Sweden's centre holds, for now. But who forms government?
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Sweden's centre holds, for now. But who forms government?

London: In Sweden the centre has held. But it’s not entirely clear yet which centre - or how strong is its grip.

And a party founded by neo-Nazis is a whisker from power, a potential kingmaker in parliament if the centrists can bring themselves to deal with it.

Modern Sweden is beset by concerns over immigration and gang crime, retreating noticeably from its liberal traditions.

This led to fears – backed up by some pre-election polls – that the weekend’s vote would see an extraordinary surge for the Sweden Democrats, a party founded by white supremacists, until recently frankly racist.

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Sweden Democrats party leader Jimmie Åkesson speaks at the election party in  Stockholm, Sweden, on Sunday.

Sweden Democrats party leader Jimmie Åkesson speaks at the election party in Stockholm, Sweden, on Sunday.Credit:AP

The SD wants to freeze immigration, leave the European Union, crack down on crime and are climate change sceptics. If they won power it would be a political earthquake.

It has been an angry, polarising election campaign.

In the end the SD surge was smaller than feared. The SD remains the third-biggest party. It was outwardly crowing but in private its supporters are disappointed after some had predicted they would become the country’s biggest.

Prime minister and party leader of the Social Democrat party Stefan Löfven waves at an election party in Stockholm, on Sunday.

Prime minister and party leader of the Social Democrat party Stefan Löfven waves at an election party in Stockholm, on Sunday.Credit:AP

With most votes counted the biggest party (on 28 per cent) is still the ruling centre-left Social Democrats, the oldest and biggest party in Sweden, bleeding from the elderly working class part of its base but still a power.

The liberal-conservative Moderates came second with just under 20 per cent. SD won just under 18 per cent of the vote.

So now the hard part: how to form a government.

The left and right centrist blocs are basically on a tie. The "Red Green" combination of the Social Democrats, the Greens and the Left won 40.6 per cent of the vote and (on preliminary figures) 144 seats. The "Alliance" of the four centre-right parties led by the Moderates had 40.3 per cent and 143 seats.

Supporters celebrate at the Social Democratic Party's election night party in Stockholm on  Sunday.

Supporters celebrate at the Social Democratic Party's election night party in Stockholm on Sunday.Credit:AP

Neither can win the confidence of the 349-seat parliament without the SD’s 62 votes.

“We will gain huge influence over what happens in Sweden during the coming weeks, months and years,” SD leader Jimmie Akesson promised his party rally.

He has one problem: neither side want to openly deal with him.

Social Democrats leader and prime minister Stefan Lofven said “it is only natural to work across the political divide to make it possible to govern”, hinting at a left-right grand coalition to bypass the SD.

But a grand coalition would have to involve at least three parties, making for a painful coalition negotiation.

Instead Sweden may get centre-right government with the tacit support of the far right.

Due to a quirk of Sweden’s constitution the prime minister is not the candidate with the most support but the candidate with the least opposition.

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Moderate leader Ulf Kristersson has already said during the campaign he wasn’t against the Sweden Democrats having a say in immigration policy. After the vote he said the Alliance “will not govern or discuss how to form a government with the Sweden Democrats” – not ruling out taking power with their unofficial support.

Moderate MEP Christofer Fjellner predicted Sweden “will be governed by the Alliance… there are three blocs and then you sit in the middle and govern”.

But there’s a twist. The leader of the fourth-biggest party, the Centre Party (and part of the centre-right Alliance) Annie Loof has previously insisted she wouldn’t take part in any government that needed the acceptance of the Sweden Democrats to rule.

In short: it’s a mess.

Yet another political mess.

The rise of the far-right in Europe is making it harder to form governments in many countries.

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It took Germany five months to reach a coalition deal at the beginning of this year – the September election similarly saw big gains for the far right (in this case the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany) and severely weakened major parties. It wasn’t until mid-March that Angela Merkel was elected to her fourth term as chancellor in a grand coalition of the left and right.

But Germany did not beat the Netherlands’ record. Last year in October, nearly seven months after the March election, prime minister Mark Rutte pulled together a shaky coalition of four parties on a centre-right programme. It had been so difficult because of the success of Geert Wilders’ anti-immigration, anti-Muslim Freedom Party.

And whoever wins, the rise of populist, nationalist and anti-immigrant parties is changing Europe's political landscape, with centrists adopting far-right language and policies to defend their vote.

It's becoming a familiar story.