- Associated Press - Sunday, September 19, 2010

STOCKHOLM (AP) — A respected TV exit poll showed Sweden‘s center-right government beating the left-wing opposition in Sunday’s parliamentary election, but a far-right Islam-bashing party could end up in a deal-making role.

The survey by public broadcaster SVT gave Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt’s governing coalition 49.1 percent of the vote compared to 45.1 percent for the Social Democrat-led opposition.

The anti-immigration Sweden Democrats got 4.6 percent, according to the exit poll, and could hold the balance of power.

Such a result could lead to a hung Parliament, because both blocs have ruled out governing with the Sweden Democrats, who want sharp cuts in immigration and have called Islam Sweden‘s biggest foreign threat since World War II. The Sweden Democrats are seeking their first seats in the country’s 349-member Parliament.

The SVT exit poll was based on more than 12,000 voter interviews and has an error margin of 2 percentage points.

“If this result stands, we will have an uncertain situation,” said Per Schlingmann, a spokesman for the prime minister’s Moderate Party.

Mr. Reinfeldt’s four-party coalition, called the Alliance for Sweden, has been boosted by popular tax cuts and healthy public finances that stand out in debt-ridden Europe.

The prime minister was trying to do what no center-right government has ever done before in Sweden — get re-elected after serving a full term. Sweden has been dominated since the 1930s by the left-wing Social Democrats until the last election in 2006.

“We have appealed to the Swedish people to be farsighted and responsible and vote clearly for the possibility to continue with a majority government,” Mr. Reinfeldt said Sunday after handing out flowers to Stockholm voters.

Large waves of immigration from the Balkans, Iraq and Iran have changed the demography of this once-homogenous Scandinavian country, and one in seven residents is now foreign-born. The Sweden Democrats say immigration has become an economic burden that drains the welfare system.

Siamak Shoukri, a 52-year-old electrical engineer who moved to Sweden from Iran, said he believes the financial crisis has helped foment hostility against immigrants.

“Always when there is a crisis, unemployment, mass unemployment … they believe that foreigners have caused it,” said Mr. Shoukri, who voted for the ex-communist Left Party.

Surveys show Swedish voters are more concerned about unemployment — at 8.5 percent in July — the economy and the environment than they are about immigration.

Mr. Reinfeldt’s coalition ousted the Social Democrats in 2006 and kept its promises to lower taxes and trim welfare benefits. Sweden‘s export-driven economy is expected to grow by more than 4 percent this year while its 2010 budget gap is on track to be the smallest in the 27-nation European Union.

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.

The Electoral Authority said a record 2.2 million Swedes cast advance ballots before Sunday’s vote, suggesting a high turnout. There were 7.1 million eligible voters.

Social Democratic leader Mona Sahlin, who is seeking to become Sweden‘s first female prime minister, said the government is dismantling the welfare system and widening the gaps between rich and poor.

“I hope to form a government that fights unemployment amongst youth and really defends the Swedish welfare state, because that is what is at stake today,” Ms. Sahlin told the Associated Press after voting in the Stockholm suburb of Nacka.

Associated Press writers Malin Rising, Jona Kallgren and Louise Nordstrom contributed to this report.

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