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STOCKHOLM: Swedes voted on Sunday in an election pitting the incumbent centre-left Social Democrats against a right-wing bloc that has embraced the anti-immigration Sweden Democrats as it tries to win back power after eight years in opposition.

With opinion polls pointing to a tight race, lines to vote were long in many places. The campaign has seen parties battle to be the toughest on gang crime, after a steady rise in shootings that has unnerved voters, while surging inflation and the energy crisis following the invasion of Ukraine have increasingly taken centre-stage.

“I’m fearing very much a repressive, very right-wing government coming,” said Malin Ericsson, 53, a travel consultant outside a voting station in central Stockholm.

Polls show the centre-left running neck-and-neck with the right-wing bloc and suggest the Sweden Democrats will be the second biggest party behind the Social Democrats, overtaking the conservative Moderates.

Paediatrician Erik George, 52, said he thought the election campaign had been marked by a rise in populism. “I think that times are really tumultuous and people have a hard time figuring out what’s going on,” he said outside the voting station.

For others, the main goal is change.

“I have voted for a change in power,” said Jorgen Hellstrom 47, a small business owner, as he voted near parliament. “Taxes need to come down by quite a bit and we need to sort out crime. The last eight years have gone in the wrong direction.”

While law and order is home turf for the right, gathering economic clouds as households and companies face sky-high power prices may boost Social Democratic Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson, seen as a safe pair of hands and more popular than her own party.

“I have voted for a Sweden where we continue to build on our strengths. Our ability to tackle society’s problems together, form a sense of community and respect each other,” Andersson said after voting in a Stockholm suburb.

Andersson was finance minister for many years before becoming Sweden’s first female prime minister a year ago. Her main rival is Moderates’ leader Ulf Kristersson, who sees himself as the only one who can unite the right and unseat her.

POLARISED POLITICS

Kristersson has spent years deepening ties with the Sweden Democrats, an anti-immigration party with white supremacists among its founders. Initially shunned by all the other parties, the Sweden Democrats are now increasingly part of the mainstream right. “This election is a lot about how we fight crime,” Kristersson told Reuters on the sidelines of one of his final campaign rallies. “If people vote for change, we will deliver change.”

For many centre-left voters - and even some on the right - the prospect of Jimmie Akesson’s Sweden Democrats having a say on government policy or joining the cabinet remains deeply unsettling.

“I think it looks good,” Akesson said as he arrived to cast his vote in Stockholm. We’ve had a good election campaign. It looks like we’ll be a big party also in this election.”

Kristersson wants to form a government with the small Christian Democrats and, possibly, the Liberals, and only rely on Sweden Democrat support in parliament. But those are assurances the centre-left don’t take at face value.

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