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Sunday's parliamentary elections in Sweden are expected to be a close race between two political blocs - the ruling centre-right coalition and the centre-left opposition.

The four parties of the ruling bloc, the Alliance, have a joint manifesto while the Social Democrats, the largest opposition party, merely say they will cooperate with the Greens.

The black sheep in the polls, the far-right Sweden Democrats, are forecast to strengthen their position with the latest major opposition poll giving them around 10 percent. Since they entered parliament in 2010, both blocs have refused to cooperate with the party and they have pledged that the boycott will remain in place regardless of the poll outcome.
 
With a high probability of neither bloc winning a majority, analysts are predicting a complicated parliamentary situation and a protracted process of forming a government.

FIVE KEY ISSUES:

EDUCATION

Education is the most pressing issue in this year's election, according to voters. Sweden's ranking of below average in the PISA survey, which rates the knowledge and skills of 15-16-year-old students in OECD countries, sent shockwaves into the political debate in December. Spearheaded by the Liberal Party - traditionally favoured by many teachers - the ruling coalition has accused the Social Democrats of building a lax school system without discipline during their decades in power. The centre-right alliance is campaigning to mark pupils from grade 4 instead of the current grade 6.  

EMPLOYMENT

The blocs differ sharply on how to battle unemployment, currently at 7.4 percent and far worse among immigrants and the young. The governing coalition has lowered a payroll tax to encourage hiring and vowed to take further measures to make work more profitable than being on the dole. The opposition wants to invest more in education for those outside the workforce, create more jobs in the public sector and increase unemployment benefits. 

XENOPHOBIA AND IMMIGRATION

Sweden has one of the most generous asylum policies in the world but also a far-right movement on the rise. In the last year, far-right rallies and counterdemonstrations have drawn big crowds and, on a few occasions, turned violent. The Sweden Democrats, in parliament since 2010, have been under close scrutiny in the lead-up to the polls and several candidates have been forced to resign after revelations of racist comments. SD wants to slash immigration to a 10th of the current level while the other parties want to either keep current policies or make them even more liberal. At the height of campaigning, amid rising numbers of people fleeing Syria and Iraq, PM Fredrik Reinfeldt appealed to Swedes to "open their hearts" to refugees.

PROFITS IN THE WELFARE SECTOR

The centre-right has expanded choice and private provision in the tax-funded welfare sector. Private equity firms buying into welfare, scandals at a few elderly care homes and tax profits moved out of the country have outraged many Swedes, and led to calls for limits on private firms making profits in public services. The Left Party want a total ban on profits in welfare while the other opposition parties demand stricter regulation. 

GENDER EQUALITY

In part triggered by a successful campaign by the Feminist Initiative, a leftist party running for parliament, gender equality has been pushed to the top of the political agenda. Except for the Sweden Democrats, all the established parties have ambitious programmes to improve Sweden's already admired equality record. The distribution of parental leave, methods to reach more equal representation in boardrooms and rape legislation are some of the issues up for debate.

Source: Al Jazeera