STOCKHOLM (AFP) - Swedes vote in legislative elections on Sunday (Sept 9) that are expected to see the far-right surge amid a deep rift over the integration of hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers. The election outcome is seen as uncertain.
Neither Prime Minister Stefan Lofven's left-wing bloc nor the centre-right opposition were seen obtaining a majority.
The far-right Sweden Democrats (SD), an anti-immigration party with roots in the neo-Nazi movement, are tipped to win around 20 per cent of votes, according to an average of seven polling institutes published in the past 10 days, up from 13 per cent in 2014 elections.
That could make SD Sweden's second biggest party behind Mr Lofven's Social Democrats.
SD has capitalised on voters who feel left behind by traditional parties in favour of the 400,000 asylum seekers who have arrived since 2012, who they believe are straining the country's famed welfare model.
Immigration, integration, healthcare, the climate and education have been Swedes' main concerns in the election campaign.
In an op-ed published in Sweden's paper of reference Dagens Nyheter just days before the election, Mr Lofven urged Swedes to vote for a "stable government... capable of leading Sweden in uncertain times".
"Healthcare queues are too long in some areas, unemployment among foreign-born people is still too high, and crime and insecurity need to be curbed," he said.
The seven opinion polls put support for the left-wing bloc at around 40 per cent, and 37 per cent for the opposition centre-right Alliance (conservative Moderates, Liberals, Centre and Christian Democrats).
Neither bloc would hold a majority in parliament, and would have to seek support elsewhere to pass legislation.
Tough talks ahead
SD has said it is willing to collaborate with either the left or the right, as long as it can shape the country's immigration policy.
But so far, no parties are willing to negotiate with SD.
"It's difficult to single out the most likely (government) scenario" after the election, University of Gothenburg political scientist Ulf Bjereld told AFP.
Thorny, drawn-out negotiations are expected after the election.
Political observers suggest the most likely outcome would be a new Lofven government, with an even weaker minority than it has now.
The outgoing "red-green" bloc is made up of the governing Social Democrats and the Greens, who get informal support in parliament from the former communist Left Party.
Voter turnout is traditionally high in Sweden, hitting 85.8 per cent in 2014.
But more than a quarter of the country's 7.5 million eligible voters remain undecided, according to a Sifo poll published on Wednesday.
In the final days of the campaign, Mr Lofven opened up for a cross-bloc collaboration with the Centre and Liberals.
SD's rising influence
Meanwhile, the main challenger for Mr Lofven's job, Moderates leader Ulf Kristersson, is intent on ousting the Social Democrats, which have dominated Swedish politics since the 1930s.
The leader of the four-party Alliance, Mr Kristersson, like Mr Lofven, is competing with the far-right for voters.
The Alliance would, however, need the support of the far-right to pass legislation, and SD would make demands in exchange for its backing.
It would either ask for policy concessions - which the four parties have so far ruled out - or key positions on parliamentary commissions that draft legislation.
SD wants to put an end to Sweden's generous asylum system, vowing instead to "help refugees return to their home countries".
Mr Kristersson has repeatedly refused to negotiate with SD.
An Ipsos poll on Aug 28 suggested however that a third of Moderate voters want him to include SD in a future right-wing government.
Mr Jimmie Akesson, the cool-headed 39-year-old SD leader, has warned the Social Democrats and the Moderates that they can't go on seeing SD "as a passing illness that has temporarily afflicted parliament". The seven polls put his party's average support at about 20 per cent, but individually, the polls show support ranging from 16 to 25 per cent.
Opinion polls may be underestimating support for the far-right, some political analysts have suggested.
If SD were to become the biggest party, it would be unable to build a government or majority in parliament, but it would wield considerable influence.
Created in 1988, SD has attracted voters disillusioned with the Social Democrats and those in rural areas where industries and public services have been cut back.
The party's nationalist rhetoric, with calls for a "Swexit" and demands for immigrants to assimilate, appeals to a growing number of voters.