Sweden's prime minister and Social Democratic party leader Stefan Lofven speaks during the election campaign in Stockholm, Sweden, September 8 2018. Picture: REUTERS
Sweden's prime minister and Social Democratic party leader Stefan Lofven speaks during the election campaign in Stockholm, Sweden, September 8 2018. Picture: REUTERS

Stockholm — A turbulent Swedish election campaign has ended with little sign of compromise ahead as the major parties pleaded with voters to beat back an ascendant nationalist movement.

The centre-right and centre-left blocs were in a virtual tie with voting starting on Sunday as the conservative-led opposition gained ground in recent days.

But the blocs will be far from securing a majority since the anti-immigration Sweden Democrats look poised to win almost 20%.

Party leaders took the last moments of the campaign to warn voters that the political turbulence would be far from over come election day, and that they could expect hard talks in the days or weeks ahead on forming a viable government.

All parties have vowed not to seek the support of the Sweden Democrats. The tension has showed no signs of subsiding, with an eruption of vitriol between the smaller pro-immigration Centre Party and the nationalists in Friday’s last big debate of the campaign.

Centre Party leader Annie Loof voiced loud protests as Sweden Democrats leader Jimmie Akesson said immigrants found it hard to get jobs because they were not Swedish and "don’t belong". Asked again about the controversy on Saturday, Loof said Akesson showed "his true face yesterday".

But Loof also said Prime Minister Stefan Lofven should step down immediately if it becomes clear his Social Democrats have lost power, in order not to slow down the process of forming a new government.

"If he steps down tonight that process could start tomorrow morning," she told newspaper Expressen. "If he doesn’t resign, we will vote him down in a couple of weeks."

Record immigration over the past years and lingering economic hardship from the financial crisis have stoked populist and nationalist sentiment even in rich and egalitarian Sweden.

The threat to the political establishment comes on the heels of a wave of election surprises around the world, such as the UK Brexit vote, and the rise of populist and authoritarian leaders in countries such as Italy and Hungary and even the US

Ulf Kristersson, head of the conservative Moderate Party and front-runner to become the next prime minister, said integrating refugees was key for Sweden to maintain its extensive welfare state. "This is something that erodes Sweden’s social contract. So many people could do so much good in our country, if we just had a well-functioning integration," he said.

While immigrants have been a boon to Sweden, helping to fill massive job shortages during a near record economic expansion, the labour market has had a tough time absorbing the inflow of about 600,000 people over the past five years. Unemployment among the foreign-born is about 20%, compared with just above 6% overall.

In a hot and sunny Stockholm on Saturday, the opposition Alliance’s four party leaders, who also include Liberal Jan Bjorklund and Christian Democrat Ebba Busch Thor, appeared together to hammer home a message of government change and erecting a bulwark against populism sweeping Sweden. "For the first time in a long time, our liberal social model is challenged — by far-right nationalists on the rise, but also by leftist socialists gaining support," Bjorklund said to journalists at a rally in central Stockholm. If any of those two sides gain influence our liberal society with market economy and co-operation in Europe is weakened."

The Alliance has said it will seek common ground after election night, while Lofven wants to continue his coalition with the Greens, which has been backed by the former communist Left Party. Lofven has said he hopes to win over the Centre Party and the Liberals, given their distaste for the Sweden Democrats.