|The ruling coalition could become the first right-wing government to win a second term in nearly a century [Fatma Naib]|
Swedes are casting their ballots in general elections in which the centre-right government is likely to be re-elected with a narrow lead over the opposition.
But Sunday’s polls may also see the far-right making its debut in parliament. In theory, the Sweden Democrats (SD) could even get a role as kingmaker.
But both the centre-right bloc and the centre-left opposition have pledged not to seek support from SD to form a majority, saying the group represents xenophobic views that run counter to Sweden’s tradition of tolerance.
Hardline politicians are trying to capitalise on views that Sweden’s integration of immigrants has failed as a result of an influx of asylum-seekers.
Fredrik Reinfeldt, the 45-year-old Swedish prime minister, is vying to see his four-party coalition become the first right-wing government to win a second term in nearly a century.
A ruling party’s re-election would spell a decisive break with the hold on power of the Social Democrats, who have dominated Swedish politics for 80 years and are considered the caretakers of the country’s famous cradle-to-grave welfare state.
Three separate polls published on Saturday showed the gap between Reinfeldt’s coalition and the left-wing opposition was shrinking.
The surveys still handed the coalition government a lead, with between 49.2 and 51.2 per cent of voter intentions.
|Al Jazeera’s Laurence Lee reports on the run-up
to Sweden’s national elections
Reinfeldt’s ruling party ousted the Social Democrats in 2006 with vows to lower taxes for working Swedes while trimming welfare benefits, and it has largely kept its promises.
Sweden’s export-driven economy is expected to grow by more than four per cent this year, while the 2010 budget gap is on track to be the smallest in the 27-nation European Union.
But Mona Sahlin, 53, the Social Democrat leader who heads up the three-party left-wing coalition, said she has not given up hope of becoming Sweden’s first female prime minister.
There is still a chance “we can achieve a ‘red-green’ government”, Sahlin said.
The ruling coalition has vowed to negotiate with the Green Party if it fails to win an outright majority, to avoid being dependent on the far-right Sweden Democrats. Meanwhile, the opposition has said that if it becomes the strongest bloc, it will seek to win over one of the smaller parties from the centre-right.
Immigrants make up 14 per cent of Sweden’s population of 9.4 million, with the biggest group from neighbouring Finland followed by Iraq, the former Yugoslavia and Poland.
Both Sahlin and Reinfeldt have stressed the importance of achieving a majority government to offset the sway of the Sweden Democrats.
“Don’t expose Sweden to this experiment [of allowing the Sweden Democrats into parliament]. Make sure they don’t get any power,” Reinfeldt said on Saturday, urging Swedes to vote in “a stable majority government”.
Saturday’s surveys indicated the Sweden Democrats, who won just 2.9 per cent of the vote in the 2006 elections, would garner between 3.8 and 5.9 per cent of votes.
The party itself says it expects to win as much as eight per cent.
The Sweden Democrats say immigration has become an economic burden, draining the welfare system and channelling jobs to newcomers who work for lower wages.
“The immigration policy is the most important issue in this election and we want that to be debated and we want the other parties to change their policy,” Jimmie Akesson, the party leader, said on Saturday.
Polling stations open at 8am local time (06:00 GMT) and will close 12 hours later, with 7.1 million citizens eligible to vote, including a record number of first-time voters.
Turnout in Sweden is traditionally high and stood at nearly 82 per cent in the last elections.