Sweden's Social Democrats set to reclaim power as far right gains

STOCKHOLM (AFP) - Sweden's Social Democrats look set to reclaim power after eight years in opposition, according to an early exit poll which predicts the far right will make historic gains in Sunday's general election.

The anti-immigration Sweden Democrats could double their seats in parliament as some in the nation of 10 million known for its liberal asylum rules express frustration with a growing influx of refugees.

The survey by YouGov, published with four hours to go before the end of voting, forecast the Social Democrats and their likely coalition partners, the Greens and the Left Party, would get 44.9 per cent of the vote.

If the poll proves right, Stefan Loefven, the former welder who leads the Social Democrats, looks set to become the next prime minister, although he warned against complacency.

"I've said all along that this election is going to be incredibly tough," the stocky 57-year-old told reporters after he cast his vote in Stockholm Sunday. "That's why we have to work hard right until the end of the campaign and not take anything for granted."

On the eve of the election, Loefven admitted the Sweden Democrats could still throw a spanner in the works, telling Swedish news agency TT on Saturday that they could end up as "kingmakers" in the new parliament.

The YouGov poll, based on the replies from 1,575 respondents, showed 10.4 percent of the votes going to the Sweden Democrats, up from 5.7 percent in the legislative election in 2010.

Sweden has been governed by a four-party conservative-liberal coalition headed by 49-year-old Fredrik Reinfeldt since 2006. He has been widely credited with steering the country through the global financial crisis, consolidating Sweden's position as arguably the healthiest economy in Europe.

Even so, the incumbent coalition was predicted to garner only 39.3 per cent of the vote, well below the Social Democrat camp, according to the YouGov poll. Analysts say Swedes are tired of the austerity measures the government has been pushing through and are yearning to see fresh faces at the top.

"Everyone knows that the centre-right government has been quite behind the opposition, but we have narrowed the gap," Reinfeldt told reporters after voting in an affluent suburb of the capital Sunday. "We ran a tremendous campaign, I would say. And we have shown that we are ready for four more years."

YouGov's poll is in line with other recent surveys suggesting that the Sweden Democrats are set to become the third-largest in the parliament of a nation that has traditionally taken pride in its welcoming attitude towards foreigners.

"The Sweden Democrats is the only political party that wants to stop immigration," said Anders Sannerstedt, a political scientist at Lund University, who has studied the party closely. "All the other political parties have a united stance."

Sweden, which has one of Europe's most generous refugee policies, expects an influx of nearly 90,000 refugees this year - numbers not seen since the Balkan wars of the 1990s. Voters in Stockholm interviewed early on Sunday were mostly hostile to the Sweden Democrats.

"This time we have this more or less new party on the very right wing," said Christina Lindvall, a lawyer, adding she was most likely to vote for the Greens. "Those of us who don't support them need to show that."

An electoral gain for the Sweden Democrats and their dapper 35-year-old leader Jimmie Aakesson would confirm a Europe-wide trend of soaring popularity for populist right-wing parties. The eurosceptic Alternative for Germany, which has flirted with populist positions on immigration and law and order, was expected to make big gains in elections Sunday in the eastern states of Thuringia and Brandenburg.