Swedish government seeks landmark re-election as far-right targets first seats in Parliament

By Malin Rising, AP
Sunday, September 19, 2010

Swedish govt seeks re-election amid far-right rise

STOCKHOLM — Swedes voted for a new parliament on Sunday, with the center-right government seeking a historic second term and an Islam-bashing far-right group trying to thwart it.

Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt’s ruling coalition, led by his Alliance for Sweden party, has been boosted by popular tax cuts and healthy public finances that stand out in debt-ridden Europe, and polls suggest a clear victory over the Social Democrat-led opposition in the 349-seat legislature.

That would mark a shift in Swedish politics — no center-right government has ever been re-elected after serving a full term in a country dominated since the 1930s by the left-wing Social Democrats.

Reinfeldt’s parliamentary majority, however, is under threat from the Sweden Democrats, a small anti-immigration party that wants sharp cuts in immigration and has called Islam Sweden’s biggest foreign threat since World War II. The Sweden Democrats are seeking their first seats in parliament.

The last polls before the election suggested Reinfeldt’s majority could remain by a single seat. But growing support for the far-right could lead to a hung Parliament, because both blocs have ruled out governing with the Sweden Democrats.

“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.

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

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.

Surveys show Swedish voters are more concerned about unemployment — at 8.5 percent in July — the economy and the environment than they are about immigration.

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.

After dominating Swedish politics for decades, the Social Democrats plunged to a record-low 35 percent in the previous election and were forced to join forces with the smaller Green and Left parties to have any chance of regaining power.

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 Karl Ritter and Jona Kallgren contributed to this report.

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