STOCKHOLM • Swedes voted yesterday in an election dominated by fears over asylum seekers and welfare, with the anti-immigration Sweden Democrats vying to become the biggest party in a country long seen as a bastion of liberal values.
Far-right parties have made spectacular gains throughout Europe in recent years after a refugee crisis sparked by civil war in Syria and conflicts in Afghanistan and parts of Africa.
In Sweden, the influx of 163,000 asylum seekers in 2015 has polarised voters, fracturing the political consensus, and could give the Sweden Democrats, a party with roots in the white supremacist fringe, a veto over who forms the next government.
"Traditional parties have failed to respond to the sense of discontent that exists," said Mr Magnus Blomgren, a social scientist at Umea University. "That discontent maybe isn't directly related to unemployment or the economy, but simply a loss of faith in the political system. Sweden isn't alone in this."
The centre-left bloc, uniting the minority governing Social Democrat and Green parties with the Left Party, is backed by about 40 per cent of voters, recent opinion polls indicated, with a slim lead over the centre-right Alliance bloc.
The Sweden Democrats party, which wants the country to leave the European Union and put a freeze on immigration, has about 17 per cent, up from the 13 per cent it scored in the 2014 vote, opinion polls suggested.
"Everything points to us having a good election," Sweden Democrats leader Jimmie Akesson said on the sidelines of a party rally in the southern town of Malmo last Saturday, which drew supporters as well as chanting protesters.
"What we, the Sweden Democrats, are saying, and which is considered incredibly controversial in Sweden, is normal politics in the rest of Europe."
The party's support was widely underestimated before the previous election and some online surveys give it as much as 25 per cent, a result that would be likely to make it the biggest party, dethroning the Social Democrats for the first time in a century.
"It would send a big 'go to hell' message to me and my kind," said Mr Stefan Jovanovic, 26, a music business manager with roots in Serbia. "Because we all know that their whole political message is about one thing and one thing only, and that is the question of immigration."
Such an outcome could weaken the Swedish krona in the short term, but analysts do not see any long-term effect on markets.
The results were expected late yesterday.
The Sweden Democrats is bidding to become the biggest populist party in the Nordic region, topping the Danish People's Party, which gained 21 per cent in 2015, and trump the 12.6 per cent for the far-right Alternative for Germany, which swept into the Bundestag last year.
With an eye on the European Parliament elections next year, Brussels policymakers are watching the Swedish vote closely, concerned that a nation with impeccable democratic credentials could add to the growing chorus of euro-scepticism in the EU.
Sweden took in more asylum seekers per capita than any other country in Europe in 2015, magnifying worries about a welfare system that many voters already believe is in crisis.
Mainstream politicians have so far refused to cooperate with the Sweden Democrats. But with some kind of cooperation between parties in the centre-left and centre-right blocs the only other alternative to the current political deadlock, analysts believe that Mr Akesson may yet end up with some influence on policy.