STOCKHOLM – STOCKHOLM (AP) — Voting started Sunday in Sweden's election with polls showing the center-right government heading for a historic second term, but an Islam-bashing far-right group could spoil its majority.
Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt's coalition 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 opposition Red-Green bloc.
Reinfeldt, however, also needs voters to deny the anti-immigration Sweden Democrats a kingmaker role.
"Those who like Sweden do not vote for the Sweden Democrats," Reinfeldt, 45, said at a campaign rally Saturday. He urged voters to keep the party out of Parliament to ensure his four-party alliance can maintain its majority.
The Sweden Democrats demand sharp cuts to immigration and have called Islam Sweden's biggest foreign threat since World War II. Both major blocs refuse to work with the nationalist group, saying it represents xenophobic views that run counter to Sweden's tradition of tolerance.
Immigrants make up 14 percent of Sweden's population of 9.4 million. The biggest immigrant group is from neighboring Finland, followed by Iraq, the former Yugoslavia and Poland.
The Sweden Democrats say immigration has become an economic burden, draining the welfare system and channeling jobs to newcomers who work for lower wages.
"The immigration policy is the most important issue in this election and we want that to be debated and we want the other parties to change their policy," Sweden Democrats leader Jimmie Akesson said Saturday.
Surveys, however, show Swedish voters are more concerned about unemployment, the economy and the environment than immigration. Still, Akesson could get disproportionate influence in Parliament, if neither side controls more than half of the seats.
Polls released Saturday suggested Reinfeldt's majority will stand, though a small surge for the Sweden Democrats could lead to a hung Parliament.
A Sifo survey showed the center-right bloc winning 183 of the 349 seats, compared to 166 seats for the Red-Green coalition, spearheaded by the Social Democrats.
Akesson's party narrowly missed the 4 percent bar to enter Parliament in the survey presented in the Svenska Dagbladet newspaper. The Sept. 15-16 poll of 1,941 people had an error margin of 0.9-2.1 percentage points.
A separate survey, by Synovate, showed the Sweden Democrats getting 5.9 percent of the votes, for 21 seats in Parliament. That would leave Reinfeldt's alliance with a fragile one-seat majority. No error margin was given for the Sept. 7-16 poll of 1,820 people, which was published in Stockholm daily Dagens Nyheter.
If the polls are correct, Reinfeldt would become the first center-right leader to win re-election after serving a full term since universal suffrage was introduced in the 1920s.
His coalition ousted the Social Democrats in 2006 with vows to lower taxes for working Swedes while trimming welfare benefits. It has largely kept those promises, cutting taxes for all income brackets and abolishing the wealth tax, while tightening unemployment and sickness compensation.
Social Democratic leader Mona Sahlin, who aims to become Sweden's first female prime minister, says the government is dismantling the welfare system step by step and widening the gaps between rich and poor.
"Those of us who are well off ... are we supposed to feel that politics is about getting one or two or five more hundred-kronor bills in our wallets at the expense of someone who doesn't get decent social insurance?" she asked at a campaign rally in Stockholm.
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.
Reinfeldt has steered the country through the global recession without soaring budget deficits. Sweden's export-driven economy is expected to grow by more than 4 percent this year, while the 2010 budget gap is on track to be the smallest in the 27-nation European Union.
Cilla Thorell, a 42-year-old actress attending Sahlin's rally, wasn't impressed with the government, saying it tries to "whip" sick people back to work while giving tax breaks to the wealthy.
"I think it's cynical and inhuman," said Thorell, who supports the Green Party.
Gudrun Martinsson, a nurse from Linkoping, said she will vote for Reinfeldt's Moderate Party because she supports "free entrepreneurship and that everybody should have the opportunity to work."
Associated Press writer Karl Ritter contributed to this report.