STOCKHOLM, Sweden: Swedes began voting in legislative elections Sunday that will either pave the way for an unprecedented right-wing government supported by the far right or a third straight mandate for the ruling Social Democrats. Opinion polls have predicted a close race with a razor-thin lead for Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson's Social Democrats and the left bloc, following a campaign dominated by rising gang shootings and soaring electricity prices. Polling stations opened at 8:00 am (0600 GMT) and will close at 8:00 pm, with final results due around midnight.

At a voting station set up in Stockholm's Central Station, 34-year-old IT worker Erwin Marklund said he was concerned about the rise of the far right and had voted for the small Left Party. "It's important to not get the far right into the system", he told AFP. The right-wing bloc has never before agreed to cooperate with the nationalist and anti-immigration Sweden Democrats, long treated as "pariahs" by other political parties. The far right has leapt to second place in opinion polls behind the Social Democrats in the final weeks of the campaign, credited with around a fifth of votes.

Their surge-overtaking the traditional leaders of the right-wing bloc, the conservative Moderates-was attributed to an election race focused on issues close to their voters, including crime, segregation and the integration of immigrants. Prime Minister Andersson, 55, hopes however to hang onto power with the support of the small Left, Centre and Green parties. Speaking to reporters at a rally on the eve of the vote, she said she hoped she had convinced voters "that the Social Democrats are a party for ordinary people, for workers, with good safety nets, good jobs and a good future."

Tough days ahead

Andersson, whose party has dominated Swedish politics since the 1930s, enjoys broad support among Swedes. She has consistently led her challenger for the post of prime minister, Moderates leader Ulf Kristersson, by a wide margin in opinion polls. Yet pollsters put the two blocs in an almost dead heat, predicting 49.7 to 51.6 percent of voter support for the left and 47.6 to 49.4 percent for the right. Kristersson is the architect behind a major U-turn for the right wing.

He launched exploratory talks with the Sweden Democrats in 2019 and deepened their cooperation before the two other small right-wing parties, the Christian Democrats and to a lesser extent the Liberals, followed suit. "As it stands, we have two fairly clear blocs," political scientist Katarina Barrling told AFP, noting it should be fairly easy to predict the next prime minister after election night. However, both blocs are beset by internal divisions that could make for laborious negotiations to build a coalition government.

The previous 2018 election resulted in a four-month stalemate that ended with the Social Democrats forming a minority government. That would be a nightmare scenario this time around. In addition to a looming economic crisis, Sweden is currently in the delicate process of joining NATO and is due to take over the EU presidency in 2023. "The pressure to have a united and effective government is larger today than in the last election", Barrling noted.

'Enormous shift'

The end of the Sweden Democrats' political isolation, and the prospect of it becoming the biggest right-wing party, is "an enormous shift in Swedish society", said Anders Lindberg, an editorialist at left-wing tabloid Aftonbladet. Born out of a neo-Nazi movement at the end of the 1980s, the Sweden Democrats entered parliament in 2010 with 5.7 percent of votes. They won 17.5 percent in 2018. The party's surge comes as Sweden struggles to combat escalating gang shootings attributed to battles over the drugs and weapons market.

The country now tops European statistics for firearm deaths. While the violence was once contained to locations frequented by criminals, it has spread to public spaces such as parks and shopping centres, sparking concern among ordinary Swedes in a country long known as safe and peaceful. "My country totally changed from maybe the safest in the world", 56-year-old Ulrika told AFP at a far-right rally late Saturday. "I'm so happy about my childhood... in that kind of a safe country but today no one can go out without fear", she said.

"We know it's because other cultures are coming to our country". Ingrid Schmidt, a 62-year-old researcher, disagreed. "It is important to express your voice against these right-wing values," she said as she voted at Central Station on Sunday. More than 80 percent of Sweden's 7.8 million eligible voters are expected to cast ballots. - AFP