Swedish prime minister Stefan Lofven’s Social Democrats appeared to be the largest party in Sunday’s legislative elections, with exit polls projecting gains for the anti-immigrant Swedish Democrats (SD), who are projected to be the second-largest party.
A TV4 exit poll predicted the Social Democrats would win 25.4 per cent of votes, while public broadcaster SVT credited them with 26.2 per cent. Both scores, if confirmed, would make them the biggest party but would represent their lowest election results in more than a century.
The far-right SD, who have capitalised on voters’ frustrations over immigration, were expected to make strides but attain lower results than opinion polls' predictions, both the exit polls showed.
SD leader Jimmie Akesson said he hoped to win between 20 to 30 per cent of votes.
In the TV4 poll, the conservative Moderates were expected to come in second at 18.4 per cent, while SD was credited with 16.3 per cent of votes, up from 12.9 per cent four years ago.
The SVT poll meanwhile put SD in second place at 19.2 per cent, trailed by the Moderates at 17.8 per cent.
Mr Lofven had called the election a “referendum on the future of the welfare state” but SD presented it as a vote on immigrants and their integration, after Sweden has taken in up to 400,000 asylum seekers since 2012.
SD, with roots in the neo-Nazi movement, said the arrival of asylum seekers was a threat to Swedish culture and claimed they put a strain on the country’s welfare state.
“Everything suggests we’re going to have a good election,” Mr Akesson told news agency TT, after voting in Stockholm earlier on Sunday.
Meanwhile, Mr Lofven had urged Swedes not to vote for what he called a “racist party” as he cast his ballot.
“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, have led a minority government with the Greens since 2014.
Anna Berglund, a 28-year-old lawyer who voted for the small Centre Party at a polling station in Stockholm’s upmarket Ostermalm neighbourhood, said SD’s mounting support was “bad news”.
“I’m afraid we’re becoming a society that is more hostile to foreigners.”
According to Statistics Sweden, 18.5 per cent of Sweden’s population of 10 million was born abroad.
The head of the four-party Alliance (the conservative Moderates, Centre, Liberals and Christian Democrats), Ulf Kristersson, told AFP on voting day he was concerned over SD’s rise.
“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 neither Mr Lofven’s "red-green" bloc nor his own Alliance had a chance of winning a majority, Mr Kristersson said Sweden needed “a strong cross-bloc co-operation to isolate the forces ... pushing for Sweden to withdraw from international cooperation”.
The final election results are due late Sunday, but the composition of the next government may not be known for weeks.
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 Mr 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 Mr Akesson occasionally calls himself.
None of the seven parties have been willing to negotiate with SD.
“The problems in society that we warned of have grown bigger and worse and people agree with our view of reality,” SD parliamentary group leader Mattias Karlsson told SVT.
“When the same party time and again increases, and the other parties stand still, then you have to listen to that part of the population that is voting for this party. It’s time to take responsibility and talk to the Sweden Democrats,” he said.
In an interview with AFP during the campaign, Mr Akesson stressed he would “lay down his terms” after the election, citing immigration policy, crime-fighting and health care as priorities.