Swedish election too close to call as far-right group challenges government’s majority

By Karl Ritter, AP
Sunday, September 19, 2010

Swedish election too close to call

STOCKHOLM — Sweden’s election was heading for a nail-biting finish Sunday with a TV exit poll and partial results showing a far-right party challenging the center-right government’s majority in Parliament.

Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt was seeking to become the first center-right leader to win re-election after serving a full term in a Scandinavian welfare nation dominated for decades by the left-wing Social Democrats.

But the Islam-bashing Sweden Democrats appeared set to enter Parliament for the first time, potentially spoiling the governing coalition’s majority in the 349-seat legislature.

An exit poll by public broadcaster SVT showed the Islam-bashing Sweden Democrats party could play kingmaker, while a forecast based on partial official results had Reinfeldt’s four-party alliance clinging to a one-seat majority.

“It’s too early to tell,” political analyst Stig-Bjorn Ljunggren said.

Reinfeldt’s four-party coalition, called the Alliance for Sweden, has been boosted by popular tax cuts and healthy public finances that stand out in debt-ridden Europe.

The exit poll gave the alliance 49.1 percent of the vote compared to 45.1 percent for the Social Democrat-led opposition. The Sweden Democrats party got 4.6 percent according to the exit poll, which was based on more than 12,000 voter interviews and has an error margin of 2 percentage points.

Such a result could lead to a hung Parliament, because both blocs have ruled out governing with the Sweden Democrats, who want sharp cuts in immigration and have called Islam Sweden’s biggest foreign threat since World War II.

“If this result stands we will have an uncertain situation,” said Per Schlingmann, a spokesman for the prime minister’s Moderate Party.

Sweden Democrats leader Jimmie Akesson said his party had “written political history” in the election.

“Party colleagues, we’re in Parliament!,” he told jubilant supporters in Stockholm.

Large waves of immigration from the Balkans, Iraq and Iran have changed the demography of the once-homogenous Scandinavian country, and one-in-seven residents are now foreign-born. The Sweden Democrats say immigration has become an economic burden that drains the welfare system.

But pre-vote surveys showed Swedish voters were more concerned about unemployment — at 8.5 percent in July — the economy and the environment than they were about immigration.

The SVT election prognosis gave the governing coalition 175 seats against 154 for opposition and 20 for the Sweden Democrats. That would be enough for Reinfeldt to stay in power with a one-seat majority in Parliament.

“We have appealed to the Swedish people to be farsighted and responsible and vote clearly for the possibility to continue with a majority government,” Reinfeldt said Sunday after handing out flowers to Stockholm voters.

Siamak Shoukri, a 52-year-old electrical engineer who moved to Sweden from Iran, said he believes the financial crisis has helped foment hostility against immigrants.

“Always when there is a crisis, unemployment, mass unemployment … they believe that foreigners have caused it,” said Shoukri, who voted for the ex-communist Left Party.

Reinfeldt’s coalition ousted the Social Democrats in 2006 and kept its promises to lower taxes and trim welfare benefits. Sweden’s export-driven economy is expected to grow by more than 4 percent this year while its 2010 budget gap is on track to be the smallest in the 27-nation European Union.

The Social Democrats plunged to a record-low 35 percent in the 2006 election and were forced to join forces with the smaller Green and Left parties to counter the center-right ruling coalition.

The Electoral Authority said a record 2.2 million Swedes cast advance ballots before Sunday’s vote, suggesting a high turnout. There are 7.1 million eligible voters.

Social Democratic leader Mona Sahlin, who is seeking to become Sweden’s first female prime minister, says the government is dismantling the welfare system and widening the gaps between rich and poor.

“I hope to form a government that fights unemployment amongst youth and really defends the Swedish welfare state, because that is what is at stake today,” Sahlin told The Associated Press after voting in the Stockholm suburb of Nacka.

Associated Press writers Malin Rising, Jona Kallgren and Louise Nordstrom contributed to this report.

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