HALMSTAD, Sweden — A tight political race in Sweden led the Swedish Election Authority to delay the announcement of preliminary election results as it continued counting votes, with a coalition of right-wing parties narrowly leading the governing center-left bloc early on Monday morning.
With 94 percent of votes in electoral districts counted, election officials said they had yet to count early mail-in votes and ballots from citizens abroad, and that the preliminary general election results would not be available until Wednesday at the earliest.
The right-wing coalition was leading by a three-seat majority as of early Monday; however, some early exit polling anticipated a victory for the governing center-left bloc, led by the Social Democrats.
Though the Social Democrats were the party with the most votes, the far-right, anti-immigration Sweden Democrats were in second place for the first time, just ahead of the conservative Moderate Party.
The delay in announcing the results came after an unusually antagonistic election campaign characterized by the growing popularity of the far-right Sweden Democrats and their effect on the neck-and-neck competition for voters between the right-wing and center-left blocs.
Given the closeness of the race and unusually fragile negotiations before the vote, the formation of a governing coalition could take some time.
Over the course of the past four years, the barrier between the Sweden Democrats, once a fringe party, and the seven other parties has dissolved. In 2018, none of the other parties wanted to touch the Sweden Democrats. But gradually, three parties on the right agreed to some form of cooperation with the far-right group. The Center Party is the only party from the former center-right alliance that has steadfastly refused any kind of cooperation with the Sweden Democrats.
“It’s a pivotal election because the Sweden Democrats have reached a stage where they have made other parties accept them,” said Li Bennich-Björkman, a political scientist at Uppsala University.
The election also came after a polarizing year of political change, including Sweden’s bid to join NATO, spurred by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the resignation of Prime Minister Stefan Lofven. Mr. Lofven scrambled back into government after a no-confidence vote, but lawmakers replaced him with Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson last November.
During the race, lawmakers ultimately homed in on concerns about health care, energy prices and rising crime, an issue entwined with fierce debates about immigration and integration.
The focus on crime stands out in a nation where ideological conflicts have traditionally centered on taxes, the economy and government benefits. “But it’s now a cultural dimension that has to do with migration and identity and morals,” said Henrik Oscarsson, a professor of political science at the University of Gothenburg.
“This has been a very toxic campaign,” said Jonas Hinnfors, also a political scientist at the University of Gothenburg, adding that the tightness of the race had led to unusually combative debates.
As the election neared, the center-left Social Democratic Party — already governing without a majority in Parliament — found itself in a precarious position, barely clinging to a lead over opposition parties.
Adding to the unease was the likelihood of substantial gains by the Sweden Democrats, who have been working to moderate their image.
The rise of the Sweden Democrats began in 2010, when it crossed the 4 percent parliamentary threshold with 5.7 percent of the vote. In 2014 and 2018, its share of the vote rose to 12.9 and 17.5 percent, respectively. Having won over workers from the Social Democrats and small businesses from the Moderate Party, polls in this election showed the party was poised to win the second largest number of seats in Parliament.
Under Jimmie Akesson’s 17-year leadership, the party has tried to soften its image, including changing the party logo from a flaming torch to a floppy flower. This year, the party, which was founded in 1988, published a look at its origins, “The White Book,” in which it admitted to having roots in Nazi ideology.
The portraits of the founding members in “The White Book” did not make “for pleasant reading,” Mr. Akesson admitted in an interview with Sveriges Radio.
The shifting dynamic has fractured traditional alliances, with the conservative Center Party saying it would break with the center-right coalition to support the Social Democrats. It also led to campaigners’ imploring voters undecided between the two stronghold parties, the Social Democrats and the Moderates.
Fearful of losing voters to right-wing parties, the Social Democrats have become more conservative on issues like law and order, education and immigration, analysts say, even as they work with more progressive factions. They have also proposed obligatory preschool for children who are not proficient in Swedish to speed up the acquisition of language skills.
In an unusual attack, the governing Social Democrats explicitly warned voters at a news conference last week about the risks of casting ballots for the Sweden Democrats. Meanwhile, Mr. Akesson, the far-right party’s leader, has blamed the Social Democrats for high fuel prices and crime.
In some ways, analysts said, the campaign fed into a popularity contest between Ms. Andersson, the first woman to serve as Sweden’s prime minister, and Ulf Kristersson, the leader of the Moderate Party. The framing of an election as a contest between two party figureheads is a setup more familiar to American voters.
“It has become more American in the sense that it’s the prime minister candidates that are being discussed,” said Josefina Erikson, a political scientist at Uppsala University.
Ultimately, voters had to decide whether to preserve the long-held status quo of a Social Democrat-led liberal coalition or to gamble on a new direction heralded by right-wing parties.
Navigating the election was more difficult this year because of the turbulence between parties, said Anky Havel Trulsen, 48. “It was easier before when there were clear blocs.”
Though she voted for the Social Democrats, she said she understood why the Sweden Democrats had gained popularity. “I don’t agree with all of their politics but some,” she said. “People are dissatisfied, and a lot of people express that by voting for the Sweden Democrats.”
In previous years, it took only days to form a government in Sweden, Professor Oscarsson said. That was not the case in 2018, he said, when it took more than four months to form a center-left coalition.
“That tells a story of one of the most politically stable countries in the world heading into some trouble,” Professor Oscarsson said. “And of course it’s because of the rise of the Sweden Democrats.”
The far right has upended things, Professor Erikson said. “We had these two blocs and it was rather predictable,” she said. “Now we have a situation that is not predictable at all.”
Christina Anderson reported from Halmdstad, and Isabella Kwai from London.
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