Polls open in Sweden amid heated debate on immigration
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Polls open in Sweden amid heated debate on immigration

Far-right expected to make dramatic gains in European nation that took in the most Muslim asylum seekers per capita since 2015

An election official casts a voter's ballot at a polling station during the Swedish general elections in Stockholm on September 9, 2018. (AFP Photo/Jonathan Nackstrand)
An election official casts a voter's ballot at a polling station during the Swedish general elections in Stockholm on September 9, 2018. (AFP Photo/Jonathan Nackstrand)

Polls opened on Sunday morning in Sweden’s general election, in what is expected to be one of the most unpredictable and thrilling races in the Scandinavian country for decades amid a heated debate on immigration.

The election will be Sweden’s first since the government in 2015 allowed 163,000 migrants into the country of 10 million. While far less than Germany took in that year, it was the most per capita of any European nation.

It’s highly unlikely that any single party will get a majority, or 175 seats.

The latest opinion poll suggests that Prime Minister Stefan Lofven’s ruling Social Democrats will substantially lose seats but still emerge a winner with an estimated 24.9 percent of the votes.

The polls showed far-right, anti-immigration Sweden Democrats would get 19.1% of the votes.

These figures suggest that SD may emerge as one of the biggest parties, making it almost impossible to predict the makeup of the next government.

People stand in booths at a polling station during the Swedish general elections in Stockholm on September 9, 2018. (AFP Photo/Jonathan Nackstrand)

The party, with roots in the neo-Nazi movement, has called the arrival of the migrants, part of a larger wave of almost 400,000 asylum seekers who came to the country since 2012, a threat to Swedish culture and claimed they were straining Sweden’s generous welfare state.

The two traditional largest parties, the Social Democrats and the conservative Moderates, are expected to win around 40% of the votes combined, down 10 percentage points from the last elections in 2014.

Candidates from eight parties campaigned down to the wire on Saturday, targeting in particular the 20% of the 7.5 million eligible voters still undecided, according to pollsters.

“I’m still hesitating between the Moderates and SD. SD is quite close to the Moderates but they’re a little more clear in what they want. They’re more direct,” Elias, an 18-year-old voting in his first election, told AFP.

Social Democrat Prime Minister Stefan Lofven has repeatedly called the elections a “referendum on the future of the welfare state.”

Supporters attend a campaign meeting of the party leader of the far-right Sweden Democrats, Jimmie Akesson, in Stockholm, Sweden September 8, 2018. (AFP/TT News Agency/Maja Suslin)

But the far-right SD has presented it as a straight vote on immigration and integration.

On the eve of the election, Lofven condemned “the hateful forces” in Sweden.

He urged voters to “think about how they wanted to use their time on Earth,” calling on them to “stand on the right side of history.”

Moderates leader Ulf Kristersson said that after the election, Sweden would need “a strong cross-bloc cooperation to isolate the forces… pushing for Sweden to withdraw from international cooperation.”

In southern Sweden, an SD stronghold, party leader Jimmie Akesson campaigned among throngs of supporters as detractors booed him and shouted “No racists on our streets!”

Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven of the Social Democratic Party speaks after a party leader debate in SVT, Swedish national public TV broadcaster, in Stockholm Friday, Sept. 7, 2018. Sweden’s general elections will be held on Sunday, Sept. 9. (Stina Stjernkvist/TT News Agency via AP)

“We’re now competing against the Social Democrats and Moderates to become the biggest party in the country,” he said, dismissing the protesters as “communists.”

Polling stations opened across the country at 8 a.m. (0600 GMT) and close at 8:00 p.m., with first estimates expected soon afterward.

Final results are due before midnight but the composition of the next government may not be known for weeks.

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