STOCKHOLM – Sweden heads into a parliamentary election on Sunday with polls showing the left-leaning Social Democrats poised to return to power after eight years of center-right rule.
That would be a return to normalcy in Swedish politics because the Social Democrats — who built the country's famed welfare state — haven't been in opposition for this long since they first took power in 1920.
Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, who took office in 2006, is the longest-serving conservative leader in Swedish history. Though he's won praise internationally for steering Sweden's economy through Europe's debt crisis in relatively good shape, many Swedes worry his pro-market policies have undermined the welfare system.
Reinfeldt's center-right coalition government has cut income and corporate taxes, abolished a tax on wealth, trimmed welfare benefits, eased labor laws and privatized state-owned companies, including the maker of Absolut vodka.
Meanwhile, the gap between rich and poor has grown faster in Sweden than in most developed countries, though it remains among the world's most egalitarian, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Even though the gap has narrowed in recent weeks, pre-election polls showed the opposition bloc headed by Social Democrat leader Stefan Lofven with a clear lead over Reinfeldt's coalition.
The polls also showed increased support for the anti-immigration Sweden Democrats, who may end up holding the balance of power in Parliament, and a potential parliamentary debut by a feminist party.
The once-radical Sweden Democrats party has softened its image over the years but is alone in opposing Sweden's liberal immigration policy. This year, Sweden expects up to 80,000 asylum-seekers from Syria, Eritrea, Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq and other countries — the highest number since 1992.
Karl Ritter can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/karl_ritter