy. And the Social Democrats and a Social Democratic-led government is a guarantee for not letting the Sweden Democrats extremist party, racist party, get any influence in the government."
The Social Democrats, traditionally the biggest party and who have led a minority government with the Greens, have lost support on both the left and the right and are tipped to post their lowest score since 1911.
- ´Hostile to foreigners´ -
Anna Berglund, a 28-year-old lawyer who voted for the small Centre Party at a polling station in Stockholm´s upscale Ostermalm neighbourhood, said SD´s mounting support was "bad news".
"I´m afraid we´re becoming a society that is more hostile to foreigners. I don´t like it."
In Rinkeby, a disadvantaged suburb north of Stockholm home to a strong immigrant population, locals were also concerned.
"I don´t want SD. So I go see people and ask them if they have Swedish citizenship and if they do I tell them that it´s important to go vote," Sofie, a Turkish woman in her 50s told AFP.
Up to 20 percent of the 7.5 million eligible voters were undecided in the final days before the vote, according to pollsters.
In Strangnas, an hour west of Stockholm, Lofven´s main challenger, Moderates leader Ulf Kristersson, handed out campaign leaflets in his hometown on voting day.
He told AFP he was worried about SD.
"I have tried to prove to voters during the election campaign that if you really want a change, you have to vote ... for our four parties. We are the guarantee to oust the current government from power," he said.
Well aware that his Alliance has no chance of winning a majority, he has said Sweden needs "a strong cross-bloc cooperation to isolate the forces... pushing for Sweden to withdraw from international cooperation".
In southern Sweden, an SD stronghold, party leader Jimmie Akesson campaigned among throngs of supporters late Saturday as detractors booed him and shouted "No racists on our streets!"
"We´re now competing against the Social Democrats and Moderates to become the biggest party in the country," he said, dismissing the protesters as "communists".
- Deal with ´the devil´ -
Neither Lofven´s "red-green" bloc nor Kristersson´s opposition centre-right four-party Alliance (Moderates, Centre, Liberals and Christian Democrats) were expected to win a majority in parliament.
Lengthy negotiations will be needed to build a majority, or at least a minority that won´t be toppled by the opposite side.
The opposition is intent on ousting Lofven, with some Moderates willing to go so far as to put an end to SD´s pariah status and open negotiations with them.
That could prove fatal for the Alliance, with the Liberal and Centre parties repeatedly ruling out a deal with "the devil", as Akesson occasionally calls himself.
None of the seven other parties have been willing to negotiate with SD.
"They should be taken seriously, they have raised serious issues, not just immigration but health care too," said 46-year-old Stockholm voter Henrik, a doctor who refused to give his last name.
"It´s a problem for democracy if the other party leaders refuse to talk to a party that represents the views of so many people," his wife Josefine added.
In an interview with AFP during the campaign, Akesson stressed he would "lay down his terms" after the election, citing immigration policy, crime-fighting and health care as priorities.
Polling stations close at 8:00 pm, with first estimates expected soon afterwards.
Final results are due before midnight (2200 GMT) but the composition of the next government may not be known for weeks.